Downton Abbey fans will remember Lady Sybil in action as a Red Cross nurse helping wounded soldiers.
In our archives, we’ve found letters from one of our nurses who sheds more light on the difficulties of nursing, as well as some of the lighter moments.
According to our records, Miss Dorothy M Robinson, daughter of Major General Sir C W Robinson KCB (ex Rifle Brigade), was a nurse at Waverley Abbey Military Hospital in Farnham, Surrey.
Dorothy tells her mum about the trouble she has to go through to get a bath, the jokes wounded servicemen play on each other, and the nervous anticipation everyone feels when the Zeppelin warning bell goes off one night.
Here you can see some of Dorothy’s letters, or read the transcript below.
- Did your ancestors volunteer during the First World War? Search for your family in our records.
- Meet our most famous war-time volunteers: Agatha Christie, EM Forster and Vera Brittain
First World War nurse letters 1915-1916
December 3rd, 1915
My dearest Mother
Thank you so much for forwarding Joan’s letter. I am glad she is getting on so well. I think that all things considered it is much better that Gladys Goument is not coming here. Her cousin really made a very bad character for herself and as everybody knows it and would associate Gladys with it, it would not be very nice for her.
I met another Waverley Abbey girl at the station and drove up in her motor and sent the two lots of boxes on the cab that came to meet me! Jamie met me in the Hall and I could not see the Commandant as she was out, since then I’ve tried four times to see her, and always hit the time she is out. I really can’t make another effort as I shouldn’t know what to say when I did see her, all this time after my arrival!!
I am sleeping in what is known as the Cubicles. It is a large room divided into seven cubicles and is just above the stables. Now the stables are used as a laundry, so you can imagine there is no fear of my being cold at night. They really are awfully nice cubicles, and the bed is a very comfy one, but I’m exceedingly glad I had the electric torch with me that Daddy gave me on my birthday as you have to find your way in the dark across a very cobbly and at present very puddly courtyard, through the wash tubs of the laundry and up a sort of wooden staircase! The fun comes when you want a bath and have to run across the afore said courtyard in your nightdress (I usually put on a coat!) with your towels etc. Jamie is sleeping in the house and would have asked if I could be up in her room, only the spare bed there was so very lumpy, she thought she could not commit me to it!
I am in a ward known as the Lady of the Lake with two other smaller wards attached to it called Abbot A and Abbot B. One thing I shall know the names of some at least of Scott’s novels as a result of being here. Jamie is 2nd nurse and I’m third which is a ripping arrangement. She is supposed more or less to be in the Abbot ward while I’m in Lady of the Lake. As a matter of face we hop pretty freely between the two. As there are wardmaids under us, we have all the nice part of the work without any of the other!
Yesterday an officer brought over some men of his regiment and they gave a variety entertainment. They were most clever. A conjuror, a musician and a ventriloquist came. All the patients were taken into the Monastry Hall. The ones that could not move were put on stretchers on the floor and the others were in chairs etc. They enjoyed themselves most awfully. Jamie and I only saw a small part at the end as we had a whole lot of dressings etc to prepare, but to judge from the cheering and laughing that went on it must have been a most brilliant performance. I think it was a very good idea of the officer’s myself as he could select the most suitable men, and they naturally know exactly the sort of thing that amuses Tommies.
How are you all getting on? I hope nothing new has turned up which requires a vast amount of energy to meet it!
Please give my love to Daddy and Charlie.
Your loving daughter
Jamie and I are getting quite expert at calling each other Beverley and Gaisford. I occasionally omit to answer but that is a minor detail. Jamie’s day off is Monday and mine is Tuesday.
February 2nd, 1916
My dear Mother and Daddy,
Very many thanks for your letter. I told Jamie about Jack and she was very pleased. You must have had quite a thrilling time what with Jack and Bob both popping in. I am so glad that Bob managed to get leave, though I wish it were for more than five days.
Jamie went up this morning. It really was dreadful. We were half afraid she would not be able to go at all. A new man developed alarming symptoms and the doctor was puzzled to know whether he was in for rheumatic fever or spotted fever. Of course he was packed off at once and there was a great carbolisation in his ward and all of us who had been near were vigorously sprayed with the antidote (a vile process).
We have not heard definitely, but it is not thought to be spotted fever and the doctor thinks that even if it is it is safe to go about.
I am only telling you all this as Jamie had to write to Aunt Esmé about it and I was afraid you might hear a distorted account and be alarmed. If anything of that sort did happen you may be sure I’d always let you know the exact truth about it.
I am feeling very cross as a patient of ours has been whisked off by the Cambridge. He was not in the least fit to travel, but after much perseverance there had been a distinct improvement the last 2 days. The doctor was wild at having to send him as it was positively dangerous. What Jamie will say I can’t imagine.
I am just going to have a bath. Hurrah! The 2nd in ten days! Quite a luxury.
Your loving daughter
P.S.1 I am enclosing Joan’s cable and was so glad to see it.
P.S.2 I am so glad Dr Cockburn has given you a tonic. I hope you are taking it! I have put my name down on the list for March.
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
P.S. It is too distressing about Cotterel. Maids really are appalling just now.