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Joyce's War - The Second World War Journal of a Queen Alexandra Nurse

Review, extracts and photos of the voices from history book Joyce's War based on the journal of QAIMNS(R) Nursing Sister Joyce Ffoulkes Parry and edited by her daughter Professor Emeritus Rhiannon Evans

Joyces War The Second World War Journal Queen Alexandra Nurse Joyce Ffoulkes Parry

We learn so much from QAs of the past from their war diaries and journals and we are now fortunate to be able to read those of Nursing Sister Joyce Ffoulkes Parry who served for four years with the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) where she nursed aboard ambulance trains, hospital ships such as His Majesty's Hospital Ship Karapara and in hospitals such as the 47th British General Hospital in Calcutta. Joyce nursed mostly in the Far East and India and gives us a valuable insight into the conditions she endured as well as social aspects of this era which has gone little recorded in the history of the QAs. Fortunately readers can now gain an invaluable insight into the World War Two activities in these regions thanks to the discovery of her journals after her death. Her children have lovingly presented them into this volume with each taking a role from proof reading, providing illustrations and of course editing. The editor is her oldest daughter, Professor Emeritus Rhiannon Evans , who has painstakingly presented her mother's words into this Voices From History book for The History Press.

HMHS Karapara QAIMNS Nurses
QAIMNS Nurses on board HMHS Karapara

We read about her mother's early days of volunteering for the Reserve, having several years previously come to Britain from Australia to find her Welsh roots, and being called to Millbank along with other QAs for their orders, uniform fittings, travel documentation, etc. Here they live, as a group of five in a nearby flat, before going their separate ways to different parts of the world. For Joyce this was Alexandria in Egypt, then the Far East and onwards to India. We read of the long journeys, how she filled in her time and, passing the military censors, of the patients she nursed along the way. This is one of the few books where we get to learn about nursing practices, care and treatments due to her evading the sharp eyes of the censors. Though, she eventually almost fell foul to one diligent STO (Senior Technical Officer) who paraded her and two fellow QAs to accuse one of them for using code in letters, a heinous crime in war days.

We gain insight into her social life and that of her environment where she writes with such elegance. For example, whilst in Egypt she observes:

In the afternoon Mahomet collected us and we set off in a taxi to visit the mosque of Hassan. We walked under the pulpit and, turning to Mecca, made a wish, this being the correct thing to do. It was a fine mosque. Lofty and austere and dignified, with lovely mosaics on the walls. Then we went to the citadel, which is a fortress, to the Alabaster mosque. Surely this is the most lovely church I have ever seen - thick Red Persian carpets on the floor, solid carved alabaster columns and hundreds of crystal spheres hanging from the roof. How entrancing it must have looked when the lights were lit; the sun shining in from the western windows made the crystal chandeliers miracles of beauty, and all the colours of the rainbow.

QAs aboard troopship Otranto 1940
QAs aboard troopship Otranto 1940

Later her descriptions provide an insight into how Agra looked, transporting the reader by her side:

On the roadside; all the vendors squatting easily in the sun: the local barber shaving his clients, the scissor grinder; the dursie cutting his cloth; women delousing each other's hair, dhobis and women washing in the river with their garments spread out to dry on any nearby fence or the bare ground itself; the oxen cart carrying great loads of stones or bricks or hides or bales of cloth - their brass bells clanging as they ambled along; dogs barking, children playing in the sun, women walking wearily along with great bundles of washing or fire wood on their heads - so gracefully they walk; old men with faces one would like to paint and young men with grave intelligent expressions. This is the real India rather than the India of the cities, more colourful, more varied and much more interesting.

Though she worked hard there were certainly periods when she got out and about when off duty. Looking at the cover not only gives us a fine example of the QAIMNS walking out uniform but also a fun photo of Joyce and two other Sisters enjoying a camel ride by the pyramids. These outings were perhaps helped in part due to their new officer status and rank which may have brought new social etiquette to many nurses who were used to caring for people from all classes and walks of life. At times we learn that Joyce has to be given a gently reminder of what is expected of her. For example she receives a final reminder from Matron Flossie that she and her friends must 'not in any circumstances have anything to do with, what they are pleased to term in the army, "other ranks", which means that our fellow Australians, who are not officers, we must firmly but tactfully ignore. '

Not only did she work in an assortment of buildings and casualty evacuation transports, but she also worked in various specialities which provides us the reader with a wide range of insight into nursing techniques of the day. Whilst at the 2/5th General Hospital in Alexandria she narrates about her accommodation at Corniche Road whilst telling us about working in areas like Ward B ground caring for 108 patients in a septic surgical ward and how the building was soon transformed into a Casualty Clearing Station due to war needs. She jovially describes ironing what they nickname 'battle frocks' whilst talking about the set-up of the area and how patients are quickly transferred from her CCS to the 62nd Jerusalem, the 19th Geneifa or 8th General Hospital. Even the smaller huts are crowded with patients: surgical hut 5 having 56 beds.

