Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Initiative, courage, compassion - and great powers of endurance

Wounded – Emily Mayhew in Headingley Library
Stretcher Bearers
Tuesday 18 March

Emily Mayhew’s session yesterday evening was highly informative and deeply moving. She spoke to an appreciative audience briskly and clearly, telling us about some of the many true stories she has collected over a period of years, stories of people in the medical services of the First World War who had initiative and courage as well as great powers of endurance and unlimited compassion, people who should be an inspiration to everyone. She obviously filled in a few gaps for some in the audience, who simply did not know much about, for example, the stretcher bearers who were often under fire on the front more frequently than the troops of the line they there to save. They were the ones  who waited until just after the first wave had gone over the top, climbed up after them, and listened for the screaming. The screaming told them where those who had just been shot or mangled were situated. Gas attacks complicated things terribly: wearing masks not only inhibited screaming but made listening for it impossible. They were strong men, and they usually developed ‘bearers’ hands’ after a short while, the result of constantly holding heavy wooden poles in atrocious conditions. Isaac Rosenberg wrote about them in Dead Man’s Dump. You don’t hear much about people like that in most accounts of the war which was supposed to end all wars.

And you don’t hear much about medical officers who go home on leave across the Channel and then come back to the trenches with a cage of ferrets. That’s what Major Alfred Hardwick did when a plague of rats was driving the men mad. When Emily was reading the section which tells how “the only two creatures who enjoyed themselves on the Western Front” eagerly shot out of their cage to kill the rodents, there were smiles all round. She went on to tell the story of the nurse who shocked her parents when she wrote to tell them how she had been the ‘hare’ in a game of hare and hounds in one of her brief periods of relaxation at a casualty clearing station near the front line. Why was she not slogging away all the time? Emily told us about the original of the letter she sent to them and how you could tell from the handwriting that she was fiercely controlling herself in a measured reply. We heard about Nurse Claire Tisdall, who worked for the London Ambulance Column, and how, on the last day of the war in 1918 the wounded were still arriving at Victoria Station. Crowds which a year or two previously had been cheering and clapping the ambulances now ignored them, not making way as they desperately tried to get through the celebrating masses near Trafalgar Square.

When the driver leaned out of his window asking people to move, they took no notice and simply sang louder. The ambulance was now crawling forward at a snail’s pace. It was difficult to see what was in front of them, and many of the faces that pressed against the windows were red and glassy-eyed from drink. Tisdall tied down the canvas flaps tightly so that her patients wouldn’t be frightened, but the vehicle was jostled and bumped from side to side as the crowd pushed against it. She had to hold the stretchers in their racks steady so that they wouldn’t be dislodged as the ambulance rocked on its thin tyres. In Trafalgar Square on the last day of the war, in the middle of the ecstatic celebrations of peace, Tisdall and her patients cowered in the dark of the ambulance, in mute fear, praying the driver would get them through.

Emily talked about her previous, utterly different, career in Fashion (she helped to launch Harvey Nichols in Leeds) and how much she enjoyed being in Yorkshire. We enjoyed being with her!

Audience comments:


1.  Fascinating and informative background to medical activities in the 1st World War. Well presented, ‘user friendly’ and wonderful academic rigour. A real treat
2.     Excellent! So interesting as a speaker.  
3.     I learned a lot! And what more could you ask of a talk? Excellent!  
4.     Very well presented, fluid and informative. It took a fresh view point of WWI.
5.     Very interesting and engaging. Nice relaxed atmosphere conducive to discourse.  
6.     A fascinating insight, avoided the clichés, new angles on the subject, I could have listened for hours.  
7.     Brilliant. Arresting. Interesting. Accurate. Moving. One of the best Headingley LiFest events I’ve attended.
8.     Good to learn from an expert researcher about the Western Front. She filled in lots of gaps of my knowledge about field hospitals. Particularly moved by the tales of the stretcher bearers.  
9.     Very detailed and informative.  
10.  Very fluent and confident speaker and compère.  
11.  A very impressive speaker – clear, loud, knows her stuff and brings it alive. Excellent.
12.  History of the Western Front medical humanity brought to life.
13.   Enjoyable and informative.
14.  I knew bits of what was said but the author had a lovely, clear speaking voice which made it so interesting and moving. You could just ‘see yourself there’ – as if you were a nurse, sitting with a wounded soldier. Heart-rending at times. PS medical history is something I love (from 15th century onwards).
15.  Interesting, informative and engaging – a seriously good evening.

1 comment:

  1. That seems to have been a wonderful evening.I have read the novels 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' but I am now definitely, after reading your blog, going to acquire 'Wounded'.Having individual testimonies will certainly bring that horrible time to life- just as your own publication will. Good luck with its launch- I am sure that you will have put in hours and hours of work to arrive at this stage and it will be have been worthwhile.