Thursday, June 20, 2024

New book shines a light on Ireland’s nurses in the Second World War

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Memories and records, as well as a roll of honour, of nurses from across Ireland has been compiled by the Royal College of Nursing Northern Ireland.

These nurses followed thousands of ships of Allied troops who landed in France on June 6 1944 amid intense fighting in the bid to liberate the nation from the Nazi Germany occupation.

Nurses endured the same conditions as troops, sleeping under canvas in frequently flooded and cold accommodation while working around the clock for the many casualties.

Nurses’ Voices From The Second World War: The Ireland Connection brings home their experiences from the start of the war to the end and caring for those liberated from concentration camps.

The nurses slept with their tin helmets close by while shelling and gunfire went on nearby. Conditions in winter were described as “particularly grim”, with rations of rum allocated to combat the cold.

Following the D-Day landings, Mary Murphy from Galway recalled: “As the battlefront extended, the hospitals moved forward to points where they were most needed.

“We were very busy for the first few months, sometimes working day and night with only a few hours’ rest.”

Mary Morris, from Co Galway, recounted “international wards of patients: Canadians, Americans, Poles, British as well as German prisoners of war” coming in waves from the battlefields.

They describe traumatic and life-changing injuries and shell shock.

The book records that during peak admissions from the battlefields, as many as 300 patients could be transferred out to make way for a further 400 admissions.

When wards ran out of beds, more tents were erected for additional beds and operating theatres worked constantly.

The availability of penicillin and advances in the storage and transmission of blood was described as having transformed medical care at the battlefields and were termed “crucial to improving care and treatment” while the allies pushed on to liberate further countries.

Violet M Armstrong from Cronroe, Co Wicklow was mentioned in despatches for gallant and distinguished service in north-west Europe.

Mary Baird from Belfast, who was one of the first nurses sent to France and followed the army to Germany, was awarded the Field Marshal Montgomery Certificate for outstanding devotion to duty.

While VE day 11 months later was celebrated, nurses continued to be challenged on the continent when the horror of the concentration camps was discovered.

The book records that nurses arriving at Belsen Bergen in northern Germany discovered 60,000 prisoners who were malnourished and suffering from diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera, as well as thousands of dead bodies.

It described the care of these patients as complex with small meals initially as attempting to eat normally after so much deprivation could be fatal.

“A number of hardened generals who had been engaged in all the heavy fighting from D-day to VE day remarked how nurses had not flinched when faced with the terrible task which confronted them but concentrated on the work at hand,” the book records.

Gertrude Moutray from Ballygawley, Co Tyrone was sent to Belsen Bergen.

However, her diary of the time keeps to detailing her arrival and accommodation.

The book notes that many nurses never spoke of what they witnessed.

Rita Devlin, director of the Royal College of Nursing Northern Ireland, commended the book and said the significant contribution of so many nurses from across Ireland to the Second World War is of great professional pride.

“These nurses worked under extreme conditions such as weather, enemy attack, food shortage and patient influx during heavy battle,” she said.

“Their fortitude and selflessness should be acknowledged and applauded.

“It is hoped that this publication will in some way shine a light on this overlooked group of nurses who were dedicated to caring for their patients despite the risk of themselves.”

Nurses’ Voices From The Second World War: The Ireland Connection is available from the Royal College of Nursing Northern Ireland priced £5.

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