WWI nurse Mabel’s diaries reveal lives of gruesomely injured soldiers

WWI nurse Mabel's diaries reveal lives of gruesomely injured soldiers

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) WWI nurse Mabel Earp married George Leach, the wounded soldier who was discharged from the Army in 1918 (2) A sketch from the diaries belonging to Nurse Mabel during WWI (3) British nurse Edith Cavell was executed by Germany for helping around 200 wounded allied soldiers escape German occupied Belgium during WWI (4) 1st page of the Pocket sized book made by Dora Pimley for her lover Osborne Wrigley, a young soldier from Manchester. (5) Dora went on to marry WWI soldier Osborne after the war and settled in Stockport     

The military and religious roots of present-day nursing are evident today in quite a few countries. For example, senior female nurses are called sisters in the UK. Phoebe, the first known nurse was mentioned in the Bible, Romans 16:1. As the first visiting nurse, Deaconess Phoebe was sent to Rome by St. Paul during the early years of Christian Church. Both men and women were taken care of by her. Women were mobilized in unprecedented numbers during WWI on all sides. To replace the men sent to war, majority of the deployed women were drafted into civilian works & greatly expanded ammunition factories, thousands supported military with roles such as nurses. Some women in Russia participated in combat as well.

About 5.09 million out of the total 23.8 million women in Britain were working to support the war by 1914. Britain was struggling for labor forces as 3 million men went to WWI battlefronts. There were over 260,000 women working as farm workers by the end of 1917.  10,500 nurses were enrolled in Britain during WWI. 21,480 American nurses served in the U.S. and overseas hospitals in the war. Over 2,800 Canadian women served as nurses during the World War I. 5,000 women served in the Russian women’s battalion during the WWI. Online edition of Britain’s renowned tabloid news paper, The Daily Mail reported that the recently discovered 5 illustrated diaries of WWI nurse Mabel Earp from Runcorn in England had revealed the lives of gruesomely injured soldiers during the WWI.

Nurse Mabel worked at Frodsham Auxiliary Hospital & Oaklands military hospital in Cheshire as a volunteer nurse during the WWI. Soldiers’ gratitude notes, drawings and illustrations in her 5 notebooks offer an interesting insight into the lives at home and horrifying injuries suffered at the battle front trenches. When Mabel Earp volunteered to work as a nurse, she was in her early 30s. She was an artist too and took her sketch books to the hospitals. She drew or painted rural scenes to cheer up the patients or drew scenes described to her by the soldiers. Her notebooks would often contain poems or notes written by her patients. Some patients described what they had seen in the battlefields, others paid tribute to her nursing skills.

One note described injuries of a soldier. It was apparently written by 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ Lance Corporal William Beech, who was injured on 7th October 1914 at Ypres. ‘(I) was wounded in bayonet charge & had to have his right leg off…’ He wrote. The soldier further advised other men not to get married but to go to war and ensure Germany’s defeat first. He also paid tribute to the kindness of the nurses.

1st Duke of Cornwall regiment’s Private Cooksey wrote ‘I got my feet frost bitten in the worst trenches at Le Bassee’. 1st King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment’s Private H Thacker wrote a poem. One verse of the poem read ‘Liberty is in every blow, let’s do or die’.

Cheshire Military Museum’s Caroline Mannion said that the notebooks had come to them from another museum & they had since been trying to get a better idea of who Mabel was. She added ‘It is a fascinating collection of artifacts’.

WWI nurse Mabel married George Leach, the wounded soldier who was discharged from the Army in February 1918, nine months before the Armistice. It is not sure whether he was one of her patients. Civil engineer George had served during the WWI with the Royal Engineers. Due to his wounds sustained in July 1917, he was discharged from the Allied forces. Aged 68, Mabel Earp died on Christmas Eve 1947. The sketches and notebooks of WWI nurse Mabel Earp would be displayed next April by Cheshire Military Museum as part of the Great Stories of War project commemorating the WWI centenary.

A century after written, personal diaries & letters belonging to the soldiers are being digitized for the first time & made available online. The digitized materials include photographs, newspapers, diaries, burial records and letters. In one emotional letter a young soldier thanks his mother for a cake before describing how his friend was crushed & burnt alive when a trench collapsed. Another soldier thanked his ‘dearest mother’ for sending cigarettes and requested people to send hundreds of Woodbine cigarettes as the men in the front were craving for smoking. A school diary during the war described that the students were instructed to collect sheep’s wools and make blankets for the soldiers in the battle front.

Newspaper ads are also being uploaded online, ads like people offering rum, wine puncheons & empty bacon boxes for sale to make ends meet back home. Herefordshire county online database ‘Herefordshire in the Great War’ is uploading some of these digitized artifacts.

A pocket sized book made by a young British woman, Dora Pimley for her lover Osborne Wrigley, a young soldier from Manchester, has been made public for the first time by the couple’s daughter in law, 91 year old Sally Wrigley. Osborne Wrigley was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers in September 1914. He took the book made by Dora with him into the battle front and survived the 1914-1918 conflict. Osborne & Dora went on to marry. Sally Wrigley, who married the couple’s late son, Ross, said that she wanted to share the book as it was an amazing artifact that survived the WWI trenches. She also said that Osborne Wrigley never discussed his time in the trenches as those had been so horrifying for him to remember. ‘The book must have meant a lot to him’ she added.

The book was dated 3rd August 1916 and it makes romantic references to Osborne being the prince and Dora a princess. Dora Pimley, in a heartfelt plea wrote ‘Dear Osborne, have you received the message of this tiny book? I think you have, for you always have heard my call.’ The couple married soon after the war and lived in Stockport. Within 2 years of each other, they died in the late 1970s while they were living with their son Ross. After Dora Pimley’s death, among her possessions the little book was discovered along with Osborne Wrigley’s uniform badges and war medals. Sally Wrigley said that Osborne & Dora had been very devoted to each other throughout their entire lives.

Video story: Like WWI nurse Mabel, Red Cross nurse Dorothea Crewdson also wrote a diary with hand drawn illustrations during her 4 year stay in northern France starting from 1915.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE