“They am­pu­tated a leg, and I had to take the wretched thing away”

BBC History Magazine - - The First World War -


Mar­jorie was the first nurse we filmed, in the mid-90s. We in­ter­viewed her in a nurs­ing home, where we were sur­prised to find her smok­ing in her room. She was an in­domitable char­ac­ter from a well-to-do back­ground, who had smoked since she was a teenager and had no in­ten­tion of giv­ing up now. She had started smok­ing when she be­came one of the ‘Roses of No Man’s Land’: young, un­paid vol­un­teer nurses who earned a rep­u­ta­tion for their care and com­pas­sion for in­jured and dy­ing sol­diers.

Like many oth­ers, Mar­jorie was so keen to serve that she lied about her age. “I was in­ter­viewed over a dou­ble desk and he said: ‘How old are you?’ so I said: ‘20, sir,’ and he said: ‘How old?’ I can see him now look­ing over the top with his glasses, and I said: ‘20, sir.’ I saw him write down: ‘Age 20, ap­par­ent age 16,’ and I said: ‘I know you’ve writ­ten it down, sir, in black and white – you can’t al­ter it – but it isn’t 16, it’s 17.’ And he grinned and left it as it was and passed me.”

When I got to the front, you were called the dirty nurse and you had to do all the mucky things. They’d just am­pu­tated a leg and they put it in a bucket and I had to take the wretched thing away down to the in­cin­er­a­tor. I didn’t like it – you had no idea what a leg weighs when am­pu­tated. I had to lug it with the foot stick­ing up all the way down to the in­cin­er­a­tor. I didn’t en­joy that at all.

The girls of my age were all in­ex­pe­ri­enced girls, but of course in war you do dif­fer­ent things from what you do in other times. You just carry on and do your duty.” At the end of the in­ter­view, Mar­jorie lit up again. Sadly, she died a year later. It was an hon­our to have recorded her story.

Mar­jorie lied about her age to join up – and en­coun­tered the war’s grue­some re­al­ity as a nurse at the front

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