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A Nurse in Wartime

Patrick Duffy

A diary kept by Mary Morris, a young Irish nurse working on the front line during the Second World War, may be worth revisiting against the background of the current pandemic and the contribution being made by today’s front-line medical workers. It also serves to rebalance the narrative, which, apart from some research by the likes of Mary Muldowney and Carol Acton, tends to ignore the contribution of women to the Allied war effort. A Very Private Diary was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2014. A new edition in paperback appeared last November.

Ireland was neutral on the side of the allies during WWII. Thousands of Irishmen and women contributed to the war effort, either in the armed services or as civilian workers. Among the emigrants to Britain were thousands of young women who went to work as nurses. Mary Mulry (later Morris) from Caltra in Galway was one such who aged eighteen went to train as a nurse in Guy’s Hospital in London.

Her diary (edited by Carol Acton) is an extraordinary document. Diaries come in all shapes and sizes – some are straightforward records of routine life, others are journals of uncommon adventures such as overseas travels, more are records of exceptional or life-changing experiences (as with diaries during the first and second world wars, or the 1916 Rising and War of Independence). When she headed to London in August 1939 to commence her nursing career, Mary planned to record this new chapter in her life away from her Galway home for the first time. Within a month she was witness to the outbreak of war and a life more extraordinary than she had expected that she was determined to document against all the rules.

Her experience encompassed many of the landmark events of the war – the “phoney war”, nursing the wounded from Dunkirk and the subsequent fear of invasion, the Battle of Britain that was waged over her head in Kent, to which her section had been moved from London. Her trips up to London took place during the Blitz, with the city around St Paul’s ablaze on New Year’s Eve 1940, for example: “the crackling heat of burning buildings, the uncanny quiet at times and the dull drone of the enemy planes above”. There were preparations for the invasion of Europe after she joined Queen Alexandra’s Nursing Reserves, and a fortnight after D-Day she clambered aboard a landing craft for Normandy where she nursed survivors of many nationalities of bloody battles, including Germans prisoners of war, in a tent hospital. She witnessed the destruction of Caen and surrounding districts, nursed traumatised survivors of Arnhem, transferred with the hospital to a convent in Louvain, then to Brussels and finally to Münster and Hamburg in Germany at the end of the war.

She provides acute observations on the unfolding story of war amid her exhausting nursing duties, shrouded in the excitement of a young woman in a swirl of life-changing events. In Normandy there was “ … so much destruction, and yet there is a feeling of constant chance and excitement. I should, I know, hate it all – and the human suffering is appalling – but I must admit to enjoying the excitement.”

She met many Irishmen serving – including a “crazy Irishman from Roscommon”, a bomber pilot with the RAF who has “all the traditional dislikes of the Irish for the British yet like thousands of other Irishmen he has joined them in this fight against Hitler” – and who was also apparently drawing an extra shilling a day because he spoke Irish.

She had close encounters with death in the London blitz in 1941: in the darkness of her hotel with fires and crashing glass outside she heard a whining shuddering “like an express train leaving a tunnel … the air shook with a volcanic rumbling, and a marble pillar in the centre of the room cracked like a tree trunk. In the maelstrom of dust, tumbling masonry and splintering woodwork, people were screaming … within seconds into the room there came a Niagara stream of plaster, dust, planking and chairs … The centre of the floor where the pillar had stood burst apart and the debris thundered down to the basement. There was one terrible cry of terror from the shelterers beneath.” Later, in 1944, a doodlebug exploded nearby as she rushed for shelter to the Underground: “Londoners are remarkably phlegmatic and carry on with their normal lives in between dodging the doodlebugs.”

When she got to France in June 1944 she recorded the extraordinary destruction. Around Cruelly (between Bayeux and Caen) “the devastation is terrible and we could hear the loud crackle of gunfire as usual. What an awful waste of life and property.” The parting of the clouds of dust near Bayeux “revealed huge tanks on the side of the road, black from burning, dozens of them with the dead crews hanging half in and half out of the turrets and escape hatches. There was mile after mile of destroyed armoured cars, trucks of all kinds, and always the dust, heat and stench of decaying maggot-ridden bodies.” Her tent hospital, in spite of the Red Cross on the roof, was strafed by the Luftwaffe. It is interesting to compare her notes of the destruction and chaos of the war in Normandy with the simultaneous diary of a French woman living a few kilometres away near Caen. The Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont: 1940-1944 (Random House, 1994) has identical descriptions of the dust, destruction, noise and terror of those days.

In their field hospital in Louvain in September 1944 they heard rumours of ill-treatment of Jews in Germany – she was to find out the truth later when she met her brother Michael, who had emigrated to America when she was nine and ended up in the US army in Normandy, where she met him. At a further meeting later in 1945, in Brussels, he told her of his terrible weeks in the mid-winter snow of the Ardennes and of his stumbling into the living nightmare of Buchenwald, where he and his colleagues vomited over and over as they picked out the dead from among the living.

