Sisters of the Somme by Penny Starns is a non-fiction title relaying the history of a battle hospital set up in Northern France during WW1 by the Order of St John. Using extensive records, logs and diaries the author tries to convey what it might have been like to be working in the hospital at the time and especially at the time of the Battle of the Somme.
Some volunteer nurses and other staff are followed and we read extracts from letters and diaries which show their experience both as medical practitioners and as people caught up in the carnage. These glimpses are poignant and give us an insight into the extreme conditions under which people worked as well as the things they did to retain their humanity in very trying circumstances. It seems hard to believe that they could go from wards full of dying young men to performing plays and holding dances but you begin to see how much that sort of respite must have been needed.
Other parts of the book tell the story of the hospital and also the types of injuries suffered by the soldiers. Surprisingly, these changed as the war progressed and the book also gives us some insight into the development of treatments and changes in attitude to various conditions. It is hard to read about extremely disfiguring and life changing injuries, battlefield amputations and young men left to die because nothing could be done. Those with mental trauma caused by the war were considered weak or malingering or even as cowardly, and some were shot for lack of moral fibre or desertion. There was also a large number of soldiers who did cause their own injuries as well as a surprising number who had sexually transmitted diseases.
The book is well told and caused me to think about lots of things that I had not previously considered. I suspect that somethings were glossed over a bit because apart from one named person everyone seemed to behave very well and honourably. I also found the continual reminder of class and the different expectations of officers and soldiers, nurses and volunteers and even women and men to be jarring when they occurred.
This revealed a side of WW1 I had not really considered previously. I am still not sure where I got this book but I can see why it caught my fancy. I really do wish though that it had had some illustrations – I would very much have liked to see these people and the place in which they worked.