Nurse Durant's Patients
Wenonah Durant (1887-1976) was born in Machias, Maine to a Canadian father and an American mother. She would spend her childhood alternating between Nova Scotia and Maine before returning to Nova Scotia with her family in 1903. Sometime after 1911, Durant trained as a nurse at Brockton Hospital School of Nursing in Brockton, Massachusetts.
In 6 July 1915, Durant arrived in Plymouth, England from New York City with a group of 65 American doctors and nurses ("The Harvard Unit" of the Red Cross) bound for the British Base Hospital in Woolwich. Five weeks later, her unit would be posted at Camiers, France, the base depot for the British Army on the coast of France. In all, Durant would spend three years in France with the Harvard Unit, who were the first Americans to arrive in the war zone and treated more soldiers than any other American medical unit.
She returned to the United States in 1918 and immediately enlisted with the American Army as a nurse. She would serve at Camp Dix in New Jersey, before returning to France on 12 November 1918, to serve as a nurse in the aftermath of the war. She would return to the United States on 19 June 1919.
On 14 August 1915, freshly arrived in France, Wenonah Durant started a new diary. She opened the first page and wrote out her name and location – 22 General Hospital, Camiers, France. Yet she would only write one page – the very first when she outlined gifts she had been given by the wounded soldiers at her hospital. For example, “Sapper Rust gave me a cap badge, Royal Engineers also a shell + crucifix.” The remainder of the pages would be filled by the patients themselves, as Nurse Durant would pass around her diary and allow the wounded soldiers to write their own stories. This took a number of forms, including poems, sketches and most interestingly of all, diary style entries.
The entries are written by British, Canadian and Australian soldiers. The accounts range from one page to ten pages, and outline the horrifying experiences of wartime written in a honest and, at times, almost detached manner. H. Duffy in his entry my worst experiences during the present war aptly describes the effect of trauma on memory and the difficulty in recounting these events.
"I wish to point out that minor details, such as the times certain incidents happened how many men were killed or the spot in which they fell, cannot be entered into. In fact, many a time whilst actually in the trenches I could not have told you the date, nor the day of the week, so lost were we to the routines of ordinary life. In my opinion any soldiers who has been through a hard gruelling fight (the decision of which has hung in the balance for two or three days) who can recount his experiences as fluently as a well rehearsed piece - even to the minor detail either has a marvellous memory or else an imaginative brain."
The act of writing out their memories, for some soldiers, may have been therapeutic, as they were able to write truthfully without the concern of the censors or of alarming their mother, wife or girlfriend back home.
Below are four examples from entries in Nurse Durant's book. All accounts are written by enlisted British soldiers, who take different approaches to their entries, and demonstrate varying levels of education. Two soldiers - Pte. Bateman and Sgt. Howard - chose to write about their introduction to the trenches, recalling horrible moments such as when Howard had his cap blown off by shrapnel or Bateman, who lost three fellow soldiers within the first half hour. Pte. McIvor chose to write his biography in the army, beginning when war was declared, and he was working in a coal pit in Scotland, and ending with his current admission to the hospital. Finally, H. Duffy, in the longest entry, details his "worst experience" during "what will be known in future history, as the Second Battle of Ypres."
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My First Experience in the Firing Trenches April 1915
We were in the first line of trenches with our Battalion the 5th Duke of Wellington West Riding Regiment and was about 200 yds from the Germans. The enemys Artillery was very busy. I was patrolling our part of the line, when a Wiss Bang burst 6 yards from me, just behind. A piece of splinter knocked my cap off, and the dirt which was thrown up hit me on the head, it felt as if someone had thrown a handful of peas. I was thankful that no pieces of the shell hit me. I picked 3 pieces up afterwards, they were the size of lump sugars.
Sergt G Howard. 247.
5th D of W W.R.Rg.
August 26/15 22 General Hospital
My biography in the army
I was working in the coalpit when war was declared between Britain and Germany and I deemed it my duty to enlist in the army. I joined the colours on 1st of Sepr and was sent to our drafting station a place called Nigg in the north of Scotland with the 3rd Battalion. I was 3 months there when I was transferred to the 9th batt in Aldershott then we went to Liss in Hants to private billets where we had a very nice time as our landladys were very kind to us and it more like a holiday than in training. We stayed 3 months there then shifted to Draycott a place about 5 miles from Swindon and her we also had some jolly days. In Swindon almost every church was giving free teas to soldiers and I never forgot to make the most of it. Then we shifted to Parkhouse Camp on the Salisbury Plains and it was a very dreary place and we began to wish to go to the front. We had not long to wait however for after an inspection by Lord Kitchener then another by the King we were sent to the front. We were landed in Bologne on the 8th July and we did not half make a noise coming through the town. We entrained there to a place called Moulle about 60 miles behind the firing line and marched to the firing line in four days. We went into the trenches on the 28th July for two days only then the time for the big advance to come and we were given a whole months rest. We had a full weeks warning that we were going to make an attack and our battalion led the 15th Division over the parapet. I was a bomb thrower and was right in front. As soon as the Huns saw us they put up fight and we had to bomb them out there hole like so many rats. Two Germans about 15 yards from me began to wave the white flag but we knew their treacherous nature and dropped the one with the flag. The other of course saw he had to fight and lifted a bomb which he landed among my legs and I think I turned two or three times then fell. I lay for two or three hours as they were shelling our trenches then when it slackened I made my way back to the dressing station.
