Nurses and memoirs


Stuart Cloete in 1918

I’d been thinking a bit about nurses’ memoirs when I came across these paragraphs in Stuart Cloete’s 1972 autobiography,  A Victorian Son. When he was fighting on the Somme in 1916, a bullet went through his chest and out the other side. He was sent to a base hospital:

But I was in pain now. Dressing my wound consisted of plugging it with medicated tape which the sister pushed through me with a sort of knitting-needle as an orderly fed it to her out of a bottle of disinfectant. It was a very unpleasant procedure.
The nurses here were regulars. They were beribboned with service medals and wore grey uniforms with scarlet-lined capes. Any milk of kindness they may have had as young women had long since evaporated under the heat of tropic suns. Their handling of wounded men was rough; the male orderlies were more gentle.

Later he calls these nurses ‘the harpies of the base with hard fingers and dried-out dugs’, but is much more appreciative of  the young female volunteers in the hospital he is sent to in Reading:

My mind was on girls as I watched the VADs in the ward. On the mystery of them. Of their bodies under the rustling starch of their uniforms.

Later he describes how he is picked up by the Military Police police in a state of amnesia; ‘It must have been delayed battle fatigue or, as we called it then, shell-shock.’

Taken to a mental hospital at 10 Palace Green, he wakes to see a nurse with whom he immediately falls in love. They married two years later.

It’s sometimes a complaint about war novels that they are mostly written by ‘civilians in uniform’, men whose values are essentially those of peacetime, and who judge the war by civilian standards (There are exceptions.). This complaint is even more applicable to  the memoirs written by nurses. We always read the experiences of the idealistic young volunteer, never those of the professional military nurse. I’d rather like to know what those hard-bitten ‘harpies of the base’ thought of the war.

The war chapters of A Victorian Son cover much the same ground as Cloete’s 1969 novel How Young They Died, though as he says:

In How Young They Died I used many of my own experiences, blew them up and added the extra love interests, as the truth – a young man going through four years of war, reaching the age of twenty-one, and being married a virgin to a virgin girl – would seem incredible to the readers of today.

I wonder how many other soldiers felt the need to sex up their narratives to match popular conceptions of how young men behave.


  1. victoriajanssen
    Posted June 21, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Male Gaze-o-rama! Cloete doesn’t seem to dwell on the nurses helping save his life, only on his opinion of their femininity and how it can serve his comfort and pleasure. Ick.

    The only one of the female narratives I’ve read that includes sexual attraction is Enid Bagnold’s VAD memoir, A DIARY WITHOUT DATES. The nursing memoirs I’ve read tend to focus more on feelings about their patients that could be classified more as caretaking, which makes sense. Though I imagine they would not feel free to include sexual or romantic elements when they did happen.

    • Anonymous
      Posted June 21, 2016 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      For “A Victorian Son”, who might well have not met many women, the “mystery” of women might well have been much greater than now would be the case. It would also be an escape from fear of what their fates would be. Equally, the regular nurses’ “rough” professionalism was probably intended partly to distance both them and their patients from emotion in their interactions. The “harpies” were at a base hospital where rapid emergency treatment was a priority and the likelihood of patients’ survival would be much lower than at hospitals in England.

  2. jeffreylcharles
    Posted June 21, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    A timely post as I am most interested in learning more about the American nurses in France during the war and – in particular – after the Armistice. Particularly those stationed in and around Paris, as I am trying to identify some specific individuals mentioned by name in a diary I am transcribing. Any and all research resource recommendations would be appreciated!

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