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"Well it was discipline, you see…" Veterans' Tales

August 1, 2010

The last few weekends have been busy with World War 2 events around England. One of the difficulties of doing an event that is still within living memory is getting everything right: not just the clothes or the known history, but posture, speech, and more difficult to gauge, the attitudes that defined a period. We can read about the dogged determination to win through, about mordant humour, and we can see from graffiti and popular songs that authority was viewed with (usually) benign tolerance that mocked it whilst accepting it but despite knowing all that, we weren’t actually there.So one of the great privileges about these events is speaking to people who were there, who did live through the Dunkirk evacuation, who did serve in Africa, or Burma or The Battle of Britain. Then there were the child evacuees, too, who still remember with terror or affection their first experiences of a lifestyle and culture that was often quite alien to them.

In the role of a Queen Alexandra nursing sister I have heard a number of personal histories, invariably told with great economy of words and modesty. One Dunkirk veteran focussed on the senses: he said the books can never convey the stench in the nostrils of oil and smoke from burning docks and buildings, the undercurrent of churned up sea and the aftermath of explosions that made fear almost tangible.  Another spoke about never forgetting the noise: the screaming aircraft, the explosions and crackling of fire. He said he still sometimes heard it in the night time. In Wales I heard about the courage of these nursing sisters, some of whom disobeyed orders but in so doing managed to avoid huge loss of life that would have happened had they done as ordered and meekly surrendered – as they would have been butchered, along with the helpless patients in their care.

In every case I have listened with both awe and admiration. And again and again, when I have expressed doubts about whether I would have been able to measure up to what they did, whether it was standing up to my chest in cold sea water for hours on end with a dead comrade and friend bobbing just beneath the surface beside me, or driving a three ton ambulance hell for leather towards the prospect of safety, their response has been virtually identical. “It was discipline, you see. We had that if we had nothing else”.

One elderly lady mentioned her time at Bletchley Park, which at its peak held a community of thousands all working together on aspects of intelligence, yet about which virtually nothing was known just a few miles away in the local town. Her surprised daughter listened and commented that she hadn’t heard anything about this before, and the mother simply replied that she’d made a promise not to speak about it, so she hadn’t. But it seemed to be acceptable to mention it now, as it was all open to the public.

It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to participate in these events and I have learnt a great deal over the last six months. For anyone else wanting to learn about the amazing Queen Alexandra nursing sisters, an excellent place to start would be the books of memories by Brenda McBryde: “A Nurse’s War” and “The Quiet Heroines”. The first chronicles her experiences, and the second is a collection of stories that she subsequently received from other QA sisters which she worked into a book. 

Published only a couple of years ago, an excellent book by Nicola Tryer called “Sisters in Arms” reads as pacily as a thriller, yet it is simply a series of profiles of QA nursing sisters, who all considered themselves ordinary but who showed extraordinary bravery and devotion to their patients. Many of the stories she has orgainised chronologically were given to her in interviews by elderly QA sisters who have since died and are completely devoid of any sense of drama, but their experiences speak for themselves. It was impossible to put down once started and sheds a completely different light on wartime from that usually portrayed in books and films.

This, of course, brings me to the authoritative book on the experiences of QA nursing sisters, “Grey and Scarlet”, edited by Ada Harrison and first published in 1944. Matron in Chief of QAIMNS for most of the Second World War, Katharine Jones was a remarkable woman who could forsee the need for a record of her nurses’ wartime experiences. No other army force allowed women to work so close to the front line of war, yet this was a conscious decision made by those in charge as they appreciated that soldiers would respond better to the care of women – a fact already proven during World War 1 1914-1918. Matron Miss Jones encouraged her nursing sisters and matrons operating at the front to keep diaries and to send her informal accounts of their experiences. These were collated into this book to give the general public an idea of what women could achieve in exceptional circumstances. Although long out of print, it can still be obtained with a little gentle persistence and is well worth the effort.

 There is also the Army Medical Services Museum at Aldershot, where for practical reasons an advance appointment is necessary. Their help was invaluable, as were the displays, and it is possible to read a number of histories that are not usually available in public libraries.

For more about the Operation Dynamo 70th anniversary at Dover Castle in May 2010 please click:

For more information about what it was like to be a civilian in England during World War 2, coping with rations and evacuation, please click:

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