A nurse at the Front

Nurse Edith Appleton OBE RRC (1877–1958)Nurse Edith Appleton OBE RRC (1877–1958)

Dick Robinson will be telling the story of his great-aunt – a nurse during the First World War – at a meeting of the East of London Family History Society at Wanstead Library this month.

The part played by women in the First World War is often overlooked, for very understandable reasons; of course, it was the men who died and were wounded in their hundreds of thousands. However, sometimes a truly amazing story comes to light, and one of those is that of my great aunt, Edith Appleton, who served as a professional nurse in France throughout the war and often close to the front line.

I knew Edie well as a child in the 1940s and 1950s, but it wasn't until she died in 1958 that the diaries she wrote between 1914 and 1919 came to light. Her journal, written in the precious minutes off-duty from the daily pressure of caring for dying and wounded men, tells an extraordinary story.

What lifts the diaries from an almost unendurable catalogue of horrors is Edie's ability to switch from this grinding ghastliness to a joyous, exuberant appreciation of the natural beauty around her. She was a robust walker and lover of rugged coastlines, and whatever the season, every spare moment off-duty was used to tramp around the glorious countryside sketching the views, revelling either in summer flowers or wintry storms.

During the five years she spent in France, Edie worked in a variety of locations: casualty clearing stations near the front line as well as base hospitals on the Normandy coast and in ambulance trains. When on the coast, and despite the dangers, she clearly longed to be back near the front. Edie mentions the names of over 200 of her patients and colleagues and the most rewarding aspect of making her diaries available has been making contact with some of the descendants of those mentioned. As you might imagine, some meetings over 100 years later have been very emotional, particularly where a named soldier died in her care.

A book version of Edie's journal was published in 2012 and I also launched a website, which includes information about Edie, old family photographs and copies of the many sketches she included in her journal. Do have a look and maybe you will recognise the name of a relative. My talk will be fully illustrated and, on this occasion, as I tell Edie's story, I shall be accompanied by my daughter, Katie, who will read extracts from the diaries. In her late 30s, Katie is the same age as Edie was when in France.

Dick's talk will take place on 24 May from 7.30pm at Wanstead Library (visitors welcome; £1.50). Call 020 8554 8414. For more information on Nurse Appleton, visit anurseatthefront.org.uk

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