I have just come back to B Ground from taking over the report book to CIW for the last time - I hope - for at least six months. Mona and I finish up tomorrow morning but aren't allowed to go away from Alexandria. The big push has begun and it was announced tonight that Sidi Barrani has fallen and that we had taken 4,000 prisoners and some of the wounded, we hear, are expected here early this morning for the huts. ..Poor Rifleman Smith died - the worst leg I have seen. The poor kid must have gone through absolute hell for many weeks. An awful pity they didn't remove his leg weeks ago. Then we had a youth of 20 admitted with multiple shrapnel wounds. He developed gas gangrene and although I rang up the orderly medical officer and they rushed him to theatre at 3:30am, he died before coming back to the ward: a sad business.

She did indeed care for many Prisoners of War when she was placed in charge of Hut V for Italian medical cases, another change of speciality which demonstrated how versatile the QAs of WWII had to be. In addition she proves her commitment to their care page after page. I particularly found this extract from her book moving:

There are some things which are more satisfying to me than medals and good reports and being popular with Matron and having the equipment correct or having the ward perfect on the colonel's round. Little things that I can't write down here or tell anyone about, because they would seem unimportant and in a sense conceited - although of course that doesn't come into it at all - things that the men say to me from time to time, when I do simple things for them to make them comfortable, real gratitude often clumsily expressed - golden words that send me on winged feet on my way and give me satisfaction in this ghastly business.

Danger was never far during her war experiences such as having to sit tight as the ship navigated through a recently laid mine field through the Suez Canal enroute to Bombay. Even in Calcutta she describes the bombing as not being far from the BMH and how operations continued throughout these night raids whilst feeling the building vibrate.

She writes honestly and the book is taken straight from her journals. So in her words she earnestly states, perhaps a bit too candidly, that I think I have had in the last four months the worst collection of orderlies in the whole British Army. With a very few exceptions I must regretfully put it on record that the RAMC (orderlies) is not worth its salt in this war. For lack of intelligence, interest, co-operation it would be difficult to find its equal. I think it must indeed be true that those who are totally unfit for any other kind of war service are pushed into its ranks.

Lack of pay, a real problematic issue since some QAS often had to make their own meal provisions, is mentioned many times, as is the infrequent pay parades and errors of administration. However she proves time and again how resourceful she was whilst always being polite! In the October 1941 entry she reveals:

We have had some difficulty about pay again, pending some decisions as to where we actually belong. Nothing was paid in at all for two whole months. I shall not record our actual words on the subject. However, they have deigned to pay us the August salary and some arrears of pay recently, but September's has still to come to light. It appears we are now to be paid from Poona, so this ought to be more definite that the ME, although we are still not on Indian rates of pay.

It isn't just nursing and social insights we gain as we read through her diary entries but also political events and the changes in the war. For example:

On the move again - this is the third day. We left on Tuesday at 4pm, sealed orders coming aboard the previous afternoon. It isn't Madras and the Far East - yet anyway. Things have begun to flare up in Iran. She was rather too kindly disposed towards Hitler's minions, so our government after at first being polite, then firm, took things into their own hands and walked in. Russia obligingly walked in from the north. They are meeting with some resistance and have even encountered German and Italian soldiers, although it seems rather vague, just at the moment. So we are bound for the Persian Gulf, for a change, Basrah, as far as we know.

As well as her positivity I love her humour and naughtily laughed out loud at her misfortunate when a passing ship caused her misfortunate whilst waiting at Colombo harbour:

I got the full force of the back wash, and as the whole harbour was literally covered in filthy black oil, discharged the previous day from a tanker that had been torpedoed ten miles off, and which had been towed into Colombo with a lovely hole right through her amidships, I was a sight to behold! From my shoulders to my waist I was a mass of oil and there were splashes of it, alas, on my white hat, shoes and stockings, bag and kid gloves. Oh dear!

Sometimes the humour can be quite poignant, such as the case of the patient who jumped overboard because he fancied a swim in the sea! He was fortunately rescued but Joyce wondered if perhaps the psychological effects of war had touched him and indeed she talks often of this and even describes the padded cells on HMHS Karapara as being used for those suffering from the horrors of war and how the individuals were quite sane when they left home. She also describes the nightmares that many had, still fighting the Japanese in their sleep.

Fortunately the many photos included in the book are of Sister Joyce wearing clean uniforms! These are fine examples of the tropical uniform, complete with grey and scarlet tippet and boater hats as well as the walking out off duty uniforms of grey skirt and jacket with blouse and tie and of the new issued Lieutenant pips when QAs were awarded rank from 1941. Though a time of war and taken during the many conflicts in which she nursed, she always seemed to look immaculate. These photographs are worth the price of the book alone and give the reader several fine examples of the differing QA uniforms for this era as she journeyed around the world during her four year service which she reminisced in her old age as four rich years. Special mention must be said of the drawings that start each chapter which sets the mood firmly in the Far East and India. They were skilfully illustrated by Joyce's other daughter Sian Bailey.

As Joyce nears the end of her incredible service, now married, she meets up with one of her four friends from Millbank. From Sister Golightly she learns that of the original five only they are still alive. Two QAs died during bombing at BMH Singapore whilst the third was missing believed dead. This being a harrowing reminder of the selflessness, devotion to duty and sacrifice made by many QAs during the Second World War.

An honest, wry and perceptive account of being a nursing sister in the Far East and India during World War Two. It is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in military nursing history and a must for their book shelf.

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