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Combat Nurse

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Combat Nurse
By Eric Taylor. (Robert Hale Ltd, 1999.) ISBN: 0-7090-6212-5

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 20, 2001

During World War II, numerous women volunteered to serve as military nurses. Often their jobs placed them at grave risk of injury or capture by the enemy, and all too often they met their deaths while doing their duty. In Combat Nurse, Eric Taylor has woven a riveting book that describes what is it was like to be a British nurse, serving in combat areas, during World War II. Resplendent with numerous first hand accounts and reminiscences, Combat Nurse paints a realistic, and often chilling, account of what it was like to be a nurse working in a war zone.

Before and during World War II, numerous women volunteered to join the ranks of the military, to serve as nurses. The women who populate this book served in many different branches, including the Queen Alexandra's Royal Nursing Service (QARNNS), the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), and the Territorial Army Nurse Service (TANS). Countless other woman, with and without formal nursing training joined Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). Taylor details the duties that these women performed, and how their jobs in the military differed from those they performed in civilian life. He also delineates the fact that the women faced the same military discipline as did the men in service, and they often faced the same risks.

This narrative is told through the voices of the women who served in the various nursing services. Some of the women, such as Betty Sandbach and Ann Radloff make only a brief appearances in the book, recounting one specific aspect of their time in service. In other cases, such as that of Vera Bryan and Yvonne Jeffrey, the book chronicles their entire period of military service. It also explores what brought them to nursing, their training, and why they joined the military nursing services. Throughout, Taylor shows us the various conditions under which the women served, from in muddy Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) that often came under enemy fire, to those who worked on hospital ships.

Technically, working on a hospital ship was supposedly a 'safe' posting. Taylor clearly points out that it was anything but, because the German's had a propensity for targeting, and sinking, hospital ships, despite the fact that they were clearly marked as such. In this book Taylor recounts numerous instances in which hospital ships and other non military vessels where sunk. And the horrors faced by the survivors as they waited for rescue, often in waters infested with sharks and U-boats, often with little or no drinking water.

In Combat Nurse, Taylor also offers a brief history of World War II by following the nurses as they followed the battles. British military nurses went wherever the military did, they served in Dunkirk and they were with the army when the concentration camps were liberated. They tended the wounded in Africa, and on the Islands of the Pacific. In short, they went where they were needed. This is an unbelievably inspirational book. It offers biographical sketches of the courageous women who tended the sick and wounded during the war. It illustrates how these gallant women found friendship and love, while struggling to come to terms with unimaginable horrors and hardships.

Combat Nurse is not a sugar-coated book that paints war time nursing as a glamourous and fun endeavor. Granted, there were times when the nurses had a chance to go to dances and to do a little sight seeing. However, Taylor is quick to point out that in most cases such relaxing times were few and far between. When needed, the brave women who served with the British forces during World War II, worked nonstop, often in harrowing conditions. It graphically describes the horrendous wounds that the men suffered, the mental illness that many developed due to their war times experiences, and the various diseases that were rampant during the war. The story of these fine women is continued in Front-Line Nurse, which goes into greater detail into some land engagements, such as the Italian campaign, and the nurses that accompanied the army. Front-Line Nurse was written by Eric Taylor and is the companion volume to Combat Nurse. Each book is self-contained and can be read independently.

This book presents a clear and balanced portrait of war time nursing, and the numerous nurses and sisters that administered to the need of their fellow service men. Besides treating their physical wounds, they also administered to their mental well being by boosting moral and keeping up the boy's spirits, a task that was often accomplished merely by being there, with a kind word and a pretty smile. I highly recommended this book, both as an historical work, and as a testament to the courageous and indomitable spirit of the women who served, with fortitude and valor during, World War II.

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