War Nurse

When war breaks out in 1939 Kitty signs up to be a Red Cross nurse in a military hospital. And it's not long before she's treating badly wounded casualties from the war now raging across Europe. Then the hospital takes a direct hit and Kitty finds herself a reluctant heroine.

Sue Reid on the background to War Nurse . . .

I wrote War Nurse not long after I'd been a patient in hospital myself. So I had some useful experience to draw on. Of course, being a patient in hospital now is very different to what it would have been like in a military hospital during WW11! I needed to talk to someone who had been a nurse during the war. Lots of girls of course signed up to be Red Cross nurses during WW11, but the war ended nearly sixty years ago! Were any Red Cross nurses even still alive? And how would I find one to talk to? Then one day I had a huge piece of luck. I met Madge Dobinson ('Dobbie') and her friend Jerry, who told me all sorts of fascinating stories about their experiences as war nurses. After that my father suddenly remembered that one of his sisters had been a Red Cross nurse, so I was able to talk to her, too. Then I learned that another Red Cross nurse lived a few streets away from me! Now I had many memories to draw on – and all sorts of useful knowledge about the tasks war nurses had to do. I've included a lot of what they told me in my book. So when you read it, remember, much of what I've written actually happened – but I'll leave you to guess what is real, and what I made up!

Afterwards . . .

War Nurse was published sixty years after the end of WW11. Lots of events were held that year to commemorate the war. I took part in one! I was quite nervous: the event was a big one, held in St James's Park in London. My name was even on the programme! But in the end the most scary thing about it was discovering that there were two 'war nurses' among my tiny audience in the Red Cross tent.

They listened to me intently. Afterwards they told me it had been just like that! I felt very proud.

Later that year 'Go For It' - the BBC children's radio programme - did a feature around the book. Dobbie, Gerry and I went to Broadcasting House to be interviewed for the programme and I read some pages from the book. I listened to the programme when it was broadcast. It felt very strange to hear my voice reading what my heroine Kitty had written in her diary!

Publisher: Scholastic
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1407108670
ISBN-13: 978-1407108674
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"... my favourite part has got to be the part where the military hospital gets hit and Kitty saves the patients. That part makes me gasp and I never wanted to put the book down..."
(from a fan's letter)

Monday 27 May 1940

I ran into the annexe and leaned over the sink, taking deep breaths. I felt awful – too upset even for tears. Desperately I tried to pull myself together. I've got to cope – everyone else is. I must cope. I must.

'Nurse, I need your help,' I heard a voice say gently behind me. I dried my face quickly and turned round. The QA had a stack of hot-water bottles in her arms. 'Heat these up for me, will you?' she asked.

'The men....' I faltered. 'I'm supposed to wash them.'

'Never mind about that now. Nurse Mason's doing it.' Jean? I thought vaguely. She was working nights. Was she still on duty?

As soon as the men are brought in, the QAs and MOs go from mattress to bed, from bed to mattress. They check the men's breathing and pulse. Is that man still in shock? Can we risk removing his uniform? They call me over. 'Nurse, I'd like you to wash this man, please.' I run over and cut off his uniform as I've been shown. 'Be careful how you do it, Nurse. We must try to save all we can.' Gently, I wash the gritty sand and dirt off him. Under an old bandage there's a wound on his abdomen. Blood is seeping through the bandage. I need a fresh bandage - now! The haemorrhage is staunched, the new bandage wound tightly over the wound.

'His pulse is very weak, Sister.' I look up from my patient at Sister's face. Sister's sleeves are rolled up. She looks as if she's been up all night.

An MO takes over and I'm sent to fill up hot-water bottles again. Soon, we've run out. 'Nurse, look in the patients' beds – over there, Nurse, over there!' Blankly, I pull out a hot-water bottle from next to a patient's feet. The feet are very cold, I tell the Sister. He's dead, she says briskly. No time for tears here. The body is rolled into a blanket and lifted off the bed. Automatically I wash down the mackintosh sheet, dry it, and then I rip open a package and pull out another blanket, which I lay on top of it. Next to me the stretcher bearers are waiting impatiently. As soon as I've finished, the bed is filled again.

Back and forth I go into the annexe, squeezing out the flannel, watching dirt and blood and sweat swirl away together down the sluice.

QAs run round the ward and the corridors, handing out injections of morphia as though they're cups of tea.There are metal stands between the beds, bottles of blood swinging off them. Rubber tubes connect them to our patients.

A Sister asks me to sort through a pile of bloodstained clothing and get it ready to go off to the store. I'm glad to be able to keep my head down. Glad not to have to look for a time at those exhausted, despairing faces, those blank eyes. But I can't shut out the groans, the eternal tramp tramp tramp of the stretcher bearers, bringing more men into the ward, and taking others down to Theatre.

And still the ambulances come. The BEF is being evacuated from Dunkirk. When I first heard the news, I felt strangely relieved. Soon, I hoped, my brother would be home.

Not now.

Each time an ambulance arrives I wonder if he'll be amongst its patients. Each time the doors swing open, I have to force myself not to look up. I'm terrified. I don't want to see Peter here, but even worse is thinking of him left behind in France.

A cheerful, smiling nurse can do more to help her patients than a cross and weary one, I suddenly remember from my training. But I cannot laugh, I cannot smile. And oh, I am weary. And this – I feel horribly certain – is only the beginning.