Imagine trying to write the life of your great aunt, an Australian nurse in the First World War, whom you have never met, with only a brief diary to assist you.
Then your father rummages around in his bottom drawer of his wardrobe to produce a bag with 138 letters, many of them quite long, amounting to over 100 000 words. Bliss - the joy of discovery in history. Krista Vane-Tempest must have realised she had a book as soon as her father handed over the papers.
This graceful, joyous and ultimately sad book depends on those letters. Readers hear the voice of this great aunt at every stage of her life at war, coming to know Edith Blake intimately.
They find a nurse enthralled by her calling, professional in everything she does. They learn of a woman with a great gift for friendship, coming from a warm and loving family, to whom she gives great love in return.
And they learn a great deal about the places in which she served, Cairo, on hospital ships and in variety of hospitals in Britain.
Born in Sydney in 1885, the eldest of three daughters, Edith, always known as Edie, decided to train as a nurse when she was 23. She thought herself fortunate to train at the Coast Hospital (later Prince Henry) at Sydney's Little Bay. A hard-worker with a good mind, Edie was at the Coast Hospital as a probationer, a student nurse and finally as a fully qualified nurse until she enlisted for war in early 1915.
Though she expected to serve in the Australian Army Nursing Service, she was assigned, instead, by the Australian Defence department, to the British Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. This was a disappointment. Edie wanted to nurse the Australian "boys" and did so in Cairo where she admired their spirit and willingness to endure. It also meant that, in death, her name would not be included on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, Charles Bean determining that only those who served in the Australian forces would be so honoured.
But thoughts of death were far from Edie's mind when she sailed for war in April, 1915. Edith Blake's War is a near-perfect account of a nurse's life at war. Hard-work predominates, night shift, day shift, a high regard for the sacrifices of the soldiers, the hopes for transfers, the meaning of working under orders, and the joys of leave, however fleeting.
Edie had several uncles, aunts and other relatives in England who cared for her and looked out for her. But much as she enjoyed their care her working life came before everything else. She made a deep impression on her matrons and her fellow nursing sisters. She was unflappable and physically very strong. Readers will soon admire and like this fine Australian woman.
She was cheerful even when posted to a German Prisoner of War Hospital in Surrey.
She did not much like the Huns, as she invariably called them, but she did her best for her patients whoever they were. She found that many of the German officers had excellent English and they liked to chaff the nurses about the deplorable weather. There was some empathy there, at last, but even so, Edie requested a transfer from the hospital and returned to work on a hospital ship, the Glenart Castle.
This proved to be fatal. The Glenart Castle was a small ship and not particularly comfortable. But Edie never grumbled. She travelled with the Glenart Castle to Halifax in Canada and then did a meandering trip back to Bristol. Ordered to France the ship was in the Bristol Channel at night, brightly lit in accordance with the Hague Convention, observed by other British ships in the Channel as absolutely correct in its meeting the requirements of a hospital ship in war.
Unknown to anyone on board, the Glenart Castle had been shadowed by a German U boat for at least an hour before a torpedo was despatched.
Hit amid-ships the hospital ship sank in less than eight minutes with a death toll of 153 out of the 182 medical staff and crew on board. Edith Blake was one of those who died, though whether she made it off the ship at all or perished in her cabin is unknown.
Naturally her family, in Australia and England, were shattered. She lived in the memories of family and the good friends she had made.
It is cruel that the only Australian nurse to die on active service in the First World War is not listed on the national Roll of Honour. This book repairs that commemoration for Edith Blake. Readers will see the book as a fitting memorial to a person who served her country with nobility, ability and dedication. Krista Vane-Tempest, in telling Edie's story, has restored her great aunt to a proper place in the nation's memory. This reader, for one, is deeply grateful to her.
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