Since 1918, the First World War has proven to be a rich ground of inspiration for poets and novelists, visual artists and musicians. The poignant stories of the men and women who left their farms and schools and homes to fight on the battlefields of Europe have long captured our imaginations and tugged at our heartstrings.
The Fisher has recently acquired a journal, kept by a Royal Army nurse named Wenonah Durant (1887-1976) who cared for the wounded and dying in Camiers, France. Durant was born in Maine to a Canadian father and an American mother, but moved to Nova Scotia (where she was raised) at an early age. The journal is a captivating wartime diary, not because of Durant’s own musings, which would certainly have been interesting, but because of the stories she collected in it. From the period of August to October, 1915, besides tending to the sick, Nurse Durant also had her patients record their stories. Every few pages, the hand changes and another terrifying account of the tragedy of senseless war unfolds in a different voice. Campaigns undertaken on the Western Front at Ypres, Hooge, and Neuve Chapelle are described by British, Canadian, and Australian soldiers with an honesty and horror that could only be captured by those who endured them. Among the more than thirty stories is a vivid description from one wounded man of the first time encountering the German use of liquid flame throwers. Satire, poetry, and a few pencil sketches punctuate the journal which is chiefly given over to the unspeakable obscenities of trench warfare. As for Nurse Durant, she leaves none of her own impressions, save a single page at the beginning in which she records the tokens her grateful patients have left with her – a cap badge from a Sapper, a Belgian bullet, shoulder numbers – small indications of a little bit of friendship and care so far away from home.