“Today the sky is like a pale egg-shell, and aeroplanes from two aerodromes are droning round the hill. I think from time to time, ‘Is he still alive?’”
They might have been the words of a young woman anxious about her lover, but they weren’t. They were the words of a nurse, who couldn’t shake off her concern for a gravely ill patient when she left work.
Enid Bagnold came from a very privileged background, she had been to art school, she had worked as a journalist, and when the Great War came she became a VAD, trained in first aid and simple nursing care in to work in military and convalescent hospitals.
‘Diary Without Dates’ is her account of the time she spent in one, unnamed, hospital. It’s not a diary in the usually expected form. There are, as the title suggests, no dates and no real clues to the passage of time; it is a simple, ongoing account of her experience; almost a stream of consciousness.
And so the background is a little fuzzy, but that is all to the good as it brings the details, the observations into sharp focus.
With limited skills, and limited resources there is not a great deal that Enid can do, but she takes care to do whatever she can and she enjoys the camaraderie that she finds with many of her colleagues.
She is critical of the professional nurses she works with finding them heartless, confounded that they seem untouched by the death and by the terrible injuries that they see. In time though she begins to understand the need to keep some degree of reserve, the need for self-preservation, but she never quite forgives what she sees as their lack of compassion.
She never loses her compassion for the men she looks after, never forgets that each man is an individual, with a life, a story, a family … And she finds herself horribly torn, between wanting more to do and not wanting to see more injured bodies, injured souls.
And that compassion makes her critical. Of the effort put into keeping up appearances for wealthy visitors. Of the differences in treatment for officers and enlisted men. Of the offhand treatment of many concerned relations …
But this isn’t a diatribe: it is a full account of one woman’s experience, one woman’s war.
But it was brave to write what she did, while the war was still going on, and to take it to William Heinneman himself.
He published Diary Without dates in 1918, and Enid Bagnold was sacked for daring for it. She saw out the war as an ambulance driver, and then she married and found success as a novelist.
But this little book remains: one woman’s account of her war, written as she lived through it.