Book review: Anne Hailes reviews The First World War Diaries of Emma Duffin

The First World War Diaries of Emma Duffin.
Published by Four Courts Press. £24.99

The First World War Diaries of Emma Duffin is the work of Trevor Parkhill who was Keeper of History at the Ulster Museum and worked in the Public Records Office Northern Ireland for twenty years so no better man to research Emma’s history and put her words between two hard covers.

He agrees that this is more by way of a journal as it wasn’t written on the day but later and from Emma’s very visual memory yet while it was fresh in her mind, helped by the sketches she made during her time of service; her words are sometimes moving, often angry, at times she’s happy but mostly she’s desperately sad as she and her colleagues were dealing with men who had lost limbs, had frostbite, trench foot, gangrene, rheumatism and gas inhalation. It was a harrowing time.

Trevor explained that Emma’s first posting was to Alexandria in Egypt where the Gallipoli wounded were nursed. She was there for six months and from the spring of 1916 until the end of the war in November 1918 she was based in Northern France, mostly in hospitals at the port of Le Harve . There she was nursing soldiers wounded on the Western Front.


It’s obvious from her writing that she didn’t think much of the American nurses when they arrived with the Allied forces towards the end of the war. “I confess to a feeling of irritation at seeing them hanging from the balcony to wave to the ‘boys’, boasting of what they were going to do. Two year ago at the same place we had watched our boys unload and march up the lines – how few had come back to tell us about it or to boast.”

Certainly, she hated the way the senior medical officers sauntered into to the nurses quarters. “Capt. Rowe went stroking Sister Davis’ bare arms and telling her fortune and Capt. Neil sat with his arms round MacLaughlin’s waist. Turtle did nothing and I saw his eye on me, noticing that I looked uncomfortable and embarrassed and as soon as I had drunk my tea hastily I retired to the ward.”

Her whole attention was on the men. She was determined to make life as comfortable and normal as possible so at Christmas she found a little Christmas tree, a plumb pudding and organised a concert.

In the book Trevor sets the scene and allows Emma to take over with her descriptive writing giving a very accurate picture of her life as a VAD nurse, the countryside, the troop ships coming and going, one being blown up before her eyes and especially the work of her female companions. Fighting her own illnesses, her fears and a hint of the loneliness being so far from home, draws you to this woman who never wavered from her duties despite her emotions and harsh treatment. She became fond of a little German boy, 18 looking 12 and they called him Little Hun. He was in dreadful pain, she writes, his back was raw, he had a fracture pelvis ad shattered elbow. He was going to die but she wasn’t ready for the matron’s harsh update: “Well Miss Duffin, your Little Hun is dead. He did the most Hunnish thing he could do and died at 6 o’clock when we were at our busiest.”

Excellent history book but mainly a most interesting read.

Anne Hailes

Post Author: Belfast Times

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