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Edie and the Battle of the Somme

Update 25 July

My interview on BBC Radio Oxford with Howard Bentham can now be heard here:

Update 11 July

Click here to read about, and see images from, the Service of Commemoration and the Vigil in Westminster Abbey which we attended on 30 June and which included extracts from Edie’s diary.

The filming we did for BBC TV Northwest has now been added below. Scroll down to view it.

Update 6 July

  • Sara’s interview on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour on Friday 1 July is at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07h2vns. The item starts about 30 seconds into the programme.
  • Katie’s reading for BBC 5Live on Friday 1 July is below.

    There is a shorter version, together with descendants of two soldiers at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0402lsg.

  • The service and vigil in Westminster Abbey on Thursday 30 June.  We attended both and were especially proud to hear extracts from Edie’s diaries read at the vigil. Click here for new page covering these events.
  • The commemorative concert in Heaton Park in Manchester on Friday 1 July, directed by our daughter Sara, was wonderful, memorable and very poignant.  An edited version will be available soon.
  • On Sunday 3 July we went to St Anthony’s Centre, near Trafford Park in Manchester, to hear a concert by Paul Frost and friends commemorating the Battle of the Somme.  One of the items was the most beautiful song, I See No Stars, sung by Stephen Robinson and Helen Hall. This was a duet between Edie and Private Charles Kerr who died in her care at No. 1 Hospital in Etretat on 12 March 1916. They have made a CD of the concert and the song will be added here very soon.

June 28 2016

With the centenary of the Battle of the Somme upon us Sister Edith Appleton (my great aunt Edie) is receiving a lot of media attention.

Daughter Sara and I did some filming with BBC TV Northwest on 27 June.  Here’s the result below:

On Thursday 30 June we shall be attending the service and vigil in Westminster Abbey. Edie’s voice will be one of those heard during the vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.  Extracts from her diaries, which will be read by schoolchildren from St Albans, cover the ‘takings-in’ from the Somme at her hospital in Etretat on the Normandy coast.  They begin on 4 July with these words: “Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking – covered from head to foot in well caked mud.” Further extracts can be seen below.

Outline details of the Westminster Abbey service here. I understand that the vigil will be broadcast on BBC2 TV as well as radio and available later on the BBC website.

On Friday 1 July we travel to Manchester to attend the service in Manchester Cathedral before heading for Heaton Park where we shall visit the Experience Field and later the concert.  Again, Edie’s voice will be heard here during the concert which features the Hallé Orchestra, choirs, dancers and archive film.   More information here.  On a personal note, I am feeling especially proud that the Heaton Park event has been managed by our older daughter, Sara, whose expertise is in community theatre.

Also on Friday 1 July I can be heard telling Edie’s story to Howard Bentham on his BBC Radio Oxford show that morning. The show was focussed on the centenary of the battle of the Somme and can be heard here in full; Edie’s bit starts at 2 hours and six minutes in. Or click below just to hear my interview.

On Sunday 3 July our destination is St Anthony’s Heritage Centre, Trafford Park, Manchester. At 2pm there will be a production about WW1 which includes a beautiful song, written by Paul Frost, which centres on the relationship between Edie and her patient Private Charles Kerr who died in her care in 1916.  Edie’s account, on 13 March 1916 – the day after he died, can be read here.

Battle of the Somme – diary extracts

June 18 1916. The air is vibrant with the awe & excitement of the great Advance. The well men are being hurried back to duty – the others sent to England. So that all along the lines the hospitals – from Base Generals – to Clearing Stations, are prepared & standing by to receive any number of the poor fellows who must inevitably (it seems to us) suffer.

July 4.  Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking – covered from head to foot in well caked mud. The rush and buzz of ambulances and motor buses is the only thing I can remember of yesterday outside my wards. Inside it took us longer than the day to anything like cope with the work of changing, feeding and dressing the wounds of our share of them. They had horribly bad wounds, some crawling with maggots, some stinking and tense with gangrene. One poor lad had both eyes shot through and there they were lying smashed and all mixed up with the eye lashes. He was quite calm and very tired. He said: “shall I need an operation, I can’t see anything?” Poor boy – he never will.

July 6.  I give up description. In ordinary times we get a telegram from Abbeville saying a train with so many on board is coming. Then they stopped giving numbers; just said “full train”.  Now, not even a telegram comes, but the full trains do.  I have 41 German prisoners amongst my lot.  The Surgeons are amputating limbs and boring through skulls at the rate of 30 a day and not a day passes without Death taking his toll.

July 9.  Yesterday was a big scramble. 600 were evacuated from all parts of the hospital, chiefly to England. You have no idea Mother dear what it is like!  For me to be the person to answer everyone’s inquiries.  All dressings to be done. All patients to be fed and all got ready to go off or on a stretcher.

July 13. Yesterday a very busy day. Convoy in first thing – sent one out in the afternoon – to be ready for the next rush. We had 5,000 men through this hospital last week.

So it goes on through August, September, October and November 1916. One million casualties on all sides of which more than 300,000 killed or missing. Day after day Edie’s diary records terrible descriptions of her wounded and dying patients. You can see all the Somme-related diary entries here.

Last year I was contacted by the historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore whose new book, Somme – Into the Breach, is now out. He wanted to include extracts from the diaries; Hugh writes: “there is no nurse’s account better than Edith Appleton’s for the British sector during the Somme”.

Dick Robinson
Edie’s great nephew

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