Dr Sally Lawton on the “Nurse Who Found Herself in 1916”

Ayr Rotary Club were privilaged to have Dr Sally Lawton as a guest speaker at their Tuesday evening meeting. Sally was a nurse educator for over thirty years and had always been fascinated by the nursing and the medical care of soldiers in World War 1 and this led her to write “The Nurse Who Found Herself In 1916”. Her presentation covered her reflections on writing this book and draws comparisons between nursing then and now writing a story about a modern-day nurse who falls asleep on a train and wakes up in France in 1916 where she is expected to report for duty in a Casualty Clearing station.. Her presentation was about this novel, written by accident after she started work on a project exploring the care of badly injured patients in World War 1 and the impact of the work on nurses.

She began by explaining her interest in World War 1 and how injured soldiers were triaged. This was an important concept of battlefield care. It was probably formulated by Jean Larrey, the chief surgeon of Napoleon’s Grand Armée. Formally, it consists of dividing patients into three categories: 
1. Those who will recover with minimal care, or even with no care. C & D categories i.e. Back to the front
2. Those in whom immediate intervention may be life-saving, and who may die without that.intervention i.e. B category
3. Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of treatment will die i.e. A category She then outlined how nurses were trained at the time and how severely injured soldiers were cared for.

Dr Sally Lawton

Inspired by Vera Brittain’s bestselling Testament of Youth which was based on these copious diaries-which have far greater intimacy and immediacy, captures all the war’s horrors and Brittain’s emergence as a committed pacifist. “One of the rare books which are a landmark for a whole generation. Also sally referred to Nurse at the Russian Front, by Florence Farmborough, an English governess, who spent WWI in Russia as a Red Cross nurse, and served at the front under constant bombardment, taking photographs with a plate camera and keeping a diary in her spare time. She witnessed the appalling slaughter and suffering of ill trained and often illiterate recruits thrown into a war with insufficient ammunition and supplies.

Sally also referred to Matron Maud McCarthy who left England for France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and in 1915 was made Matron-in-Chief of the British armies in France. As such she was responsible for the entire nursing operation on the Western Front, from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. By 1918, she was in charge of over 6,000 British, Imperial and American nurses. The challenges they met were unprecedented in scale and scope: the huge number of casualties ranged from trench foot to injuries from air and gas attacks and mechanised artillery, including bombs, land mines and machine guns.

McCarthy conscientiously visited field units, casualty clearing stations and general hospitals, successfully raising the morale of her staff and working to maintain adequate numbers of trained nurses, in spite of constant shortages. She was not only an inspiring leader but a highly skilled administrator. Personally modest and unselfish, McCarthy dedicated her life to providing exemplary and efficient care. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918 and was later awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international distinction a nurse can receive.

By 1917 said Sally, there was a huge turnover of nurses in France which Maud McCarthy stemmed, yet among the attributes desired of a nurse was an air of ‘hurried calm’ and possession of a sense of humour. An example of this black humour was the renaming of the resuscitation ward to the resurrection ward. A sad statistic is that the majority of nurses during WW1 died of illness, not killed by enemy fire.

A very worthy vote of thanks was given by Neil Beattie.