Pte William McIvor
9th Black Watch
It was on the 18th of December that we arrived in France at a place called Le Havre and after a day or two we arrived in the trenches at a place called Bethune to try our hand with the Germans we had not been in long before the Germans got the sort of getting the wind up and they put three of our men out of action before they had been in the firing line half an hour. Well I can tell you that it made us all feel rather funny but as time went on we got used to the shrapnel and Bullets passing on and we were still in the trenches and finaly the day of all days dawn upon us that was Christmas day. Well the papers gave it that we were having the time of our lives but I can tell you that our Christmas dinner Consistard of Buly Beef and Biscuits. Very nice too I can tell and on the top of that we had a very warm time of it the Germans shelling us almost all the day long. I remember it very well as I lost a chum that day killed on the spot.
Pte. A. Bateman
I am writing the follow account of my worst experience during the present war, I wish to point out that minor details, such as the times certain incidents happened how many men were killed, or the spot in which they fell, cannot be entered into. In fact, many a time whilst actually in the trenches I could not have told you the date, nor the day of the week, so lost were we to the routine of ordinary life. In my opinion any soldier who has been through a hard gruelling fight (the decision of which has hung in the balance for two or three days) who can recount his experiences as fluently as a well rehearsed piece – even to the minor details either has a marvellous memory or else an imaginative brain. Broad facts will suffice for this account.
About the beginning of April the 27th Division of which our regiment is a unit, relieved a French Division. Our regiment took up a position at Zonnibeke which is, as near as I can guess, north east of Ypres. This part of the lines was peculiarly shaped, being something like a horse shoe with the bend in towards the German line. We were sitting at the top of this bend – a perilous position for being surrounded and out off – as future events proved. Everything went well + we had a fairly quiet time for almost three weeks.
One evening late in April the news came through to our trench that the Germans had launched a gas attack on the French lines beyond St. Julien and that the French, having nothing with which to combat the gas, had to retire having a gap of four miles in the line. This was pretty serious news to us because it meant that our left flank, which rested on the bottom of the horseshoe, was entirely uncovered and the Germans pouring through the gap in thousands. The only thing that could be done was for the troops on the left to fight it out on the ground they stood, and check the German advance as long as possible, until reinforcements came up. These arrived in the shape of the gallant Canadians, who threw themselves on the enemy and battered them right and left. They not only brought the advance to a standstill, but pushed the Germs back a good distance. Still the situation was desperate. Our left flank, exhausted after holding on against nearly six times their own numbers were being gradually forced back. About this time we got the order that a counter-attack was to be made, and our regt was told to keep up a rapid and continuous fire on the German line, so as to divert the attention of their artillery from their attack. The ruse succeeded, but didn’t we pay a price! I should think all the German artillery on the Western Front turned their guns on us in spite at being so easily fooled.
We were now being shelled from front and sides, in fact they were coming from all directions and our trenches were beginning to look like scrap heaps. The casualties were running high so it was decided to retire in order to straighten out the line. This was done during the night and the trenches we retired to were in an awful condition – no cover on back or front. In the morning, when the Germans found we had taken fresh diggings, they began to advance towards us. We got them at a thousand yards, it was like shelling peas. They continued to push on in spite of this murderous fire of shrapnel + bullets, continually bringing up reinforcements to replace those who had fallen. We finally brought them to a standstill about two hundred yards away. There they commenced to dig themselves in. Looking back over that thousand yards of ground I can honestly say that I never wish to see another sight. It was a vast shambles, bodies lying everywhere. That advance had cost them a lot more than they ever care to remember. It was now our turn, whilst the enemy were digging themselves in, their artillery kept up an intense covering fire on our trenches. Their range was accurate. They seemed to drop them where they wished. We could neither go forward nor backward, we just say there and waited for the shells to come crashing in on top of us. That night we had a roll call, and out of a battalion of 700 we mustered seventy eight. I got a shrapnel bullet through my left shoulder for my share of the honours. This is an account of the part we took, in what will be known in future history, as the Second Battle of Ypres.
H. Duffy Cpl. 4th K.R.Rifles Corps. 25/9/1915
The library acquired this book of accounts through purchase in 2016.