Wartime nursing 'made me grow up quickly'

Ethel Lote had to grow up "in a couple of days" when she began her nursing career in a military hospital in Staffordshire during the Second World War.

Ethel Lote in nursing uniform Nurse Ethel Lote

Ethel was still a teenager. She had previously volunteered on a hospital ward near her home in Walsall at weekends, after leaving school at 14 to work in a leather factory.

Her mother was a nurse in London during the First World War, and Ethel had always wanted to follow the same career.

Now aged 90, Ethel has recounted her wartime story as the Royal College of Nursing invites people to sign a petition calling for a national memorial to nurses who have delivered care during conflicts.

She was based at Burntwood Military Hospital - a collection of 10 huts, each containing 40 beds, in the grounds of a psychiatric hospital.

Severe injuries

Start Quote

These were highly motivated and dedicated professional women who developed pioneering emergency care”

End Quote Yvonne McEwen Edinburgh University

Ethel and her colleagues were soon busy working 12-hour shifts, and seeing the horrors of war as new patients arrived. The hospital was always full.

She said: "Our hospital had the first convoy of soldiers who were evacuated from Dunkirk.

"Those men were in a terrible state - absolutely exhausted. They had all sorts of wounds and burns.

"They kept coming in. As the war got more severe, so did the injuries.

"As nurses there, we grew up in a couple of days. A lot of the men were only my age - 18 or 19."

Oxygen cylinders for patients were kept in the hospital's coal bunker, to preserve the supplies if there were bombing raids.

And penicillin was regarded as a precious medicine which had to be checked by several doctors before it was injected.

Ethel recalled: "There were a lot of shrapnel injuries on the officers' ward - and the men would have to wear plasters.

Ethel Lote's mother, Ellen Cross Ethel Lote's mother, Ellen Cross, was a nurse in the First World War

"After the plasters had been on a while, they would start to get itchy. We gave them knitting needles so they could scratch down the plasters.

"We knew it was time for the plasters to come off when the maggots would start to come out at the end!

"But the maggots would have eaten and healed the gangrene - so they had their benefits.

"My mother used to say there was no job more important than nursing, because you're saving lives.

"She thought it was the best job in the world - and I thought that too."

Fell in love

In October 1939, Ethel got engaged to Albert Lote, a local first aider.

Ethel said: "One of the doctors had asked if I wanted to see a post-mortem examination. Another doctor was there, and also Albert. I'd met him but never really spoken to him.

Ethel Lote Ethel Lote now

"Then the sirens went and an air raid began. The lights failed. We lit candles so the doctors could finish their work.

"We stood on each side of the body, holding a candle. We looked into each other's eyes and fell in love!"

The war involved huge personal sacrifice for Ethel. Albert was posted abroad with the Royal Naval Sick Berth.

She did not see Albert for five years - and for the first two years of their separation, she did not know whether he was still alive.

Eventually, they were reunited and got married on 10 March 1945. Ethel was late for her wedding as she had just finished a night shift.

Ethel and Albert on their wedding day Ethel and Albert Lote were finally married on 10 March 1945

Her patients gave her a table lamp as a wedding present, and the honeymoon was at a guesthouse in Llandudno.

Wartime nurses have been the subject of a decade of painstaking research by historian Yvonne McEwen, from Edinburgh University.

She has discovered that at least 2,000 nurses who served for the UK died in the world wars.

Ms McEwen's work has been presented in special books to the Royal College of Nursing, which has taken up her call for a national memorial to express gratitude.

She said: "These were highly motivated and dedicated professional women who developed pioneering emergency care.

"The books are small memorials to big deeds and sacrifices, but I would like to see those names writ large.

"Having a wall of memorial to these nurses at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, would be a significant demonstration of gratitude and respect to nurses past and present, who've battled to save lives, limbs and minds."

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Health stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.