We all have images of life on the front line during the First World War: young men in uniforms, trenches, guns and tanks. But occasionally we are given a more personal insight into real experiences of the war. We were given such an insight upon the discovery of the notebooks of Nurse Mabel Earp last year. A volunteer nurse at two local hospitals in Cheshire, Earp’s notebooks were used by soldiers to write notes and poems, some expressing their gratitude for her nursing skills and kindness, while others described the horrors they had endured. Alongside these notes Earp, a trained artist, often drew scenes described to her by patients or painted rural scenes to cheer them up.
Injuries suffered by the men are detailed in the diaries. Lance Corporal William Beech of 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers described how at Ypres on in 1914 he ‘was wounded in a bayonet charge and had to have his right leg off’. His note continued on to encourage other men to go to war and ‘go for the Germans and get your own back’. The officer clearly still had faith in the war despite his injuries. He also speaks with admiration for the nurses and the compassion they showed. Private B Cooksey, of 1st Duke of Cornwall’s regiment, described suffering in the trenches, recalling his frost-bitten toes in Le Bassee.
Other pages featured less literal description and more expressive words, such as the passionate poem by Private H Thacker, of the 1st King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment: ‘Lay the proud usurpers low! Tyrants fall in every foe! / Liberty’s in every blow! Let us do or die!’ Another poem, dedicated to Nurse Earp and dated 1916, recalls horrors such as being gassed. Also featuring in the notebooks is a love poem, written by a soldier in 1916 about the nurse who looked after him.
Many men were reserved in their descriptions of their experiences of war. Despite this, these diaries provide a better understanding of life on the front line: experiences given by men in their own words. Furthermore, the notebooks tell us a great deal about the home front, showing the relationship between injured soldiers and the nurses who cared for them. Mabel Earp herself married a wounded ex-soldier in February 1918, although it is not known whether this was a soldier she cared for, as romantic as that would be!