On the eve of the centenary of the Somme, and to continue this week’s First World War theme, I present Field Hospital and Flying Column, Violetta Thurstan’s account of her experiences as a Red Cross nurse across a First World War-torn Europe.
Thurstan was born in East Sussex in 1879, educated in Germany and trained as a nurse at London Hospital, Whitechapel. She was awarded the Russian Cross of St George and the Military Medal for her war efforts, joined the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and lied about her age during WW2 in order to join WRNS in Naval Intelligence. She also did some tings with textiles. More detail about this phenomenal woman is available here http://www.womenincornwall.org/content/anna-thurstan.
Thurstan’s tale starts off tamely with nurses gathering at Charing Cross Station for trains across to the continent, but, as the drama of war unfolds around her, she documents a series of poignant snapshots of its human impact. There’s a description of the ‘indescribable’ confusion of the wards (‘Blood-stained uniforms hastily cut off the soldiers were lying on the floor… men were moaning with pain, calling for water, begging that their dressings might be done again…this was my baptism of fire’), the patients (‘There was one poor Breton soldier dying of septicæmia…no amount of water relieved his raging thirst. That voice calling incessantly night and day, “A boire, à boire!” haunted me long after he was dead.’) and the day-to-day experience of nurses on the front line.
For me, the most moving part of Thurstan’s account is her description of the Belgian people facing German invasion, because, a hundred years on, the scene painted by Thurstan is a distressingly familiar one:
All that night refugees from Louvain and Termonde poured in a steady stream into Brussels, seeking safety. I have never seen a more pitiful sight. Little groups of terror-stricken peasants fleeing from their homes, some on foot, some more fortunate ones with their bits of furniture in a rough cart drawn by a skeleton horse or a large dog. All had babies, aged parents, or invalids with them. I realized then for the first time what war meant. We do not know in England. God grant we never may. It was not merely rival armies fighting battles, it was civilians—men, women, and children—losing their homes, their possessions, their country, even their lives…
It was an imposing sight to watch the German troops ride in. The citizens of Brussels behaved magnificently, but what a bitter humiliation for them to undergo. How should we have borne it, I wonder, if it had been London?
Reading this account – which you can do for free at the amazing book resource http://www.gutenberg.org – I ask myself, would I have been that brave, to face the extent of human suffering and destruction head-on? I’m not sure. I can’t even bring myself to be First Aid volunteer at work, or Fire Warden – and the latter involves wearing fluorescents and having licence to holler ‘I NEED EVERYONE OUT NOW PLEASE’ at colleagues. What a brave woman. Here’s to her and all medical professionals in war zones across the world. Peace.