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Pamela Bright, Life in Our Hands, SFE no. 67 holding image

An Antidote to Self-pity

‘Where am I?’ a soldier asks Pamela Bright in the first line of Life in Our Hands (1955). ‘In a field hospital,’ she replies, and moves on down the line of beds to the next patient. And that is all we know for the first ten pages of this book. It is three o’clock in the morning, ‘the very bottom of time’, and her ward is filled with wounded men. Some can be saved. Some, like Tom Malone, his liver ripped in two, cannot. He mumbles the Lord’s Prayer, cries out for his mother. Bright administers morphine, holds his hand, feels shame at the futility of her care.

Opening a story in media res like this is an unusual approach for a war memoir, but then Life in Our Hands is an unusual book. Although critically acclaimed when it was first published, it was soon forgotten and I only learned of it through a passing reference in The Inner Circle, her sister Joan Bright Astley’s entertaining recollections of her time as a personal assistant to Churchill’s War Cabinet. Joan Astley writes that she had shown Peter Fleming a novel Pamela had written. Fleming dismissed it as ‘not good enough’, but Joan adds that ‘after the war she wrote, and had published, four good books based on her nursing experiences’. To an inveterate stalker of neglected books, this was enough to set me on the chase that led to Life in Our Hands.

Most war memoirs, particularly those by men, are written chronologically, focus on telling us what happened and provide a personal but still somewhat objective and historical record of the writer’s experience. Rarer is the war memoir that focuses not on what happened but on what it felt like. Only in Chapter 2 do we learn that Bright’s field hospital is a casualty clearing station attached to the British Second Army in Normandy, which had landed a week after D-Day. It is, in fact, not a hospital but the first line of care, placed just a few miles behind the front, a short drive in a field ambulance. None of her patients will remain long on one of the 121 camp beds or up to 150 stretchers brought in by the ambulances. They will either be stabilized for evacuation or comforted until they die. Very few will return directly to combat: those are for the medics in the field dressing stations to deal with.

Four surgeons operate on the severely wounded who have a chance of survival. A dentist, Dr Kahn, works as an oral surgeon: as in the First World War, there are a distressing number of facial wounds, usually jaws shattered or torn away by a bullet. A transfusion team is kept in constant movement when there is active fighting going on – which, during those early weeks of intense combat in the hedgerows, is always. Eight nurses work in two shifts, two covering the ward, two assisting in the operating theatres.

As a ward nurse, Bright is surrounded by men in pain throughout her shift. The job puts tremendous demands on her technical skills. The crisis she faces in the book’s opening chapter is how to insert a Miller-Abbott tube, a device then relatively new, designed to aspirate the small intestine. ‘It’s swallowed’ is about all the advice that Scottie, the other ward nurse, can offer.

Bright tells us little about her life before she finds herself scurrying among camp beds under an olive-drab canvas in a field in Normandy. She has trained in Edinburgh, spent time in an Army hospital in Palestine. She is still new, still anxious about the gaps in her knowledge, still unsure of her ability to care for up to several hundred wounded men. And yet, she quickly recognizes, it is she who controls – or, at least, has the potential to control – whether the ward is a place of panic or reassurance. ‘In some peculiar manner the emotions tend to spread from one mind to another, finally producing an atmosphere amongst all the patients.’ She draws upon the guidance of one of her teaching sisters: ‘Busy yourself quickly over the most menial task that you can find to get a grip on yourself and so help others.’

Some things no training has prepared her for. A Tommy, delirious with fever, takes her for a German. She coaxes him back to bed: ‘Good shot! You’ve killed him! Now, back to cover . . .’. A moment later, though, he turns, seizes her by the throat and begins choking the life out of her. Yet an instinctive response, born of months observing and working alongside nurses of long experience, comes to her rescue. She grips the man’s hands tightly and says in a voice of utter calm, ‘It’s quite all right, Simmons. There is nothing to worry about . . .’. And somehow this gets through his frenzy, and he collapses back on his bed, sobbing.

