Book Review - Nursing Through Shot and Shell

Posted on on 28 January 2016
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Author: Beatrice Hopkinson and Dr Vivien Newman
Publication Date: 02 June 2015

Publisher's Description:

'Nursing Through Shot and Shell is the previously unpublished memoir of Beatrice Hopkinson, who served in France as a Territorial Nursing Sister from 1917-19. Beatrice worked close to the front line at casualty clearing stations, and her poignant account reveals the intense strain: 'I never realized what the word “duty” meant until this War. To stand at one's post, never flinching and trying to keep the boys cheerful; all the time wondering when our time would come.' 

The memoir reveals the lighter side of wartime life, with entertainments, travel and enduring friendships. Beatrice also describes the practical realities of war in vivid detail – sleeping in dug outs, dodging bombs and avoiding rats 'as big as a good sized kitten'. A fascinating, close-up view of one women's life during wartime.'

Centenary News Review:

Review by: Eleanor Baggley, Centenary News Books Editor

Beatrice Hopkinson’s war diary opens with the admission that she has ‘no literary talent’.  I find the absence of literary flair is important in this memoir because it allows Hopkinson to focus on a truthful and realistic recounting of events without embellishment. Although this will make Nursing Through Shot and Shell appeal to a different audience than more narrative-focused memoirs, I found this book to be refreshingly clear-cut and factual.

The book is split into two parts. The first is an introduction from Dr Vivien Newman who is an expert on women’s experiences during the First World War. The second part is Hopkinson’s diary, which runs from the start of her service in 1914 to her demobilization in September 1919.

Vivien Newman’s detailed introduction both provides a history of the role of nurses in the First World War and shines further light on the events Hopkinson narrates. At times it slips into a running commentary, to the extent that it almost becomes a repetition of Hopkinson’s words; nevertheless I was grateful for the introduction as it sets the diary against the history of the Army Medical Services.

Hopkinson began her career as a fever nurse in the County Hospital Lincoln. Wards at the hospital were commandeered by the War Office in September 1914 and she found herself caring for wounded soldiers – ‘our poor boys’, as Beatrice calls them. Newman’s introduction provides welcome detail surrounding the Army Medical Services and their function. The true aim of the service was to return a man to active duty, which meant that the most seriously injured were often tended to last, if at all.

In 1917 Hopkinson learned that she was ‘for Foreign Service’, something she would have volunteered for. Her service began at St Omer, but her nursing skills and calm temperament were soon recognised and she became part of the rapid response teams moving between casualty clearing stations.

Hopkinson’s diary demonstrates the true reality of front line nursing and the struggle to keep both her patients and herself alive. She nursed through air raids and the bombing of Allied hospitals by the German army. She talks of ‘dabbling in a sea of blood’ after receiving the patients wounded in a direct hit on the 58th General Scottish Hospital.

Hopkinson does also illustrate the lighter side of nursing on the front lines. She talks of the relationships she has with her patients, her trips around Belgium and France, and even one ride in a tank. She pokes fun at herself and her situation, adding a wry comedy to an otherwise emotionally wraught lifestyle.

Nursing Through Shot and Shell is a fascinating if harrowing read. It details the stark and unembellished experiences of a nurse on the front lines. Thanks to Vivien Newman’s introduction Hopkinson’s experiences are set against the history of nursing at war, which adds further depth and interest to an already enthralling book. Beatrice Hopkinson survived her service and, after her demobilization, emigrated to Canada to marry Dr Charles Aylen whom she met at the front – a happy ending for someone who gave so much.

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