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.