In 2015 Prof Alison Fell (University of Leeds) embarked on a new AHRC-funded research project, supported by the Gateways to the First World War engagement hub at the University of Kent focusing on Sister Edie Appleton’s war diaries. Alongside Prof Christine Hallett (University of Manchester), Alison is helping to develop a new play based on the diaries. The collaboration is with Sara Robinson – a freelance theatre producer, Project Director of Somme 100 and Edie’s great-great-niece.
Edie’s diaries, extracts from which are available online are a wonderfully evocative record of the trials, as well as the occasional pleasures, of nursing at the front. Here’s one of her vivid depictions of wounded and traumatized soldiers in General Hospital No 1 at Étretat, a seaside town 20 miles north of Le Havre, in September 1916:
September 11th. “We had a convoy of 399 in … only 70 wounded. Far the most of the sick were suffering badly from shell shock. It is sad to see them, they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates… who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of it. One fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers, and he had to push past men with their arms blown off or wounded. He had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs.”
As a trained nurse rather than a volunteer VAD nurse, Edie had medical skills, and had developed the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with the physical and emotional suffering of her patients. She rarely lets slip any moments of despair, although it’s clear she was under enormous pressure. She had a lively sense of humour, and included some wonderful sketches. A key theme is her love of swimming, which provided some relief from the intensity of her nursing work.
The challenge the project addresses is how to turn Edie’s diaries into theatre that can engage a wide audience. The creative team meet regularly with Alison and Christine, and consult a range of primary sources, in order to develop an innovative production. The play will highlight the highs and lows of her nursing, showing in particular the importance of comradeship between the nurses as they treated the First World War combatants.
(Kindly submitted by Prof Alison Fell)