Throughout her diary, Mary reflects on the singular impact of war on friendships – on the unsettling effect of patients and boyfriends that one got to know being torn away by the exigencies of the war – to hospital in England, to POW camps, back to the front. “The tempo of life is so urgent and swift in wartime and the characters transitory. Men and women come into orbit and then slip out of one’s life never to be seen again. One wonders, have they been killed or just posted to another theatre of war?” The popularity of sentimental songs like Vera Lynn’s “We’ll meet again” and “Lili Marlene” reflect these disruptions she noted … “emotions and sentiments are intensified when every situation is constantly changing. Lovers, friends, even duties are here today and gone tomorrow.”

She had a frenetic social life of dances and parties both in England and France, where there were thousands of young men whose attentions, paid to the small groups of nurses, she acknowledged to be most gratifying. One even brought her on a trip to Waterloo and its museum where she was interested to see so many relics of another war. She had a string of army, navy and air force admirers until she met and married an English officer, Malcolm Morris.

Ireland, on her leave visits home, was experienced as a tranquil backwater in contrast to the upheaval and cataclysmic changes taking place in England and Europe. Her slow train journey home from Kingsbridge to Galway in 1940, however, sounds like a Percy French fantasy. “Time is totally irrelevant – only people matter. The driver knows everybody along the line, and stops the train if he sees someone, to enquire about their health, or that of their family, or to pick up a few squawking chickens to take to a friend … My poor dear native land is far too easy-going ever to be a force to be reckoned with.” Coincidentally, in a 1945 issue of The Bell, a young Irish engineer who worked for the American forces in England had similar sentiments and wanted to bring some of the big machines to Dublin to get rid of the ‘basemented past”, sweeping away all the old buildings and replacing them with a modern go-ahead city.

Mary was undoubtedly a feisty young woman and was equally irritated by snooty medical consultants, bossy matrons and fussy colonels with their “army bull”. One CO objected to her putting cradles over her amputees to prevent the bedclothes touching their stumps: “unmilitary” he said. In Germany in 1946 “we are not allowed out without a male escort. What an embarrassing situation, to be at the mercy of a mere male to take one out for a walk – rather like a dog.” In May 1946, she was reprimanded by a rail transport officer when she arrived in Münster for giving her stale sandwiches and issue chocolate to some thin and hungry German children who were begging for bread in the ruins of the city.

A Very Private Diary reflects well on Mary Morris’s education in Ireland, where she attended Caltra and Killasolan national schools before applying to Guy’s Hospital. Not many eighteen-year-olds have her facility with writing – she comes across as a woman of great intelligence, who was well-read, with a natural ability to write creatively and articulately with insight and compassion. On a tranquil evening in 1940 as she wrote on her balcony: “There is a fabulous view from here, right across the rich rolling weald of Kent, beautiful Cobbett country. Have enjoyed reading his Essays since I came here.” A couple of years later she discussed the poetry of Rupert Brooke with a boyfriend. In her spare time in Normandy she was reading Mein Kampf. Later she retrieved from her memory some lines of Tennyson to express a moment of exhilaration.  Not many eighteen- to nineteen-year-olds today can write like this: summoned to the matron’s office for a minor transgression, “I shivered with fear and anxiety as I waited to be admitted to the presence. She is such a terrifying figure as she sits behind her large desk in full regalia – severe navy dress with stiff starched collar, starched cap with frilly edges and a large bow tied under the medley of chins, all of them voicing disapproval.”

Dubliner Carol Acton, associate professor of literature at Waterloo University in Canada (and a graduate of TCD) was the editor who discovered the typescript in the Imperial War Museum and prepared it for publication. The diaries were originally in handwritten notebooks, as indicated in her daughter’s and granddaughter’s appended reminiscences, so the typescript may be a somewhat revised version by a more mature Mary, an exercise she would be perfectly entitled to carry out. Perhaps this might explain the rose-tinted memory of the train trip to Galway. Some passages would suggest later emendations expressing more mature reflections, or a later terminology by the author (for example, at the Ravensbrück trials, “a butch-looking woman went into the dock”), or a more polished recollection of some details.

In some cases, therefore, the editor’s introductory statement might perhaps be slightly overstated: “Diaries take us into the experience of life as it is lived from day to day precisely because, unlike memoirs, the events and feelings recorded are immediate; they have not been revised and rewritten through the lens of hindsight, nor can time blur their intensity …” During her training in 1940 Mary nursed an Irishwoman in her thirties, whom she described as an unwilling Catholic married to an Irish labourer who had six undernourished and ill-clad children, “one for every year of their marriage … Women should not be forced to have babies unless they are strong enough to bear them and rear them successfully.” As a young Irishwoman, she was ahead of her time. Later in 1945, when she is planning to marry her English officer, Malcolm Morris, she worried about artificial birth control, though she pointed to the misery of too many babies too quickly in impoverished Catholic homes.

A Very Private Diary is an extraordinarily readable and entertaining record, written with compassion and humanity, looking at the war from below which makes a refreshing change from the memoirs of generals and the analyses of historians. It joins a body of writing on the war that is especially well expressed by women – most memorably by Christabel Bielenberg in The Past is Myself (London: Corgi Books 1984).

1/2/2021

Patrick Duffy is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University.

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