Although usually a fan of diaries of Great War nurses I have a few reservations about this one though I admit to being a far from typical reader. It's not a diary in the strict sense; as the introduction points out it appears to have been written after the war had ended and Emma Duffin was back home in Belfast. With few dates it's hard at times to follow the entries in relation to the chronology of the war itself and relate them to individual military actions. The author is a fluent and descriptive writer and the book does a good job in portraying the small details of military hospital life not usually found elsewhere. No.2 General Hospital at Le Havre was one of the largest of the British military hospitals in France and very little information survives in official documents about its work and history during wartime. Emma Duffin adds greatly to the fine detail of the various buildings, their occupants and their general organisation and administration both in France and during her earlier time in Egypt. The photographs and illustrations accompanying the text are both relevant and excellent.
The original journal was a long one which has necessitated fairly strict editing. It's not possible for the reader to know what was omitted or how the decisions were made but overall I found the result rather depressing and lacking in light and shade. Almost entirely composed of descriptions of work on the wards, there is little mention of any days off, relaxation or pleasure. It could be that these were absent in the original or maybe thought unnecessary padding by the editor. In the event, Emma Duffin rarely seems to have enjoyed life as a VAD. She was constantly tired, worried, annoyed, overworked or irritable with the staff she worked with. She was extremely critical of many of the trained nurses to a point which is almost libellous. There were times when I wanted to shout at her to just pack it all in, go home and do something else. Her final words speak of 'a great experience, never to be regretted' but that certainly wasn't the impression I got from the book. There were also a number of errors both in the transcribing of surnames and in the footnotes which could have been easily remedied with a little more research. Those, however, will pass most people by without a second glance.
Previously unpublished diaries and accounts such as this are a welcome addition in an area that has been much neglected over time. They all have much to offer in supplying factual material unavailable elsewhere and adding a few more pieces to the incomplete jigsaw which is hospital life during the Great War. Overall this one left me excited, delighted, frustrated and eventually slightly disappointed, with an underlying feeling that I might have enjoyed the pages that were left out rather more than those eventually chosen for publication. Having said that, I will value it greatly for the new knowledge it brings.
The First World War Diaries of Emma Duffin: Belfast Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse
Trevor Parkhill (Editor)
Publisher: Four Courts Press Ltd