One doesn’t read Life in Our Hands for an account of the British Second Army’s progress through Normandy and northern France, into Belgium and the Netherlands, and finally across the Rhine and into northern Germany, though there is a map to illustrate the casualty station’s travels, and Bright occasionally mentions a landmark by which we can follow the campaign. She and her unit live on the margins of the war. One morning they see a mass of planes low on the horizon: the bombers are softening up the German defences ahead of Montgomery’s assault on Caen. Later, approaching the Rhine, they watch as, each morning, more bombers pass high overhead on their way to batter another German city. The strategically crucial battle of the Falaise Gap is never mentioned, only the surge in casualties that filled the station with wave after wave of ambulances and ‘the slow, steady tread of the infantry as they plodded their way to the front’.

At times, however, the station suddenly finds itself thrust into the front line. On a sweltering August day somewhere in northern France, the nurses hear a startling shriek from a soldier at the far end of the ward. A stray German shell has landed, flinging nurses, patients, stretchers and equipment around like confetti. Several men are dead. Bright kneels by a soldier whose arms have been blown off. The station’s commanding officer steps in and calmly restores a sense of order to the carnage. ‘Go on and do the essential things,’ he tells her. He speaks almost as if he is a neutral observer: ‘The incident is ordinary enough . . . never really thought it would happen to us . . . not bad, either . . . none of the unit personnel hurt . . . theatres still working . . .’. The nurses bandage the newly wounded, the surgeons begin patching up some of the men they’d just operated on, the mortuary squad removes the dead, and the station resumes its business as if nothing had happened.

And so they move on, following the front, to another field in France, to a cold, grim castle outside ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, to a former school in Venlo, close to the German border. Then suddenly, a week before Christmas, they are sent south into the Ardennes to support the Americans trying to contain the German assault in what we recognize as the Battle of the Bulge. ‘Then it began all over again,’ Bright writes. ‘The world narrowed to the next convoy, the next case, the next treatment, the next injection.’ In some ways, it’s remarkable that Bright’s memories are so vivid and particular. As she admits near the end of the book, ‘Being busy, fretful, full of funk, afraid of your own limitations, you had been too tied up with the feelings of the wounded to think of your own. You were happy without knowing it.’

When the unit moves into Germany in late March, its patients are no longer victims of combat but victims of chaos – German civilians suffering from dysentery and typhoid, refugees, prisoners freed from concentration camps. Some of these are so emaciated that their bones seem ‘somehow joined together by skin, like a parcel done up in cellophane stretched tight to contain the contents’, while some of the women are so starved that the nurses have to keep them from stealing food they would only choke on, having lost the capacity to swallow. Bright sets down these images in the hope that they will destroy any self-pity she may be tempted to feel.

In fact the whole of Life in Our Hands is an effective antidote to self-pity. She, like the rest of her unit, receives no medals or awards – those are reserved for the fighting men. Her harshest criticism is not aimed at the Germans or the Army top brass but at what she sees as the deficiencies in her own performance. It’s not surprising, then, that after the war Pamela Bright continued in nursing, becoming a head nurse on a cancer ward and later a teaching sister, experiences she wrote about in The Day’s End (1959) and Breakfast at Night (1956). After retiring she wrote a biography of her ancestor Dr Richard Bright, a pioneering surgeon who first described the ailment of the kidneys that now bears his name. She died in 2012 at the age of 98.

Joan Bright Astley refers to her sister as ‘dear, calm, responsible Pamela’ and recalls that she always wanted to be a nurse. We are fortunate, though, that she also wanted to be a writer, for in Life in Our Hands she provides a counterpoint to the fond nostalgia that colours many accounts of the liberation of Europe. Instead of stirring exploits of front-line combat, we are shown the drudgery and tedium of dealing with their grim consequences in the words of one asking for no special recognition or treatment. As one reviewer aptly put it, her book shines with ‘the beauty of unsensational sincerity’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Andy Merrills 2024


About the contributor

Brad Bigelow is the editor of the Neglected Books website and is writing a biography of the American writer and editor Virginia Faulkner.

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