Friday favorites: Letters from a British nurse in World War One

Up until a couple of years ago, I worked for the British Red Cross as a writer and editor. One of my favorite activities was talking to our archivist and finding interesting items that had been collected throughout the organization’s 145+ year history.

I thought you might like these letters, which our archivist pointed out to me just before I moved to the Netherlands. They’re letters from a Red Cross nurse who volunteered in Surrey during the First World War. Many wounded British soldiers were evacuated back to Britain to recover, and the author of these letters, Miss Dorothy M Robinson, nursed them back to health at Waverley Abbey Military Hospital.

You can read the original documents on Scribd, but I’ve also transcribed my favorite – the third in the series – below so it’s easier to read. I love it because she talks about so many things: how long she can make £2 last, what kinds of practical jokes the soldiers got up to, and what happens when a Zeppelin comes close. And, of course, the problem with servants. Her last line kills me every time I read it.

I originally wrote about these for the Red Cross because it was when season 2 of Downton Abbey was on TV in the UK, and Lady Sybil became a Red Cross nurse. So if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, here’s another upper-crust young woman doing her bit for the country.

And if you just like history, I hope you enjoy these letters.


4.30am March 8th 1916

My dearest Mother

Very many thanks for the £2, your letter and all the other various letters you forwarded.

I was very interested in Joan’s on-night duty. It certainly is a most topsy turvy life and it feels most strange to have meals in the middle of the night and odder still to go to bed at 10 o’clock in the morning!

I have been having a most amusing time this evening. Tomorrow is discharge day and the men always behave badly in honour of those departing – if they can.

Three of them evidently thought they’d see if they could hide in somebody else’s bed in one of the other wards and come back late without my knowing. I don’t usually go round their end much between 8.30-10, but being Tuesday night I though I would and went in about 9.15.

Of course I found three empty beds. Knowing the men in them were good sorts and wouldn’t do anything really bad, I said nothing but took away all their bedclothes – which very much upset the gravity of the other patients.

About 10 o’clock they came back and started hunting quietly for them, not wishing me to hear and thinking one of the other men had played a joke on them. After a bit, one of the men hinted that I might have them and of course they had to come in and ask for them.

I really meant to scold them but they were so sheepish and taken aback I had to laugh instead. However, I hardly think they’ll try these games again. The monkeys had gone to the ward at the very farthest end of the hospital and had lain under the bedclothes of two of the men there – so that there were three in one bed; how the nurse there did not notice an unusual bulkiness I can’t imagine. But they got back without being spotted for which I was rather glad.

Wednesday night – that is tomorrow night, is my night off and I’m spending it with the Oakes, which I am rather looking forward to.

We have just had another fall of snow.

By the way, the Zeppelins came over in our direction – at least one did and the Zeppelin hooter at Aldershot sounded the alarm at 1.50. You can imagine how thrilled we were, but they never came actually over us, but were at Frimley.

After a bit we telephoned to Aldershot camp (as hospitals are allowed to know on account of the patients) but they had not heard which way it was going. In ½ an hour we telephoned to the Flying Corps Headquarters at Aldershot and they said that they had just had a message from the Home Office to say the raid had been beaten back and we need take no further precautions. It appears that they did not get as far inland as they meant to.

The £2 will last me about three weeks. Boarding fee and washing together come to about 14/- a week – not more.

Best love to Daddy,
Your loving daughter

Dorothy

P.S. It is too distressing about Cotterel. Maids really are appalling just now.

How did your family experience World War One? Do you have any old family letters? The First World War seems like it would be a wonderful setting for a romance novel – do you know of any good ones?

7 thoughts on “Friday favorites: Letters from a British nurse in World War One

  1. I love the glimpse into another time that a letter like this allows. Thank you for sharing it! Sadly, so many families — including my own — didn’t consider keeping letters. I am guessing they never could imagine anyone being interested in their (seemingly) mundane lives.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Suz! And it does make me sad to think of all the family history that has been lost over the years. My grandma’s cleaning out her house, and she told me, “No one will want all this old junk. I’m just going to throw it away.” I jumped all over her and said I wanted anything that showed our family history – letters, certificates, newspaper clippings, medals, whatever. She can get rid of the silverware and anything else, but I will sob if we lose our only connections with our ancestors.

  2. How funny–I actually stumbled upon the Scribd file a few weeks ago during my research of Red Cross in WWI. It’s a testament of fortitude that these nurses could still worry about the mundane in the face of so much violence and terror.

    As for WWI romances, Julie Rowe’s Saving the Rifleman is a recent release!
    Evangeline Holland recently posted..New Cover for Lady Myddelton’s LoverMy Profile

    1. What a small world, Evangeline! If your research makes it into a novel one day, please let me know. I’d love to read it even more, as I’m a Red Cross history nerd! And thanks for the book rec!

  3. I actually do have a few short notes from one of my great-uncles (I think to either his mother or sister) – they were all in Northern Ireland (Bainbridge, Co, Down) then. I don’t recall that he said very much – I’ll have to root them out again and take another look.

  4. Hi Kat

    Do you know how many letters there were? So amazing having history presented like this.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Sara

    1. Hi Sara! Glad you enjoyed it. I don’t know how many letters she sent in total, but the Red Cross archives had three letters, if I remember correctly.

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