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Review and extracts of the Great War book Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918
Sister Luard has several distinctions as a QA. She served in the second Boer War in the Army Nursing Service, then at the outbreak of the Great War she volunteered for the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve and was at the frontline in France with the British Expeditionary Force within days and served there for the duration of the First World War with the exception of only a few weeks home leave. She nursed in a variety of locations and posts like 32 Casualty Clearing Station at the third battle of Ypres where she was promoted to Head Sister, No 4 Field Ambulance, General Hospitals, No 2 Stationary Hospital, Hospital Trains and then rising to be in charge at the CCS in Nampes. She was in the thick of the action, witnessing the carnage of war and the immediate emergency care troops needed, including the Battle of Passchendaele. She was Mentioned in Despatches twice, was awarded the Royal Red Cross decoration in 1916 and was one of a few military nurses to be awarded its Bar. We learn so much from her work and are fortunate that her account has been published.
Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918 tells her remarkable story through her own war journal and family letters, capturing the feelings of a frontline nurse and the realities of war and trying to live day by day in extreme circumstances. Taken from her original 1930 published book and updated by family members it is a must for retired and modern day QAs or those with an interest in the history of WWI and nursing. Her original intention was to tell the story of how war affected soldiers. Through Kate's words at a CCS at Lilliers on the 3 November 1915 we read of the sacrifice many made:
A lad had to have his leg off this morning for gas gangrene. He says he 'feels all right' and hasn't had to have any morphia all day. You'd think he'd merely had his boot taken off. Some of them are such infants to be fighting for their country. One has a bullet through his liver and tried to say through his tears 'there's some much worse that what I am'.
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The sacrifices of families and the heartbreak at home of mothers and fathers learning of their losses is written about throughout her war diary and she often talks about what she calls break-the-news letters home that she regularly writes.
Captain W. is dying to-night of gas gangrene. His younger brother was a posthumous V.C. and I think another brother has been killed, so it won't make a pretty letter to write to his mother to-morrow. He is a particularly charming boy.
Sadly it was not only military personnel who suffered injuries as she writes:
Last night three small children were brought in wounded. They had found an unexploded bomb in a field and took it home to play with - one was killed in this game of play, one severely wounded and two more wounded.
Throughout she gives a fascinating insight into nursing techniques and medical interventions of the time. For example:
A dying boy in the Medical is putting up a tremendous fight and Captain S. and Sister J. and Craig the Orderly are slaving over him. He has Vapour Baths, and Oyygen-through-Absolute-Alcohol, and Atropin and Digitalin and Pilocarpin and Eserin and everything ending in 'in' that could floor the various diseases that have got him in their grip: nephritis, uraemic fits, oedema of lungs and pneumonia.
Observations about members of The Royal Army Medical Corps and their experiences as seen through Kate's eyes are recorded, such as:
One of our new M.O.'s has come from fifteen months with the Irish Rifles in the front line; they were wiped out on July 1st at Gommecourt, and all his friends were killed or wounded. The enemy batteries were massed there and we never got beyond our own front lines. He said we were treading on our own dead four or five deep in a communication trench that was pulped by 8-inch shells
A later moving section tells of Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC who had the distinction of being awarded the Victoria Cross and Bar for his actions in tending to the wounded in battle. He himself had been mortally wounded and Sister Luard tells of the many people who came to visit him as he lay dying and of his funeral.
Life in Casualty Clearing Stations was not easy for military nurses of the Great War, often tented, sometimes in whatever buildings were nearby. Rare photograph examples are included in the book to assist the reader visually. In March 1917 she was at Warlencourt during The Battle of Arras where she had to endure the elements:
Woke up this morning with half an inch of snow on our beds inside our huts, and 6 inches outside. Melting now and a terrible mess. We shan't see what our weak points are till we begin, but if unity is strength it ought to pull well, as no one is clashing anywhere.
Other diary entries records the difficulties in securing rations for her patients and food for her fellow Sisters, difficulties with local cooks and staff employed to look after the nurses and the variety of beds and bedding staff had to sleep on. Rare insights not often acknowledged in other published war nursing diaries.
Anyone looking for information about nursing in a Casualty Clearing Station will learn so much from Unknown Warriors:
The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday and a wire came through by mid-day that we'd taken Vimy and 4,000 prisoners and, Sir Anthony Bowlby says this morning, 30 guns. The Cavalry are after them, and the Tanks leading the Infantry, and all is splendid. But here are horrors all day and night. The three C.C.S.'s filled up in turn and then each filled up again, without any break in the Convoys: we take in and evacuate at the same time. The Theatre, Dressing Hut, Preparation Hut and Wards and Tents are all humming - the kitchen goes on cooking with a Day Staff and a Night Staff, and the stretcher-bearers go on stretcher-bearing, and the Mortuary Corporal goes on sewing up corpses in canvas. The Colonel carries the lame walking-cases on his broad back, and I look after the moribunds in every spare second from the Preparation Hut, which is (during take-in) the stiffest corner of all, and Sisters, M.O's, N.C.O.'s Orderlies, Convalescent Men and Permanent Base Men, all peg into it like navvies. We meet for snatching meals and five-minute snacks of rest and begin again. All are doing 16 hours on and 8 off and some of us 18 on and 6 off.
Though she writes starkly about the horrors of war and the resulting injuries to people and many deaths Sister Luard remains upbeat, an optimism that must have helped her to continue to nurse at the frontline for the duration of the War. Sentiments that are best summed up in her paragraph:
On the right of this wood, the other side of the Germans' wire, is the No-Man's Land, where the Salvage men are busy burying our skeletons who have been there since July 1st. The Prince of Wales and every Brass Hat have been to see the awful place. The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommecourt.
The dangers of war did not escape any members of the QAIMNS and the QAIMNS(R) and she describes frequent bombing and several injuries and deaths amongst her colleagues. Again she describes things calmly, even when her own life was at peril:
A boy with his face nearly in half, who couldn't talk, and whom I was feeding, was trying to explain that he was lying on something hard in his trouser pocket. It was a live Mills bomb! I extracted it with some care, as the pins catch easily.
As with all armed conflicts there was brief interludes of peace which must have restored her strength and belief in the importance of her work:
We had a whole week without snow or rain - lots of sun and blue sky. I went for a ramble after tea yesterday to a darling narrow wood with a stream at the bottom between two hills, a quarter of an hour's walk from here. Two sets of shy, polite boys thrust their bunches of cowslips and daffodils into my hand with 'Would these be any use to you?' Also banks of small blue periwinkles like ours, and flowering palm; absolutely no leaves yet anywhere and it's May Day to-morrow.
The section of family letters reveals more about the hardships she and her colleagues faced, such as lice and the difficulty in removing them, of the injuries and death of her beloved brother at Gallipoli and the effects of the war back in Britain. One rather moving letter was a reply from the Victoria League at Millbank House in London to a break the news letter proving how important these letters, often written during rare periods of off duty, were important and gave some comfort to the bereaved.
I would urge everyone, in this Centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, to read Unknown Warriors The Letters of Kate Luard, published by The History Press, so that this aspect of warfare is acknowledged and remembered.
Read more about Kate and extracts from her diaries at www.kateluard.co.uk and at twitter.com/Unknownwarriors which follows the events of 100 years ago when Kate was working on the ambulance trains with extracts from the Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915.
Read about the Kate Evelyn Unit in Basildon Hospital.
Read more about her civilian life on the Life After War page.
More Book Reviews.
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