Nursing In The Army - A New Recruit

In previous issues of “Rollestonian” Mrs Mary J. Baxter has shared her recollections of her childhood in Rolleston. She is now about to publish an autobiography covering her nursing career “The Past Recaptured, A Nurse in the Fifties and After” (Published 5th October by Troubador Publishing Ltd ., 5 Weir Rd. Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicester, LE8 0LQ. Paperback £8.99). In this extract (taken from Autumn 2009 issue) Mary, a trained midwife, leaves Rolleston to join the army

“You'll have to do square bashing.” My younger brother David leaned back in his chair and grinned from ear to ear. “You'll love it.”

My heart sank as I suddenly realised the horrors that army life might entail.

“There won't be much of that,” I replied. “My time will be spent nursing.”

“Everybody does square bashing. Wait until a huge sergeant bellows at you. You'll desert immediately.”

“He wouldn't dare” I declared, “I'll be an officer.”

My brother roared with laughter, “an officer, that'll be the day.”

Having spent two years in the army on National Service some time before, he thought he knew everything. His teasing made me begin to have doubts and feel apprehensive about what life in the army would involve. I was spending a week at home in Rolleston and it was too late to change my mind but longing to extend my experience, this seemed to be the only way.

A week after this conversation, I arrived at the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corp Depot in Liphook.

The damp, dismal late February afternoon, did little to raise my spirits as my taxi drew up outside a dark building where a solitary light shone.

What had I let myself in for, I wondered as I stood, luggage at my feet and gazed at the unremarkable front of this structure. I almost turned to ask the driver to take me back to Liphook station but already the taillights of his vehicle were disappearing.

I reminded myself that it had been a similar damp February day when I arrived at Selly Oak Hospital to start training as a nurse. Despite all the difficulties, the eventual outcome had been satisfactory otherwise I would not have been at the QARANC Depot that day. I lifted my suitcase and walked into the small reception area where warmth welcomed me.

“You'll have to live in barracks with lots of other people,” my brother said.

In the gloom of the late February afternoon, his words seemed to be confirmed as I was taken to a large army hut. Inside though, unlike the barrack room, my brother had described, it was divided into individual rooms rather like the wooden hut I had lived in some years before when I first started nurse training.

A round black stove stood, in the centre of the hut; this gave out warmth to only a small area. The individual rooms were bitterly cold and everyone crowded round the monster to introduce ourselves.

We were quite a varied group of eleven nurses; all had joined the army in the hope of travelling abroad and using our skills in different places. The list of postings was enthralling and perhaps a little daunting but we were informed that we would not be sent overseas for at least six months. Our experiences ranged from one newly qualified nurse to others with several certificates and someone who had spent some years in the Kentucky Nursing Service.

Woken by reveille the following morning, we went to the Mess for breakfast, after which we were given our first lecture on Army Law and Protocol as applied to officers in the Q.A.R.A.N.C.

Later that morning, in the Quartermaster’s store we were each given a khaki battle dress in what was near our own measurements. As was to be expected, we were reduced to laughter as we looked a motley group when we tried these on. Some of the uniforms were baggy, others far too long and the skirts in danger of slipping over hips to an untidy heap on the floor. We were also given heavy black shoes; these were to be worn whilst in uniform. Major Jamieson, the officer in charge told us that tailors would arrive in the afternoon to alter each uniform.

At two, the tailors arrived and took the uniforms, away to be altered and changed into trim outfits. The shoes were heavy and I hoped would not need to be worn often.

“Tomorrow afternoon you will wear battle dress at all times,” Major Jamieson, informed us. After lunch the following day, we found beautifully tailored battle dresses folded on our beds. At last, we would look as if we really belonged.

On the third day, after an hour of General Information, we assembled on the barrack square, arriving as the Sergeant Major appeared. Our instructor was immaculate, not the red faced Sergeant David had warned me to expect. A man who would bawl at us and tell us what an ‘orrible lot we were’ in true British Army tradition but an extremely polite man who greeted us courteously. Over the next few weeks he managed to instil the basics of drill into us.

“You will meet me here at o’ ten hundred sharp every morning except Sunday,” he informed us before we went for coffee in the Officers’ Mess.

He soon had us in line. Unlike the ‘square bashing’, my brother had warned me about; this started almost at walking pace but soon became more arduous; walking quietly through hospital wards was not at all like this.

“Halt,” he shouted and we stopped in ragged formation. “March like this ladies,” he said as he paraded smartly up and down in front of us.

Off we went only to be stopped again. “Swing your arms like this,” he said, his eyes twinkling as he looked at Rae who had been swinging both arms together.

We marched, some of us turned right as ordered, others turned left, the Sergeant Major called us to halt.

“Now ladies,” he said politely. “Try to remember which is right and which is left.”

After being treated to another demonstration of the correct way to march, we tried again, this time doing just a little better.

At the end of the session, we were told to watch the ‘other ranks’ arriving for their training. They marched smartly onto the square, arms swinging in unison, demonstrating how drill should be carried out. We admired them though thought it would be impossible for us to reach their standard in the short time we were at the depot. However we were unlikely to need this skill when working in busy hospital wards.

“Will we ever march like that?” Sylvia asked.

“I know I won’t,” said Rae. “Nor me,” others echoed as we made our way to the Officers’ Mess for coffee.

After the first session, my heels felt sore in the heavy shoes; would I be able to complete two more weeks without getting blisters? Then I remembered something Sister Andrews at Selly Oak had told me about surviving the effects of marching during the war. She assured me that rubbing soap on stocking heels would prevent blisters. It was worth trying and if it didn’t work, nothing was lost. The next few days I followed these instructions and after each session my feet felt comfortable. Each day, I continued this treatment but in our last week, the weather that up until then had been dry, suddenly changed. Rain did not prevent our morning session on the barrack square and we marched up and down in passable formation.

Suddenly I heard a suppressed laugh behind me.

“Do you think she has caught foot and mouth?” I heard a whisper behind just as we were called to a halt.

“That will be all now ladies. Good luck in your postings.” He said as with a smart salute he marched away.

As we made our way to lunch, I discovered what the laughter and remarks had meant. That morning, I had rubbed my stockings rather too generously with soap and this combined with the rain had turned the soap to a lather on the backs of my shoes. Soon after dismissal, I made a dash for the cloakroom to wipe away the remnants of foam before joining the others for coffee. Needless to say it became a standing or perhaps I should say a marching joke for the rest of my time at Liphook.

That afternoon we were given our postings. Mine to Woolwich, Rae to Cow Glen in Scotland, Sylvia to the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, the others to various other Army Hospitals. Rae and I met again six months later in Gibraltar where she was delighted to remind me of the ‘foot and mouth’ incident.

Return to Home Page or Memory Lane

© This site was created by Richard Bush

Last updated: 6 September 2009