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From Seacole to the Somme: A week to remember nursing history

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I woke on Friday early enough to watch the ceremony to remember 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme, in which Britain suffered almost 60,000 casualties on the first day alone.

As well as being a moving experience, the events reminded me that a week earlier I had been hearing about the experiences of a First World War nurse.

“A picture emerged of a strong, compassionate nurse working in challenging conditions”

While at RCN Congress in Glasgow, I attended a fringe session titled Remembering the Somme: Sister Edith Appleton, frontline nurse.

I listened, admittedly with the occasional tear in my eye, as excerpts were read from the diary of sister Edith Appleton, who cared for the wounded in Northern France from 1914 to 1919. The session was presented by her great nephew Dick Robinson and his wife Lisa.

As one would expect, “Edie’s” diaries detailed all the horrors of the conflict, including the untimely deaths of many young men. But they also recorded what everyday life was like for the nurses working near the frontline, so near that they were sometimes evacuated due to shellfire, and when just trying to have a bath was difficult.

In addition, they included fascinating and humorous insights on her experiences of dealing with more senior colleagues, junior staff from the Voluntary Aid Detachment and unusual situations like working on an “ambulance train”.

A picture emerged of a strong, compassionate nurse working in challenging conditions – unique but no doubt also similar to the experiences of nurses working down the ages during times of military conflict.

Of course, last week also saw another event linking war and nursing – though it felt more of a celebration in many ways.

After 12 years of fundraising efforts, the statue commemorating the life and work of Mary Seacole was unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital during rare day of sunshine this summer.

The bronze statue not only honoured a heroine of the Crimean War but was also the first in the UK dedicated to a named black woman – long overdue, I would suggest.

It would be remiss of me to gloss over the fact that the run-up to the event attracted attention in the national media, after some academics questioned the attention being given to Mary Seacole and her credentials as a nursing pioneer – when compared to her contemporary Florence Nightingale.

“Many more people around the country – and the world – have now heard of Mary Seacole and her story”

But then, as the saying goes “there is no such thing as bad publicity. The merest whiff of controversy meant the story was picked up by the newspapers, which it probably would not otherwise have been. The result is many more people around the country – and the world – have now heard of Mary Seacole and her story.

Regardless of the academic debate, I was personally very pleased to see the statue finally I place, as I have been writing about the fundraising appeal since I joined Nursing Times nearly a decade ago.

I think Bernell Bussue, the Royal College of Nursing’s London regional director, explained Mary Seacole’s legacy best, describing her “as a symbol of nursing diversity throughout history”.

Because of historical records, we now know about the lives of a few individuals such as Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, Betsi Cadwaladr, Edith Appleton and Edith Cavell.

However, I just wanted to say thank you to nurses past and present, and from all nations, who have put themselves in harm’s way to help the casualties of war.

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