‘We nurses tried not to be scared because we were on duty’

Joan Gray
Joan Gray
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They were the unsung heroes of the Second World War, but now two projects are celebrating the frontline nurses. Sarah Freeman reports.

Joan Gray is the proud owner of a vast collection of mismatched badges and buttons. Each one belonged to a soldier treated by the 92-year-old during her time as a nurse in the Second World War. Not only do they act as a memory of the soldiers she cared for, they also represent their gratitude for her kindness during their darkest hours.

In recognition of the vital role nurses played both at home and overseas, the first dedicated social history of nurses during the period has just been published. The collection tells the tales of ordinary women, like Joan, who worked tirelessly in difficult conditions.

“We tried not to be squeamish,” says Joan. “We would always give them a gentle smile. We’d tell them their wound was looking good, or, if it wasn’t, talk to them about how we were going to help it heal. Even if they didn’t understand, it didn’t matter.”

Joan started her training as a nurse shortly before her 18th birthday. After working at various hospitals throughout the country, by her mid-20s she was on the look out for new experiences.

“My friends and I decided to join the army nurses,” Joan explains. “Two of us were accepted in the QAs – the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Nursing Corps. We knew it was going to be tough, and it was just as tough as we expected.”

On June 15, 1944, just nine days after D-Day, Joan and her colleagues crossed the channel in a boat as part of a ‘landing craft infantry’ and arrived at a hospital camp close to French town Bayeux. Nursing and living under canvas, Joan’s physical and mental strength was tested to the limit.

“At night we slept two nurses in one tent. There was one narrow little bit in the middle and one narrow bit at the front which was taken up with our trunks,” she says. “Being so close to the [front line], the war felt very close. We tried not to be scared as we were on duty and that meant putting on a brave face. All our work was done thinking about how we would deal with the patients, so that took our thoughts off our own fears. At one point we had some foreign soldiers there – Germans. When they arrived, my first decision was that they were not going to be the enemy. They were going to be patients and nothing else. The soldiers were very grateful. They wanted to give you something to say thank you, but they had nothing except for little badges, or a button off their uniform. ‘Remember me by this’, they’d say. Whenever I look at them it always takes me back to that time – you never forget.”

Joan had not been working long in France when she was brought face to face with the harsh realities of war. “I was posted to a psychiatric hospital on the other side of Bayeux. I said, ‘But I don’t know anything about psychiatric patients’. It only took one day for me to love it. I think it was quite a relief not to have the bodily injuries. It suited me down to the ground.”

It is memories like these which are recorded in Sisters and which those behind the Wartime Memories Project are keen to collect.

The website is a treasure trove of first hand recollections of those who served in the Second World War and new contributions are being added all the time.

“We were told that we had to try and get these men to talk,” says Joan. “Even though they were weeping and confused, we tried to get them to tell us about what they had been through.

“You had to treat them very sweetly, with a gentle smile. You could usually get them to come round, but it took a long time for many men.”

With the psychological implications of warfare still 
not fully understood, nurses 
like Joan had to try to offer 
their assistance with little precedent or prior training.

“What these men had been through was extreme. I always remember this lovely young man who had been sat in the front of a tank when they came in line of enemy fire. His friend’s head was blown clean off – it fell on to his lap. I don’t need to offer an explanation as to why he was so disturbed. There were a lot of tears there.”

Like many of the Queen Alexandra nurses, Joan’s memories of the wartime hospital wards lived on long after peace had been declared. “I have also always been proud of how I treated everybody the same, no matter where they came from,” she says. “We would benefit from treating war like that today, to learn to do things peacefully, with kindness.”

Sisters, Memories From The Courageous Nurses Of World War Two by Barbara Mortimer is published by Hutchinson, priced £18.99. Available now. To find out more about the Wartime Memories project go to www.wartimememoriesproject.com.