This website displays the remarkable diaries which Edith Elizabeth Appleton wrote while nursing in Northern France from 1914 to 1919.
By late October 2007 we completed transcribing the handwritten diaries but we now have some further work to do in adding maps, links and further photographs.
2008. Dick Robinson, Piers and Jill Stainforth
Edith Elizabeth Appleton (‘Edie’ or ‘E’) was born on 9 June 1877 in Deal, Kent, 10th of 13 children. Ten year old Edie is on the left of the 1887 photo below. Her father was a Trinity Pilot.
Edie trained at St Bartholomew’s Hospital between October 1900 and October 1904. She worked in private nursing between 1905 and 1908, as a Health Visitor in 1911/12 and, just prior to the war, as a District Nurse at Crediton in Devon. With WW1 looming, she volunteered for the Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service. She joined for duty at Fort Pitt, Chatham on 16 September 1914 and went to the front lines in France immediately as a nursing Sister, based first at Casualty Clearing Station No. 3 at Hazebrouck. 3 CCS was forced, by enemy action, to move to Poperinghe in April 1915 and then to Bailleul in May.
In November 1915 she transferred to No. 1 General Hospital at Étretat and there followed several other postings throughout the war including to Abbeville, to 45 CCS at Achiet-le-Grand and to hospitals at Le Tréport and Boulogne. After the armistice in November 1918 she joined 42 Ambulance Train and, in February 1919 was appointed to the staff of Dame Maud McCarthy, Matron in Chief, at Boulogne. She was demobilised on 22 December 1919.
Edie kept a handwritten diary throughout the war which details all the horrors, including the first use of poison gas, but also records how she spent her time off duty including a number of drawings and many accounts of what life was like for nurses. Amongst her decorations were the Military OBE, the Royal Red Cross and the Belgian Queen Elizabeth medal.
After the war she worked at Bedford College in London and in 1923 she and an elder sister bought ‘Buddlebrook’ in the Isle of Wight; this house became the home centre of the Appleton family. Living there, as well as Edie, were her sisters, Lil and Minnie, and her brother, Fred, vicar of Brightstone, Mottistone and Brook.
We think Edie spent a period looking after her elderly mother until her death in 1923 and there is then an exchange of letters between Edie and Maud McCarthy, with whom she had remained in touch, in which Dame Maud persuades her to join the Territorial Army Nursing Service. At first Edie declines, on 16 August 1923, with this delightful paragraph:
“Thank you for offering to have me in the Territorials. I am afraid I cannot join – much as I should like to for many things – and should love having you as my Chief again. One reason is that I am 46 and the other is that I really mean to give up nursing next year and to make my living at poultry keeping etc.”
But clearly the Matron in Chief, who replied on 18 August, was persuasive and by 23 August Edie had agreed to join!
In 1926 she married Lt Cmdr John Bonsor Ledger. They had no children. Edie died in 1958.
This picture is dated 1887.
Edward and his first wife, Frances Ridgen who died of consumption before 1863, had two children: Frances who died as an infant and Herbert who died aged 12 from a kick from a pony. These two plus the eleven children from Edward's second marriage to Eliza Rowland (above) make up the 13.
The diaries are in 4 'volumes'. Volume one comprises 19 typed pages and the other three volumes are handwritten in three journals covering a total of over 400 pages. There are a number of delightful small sketches in volumes 2 to 4 as well as a few other items: press cuttings, three poems, a sheet of used blotting paper and some rough notes pages.
With short periods of leave back home, Edie was in France for the entire duration of the war but the first volume doesn't start until April 1915 (see notes below) and the final volume ends part way through 27 December 1918 with the back of that volume clearly missing. If anyone reading this website knows the location of the missing volumes - perhaps in a second-hand bookshop or even in a museum collection - we would dearly love to hear from you; see Contact Information below for details of periods missing.
We are greatly indebted to Sue Light whose website SCARLETFINDERS (http://scarletfinders.co.uk/) we discovered recently (March 2008) and which contains a wealth of information about British Military Nurses including Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. Sue has passed on much vital information about Edie:
The opening volume of Edie’s diaries is written at No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station at Poperinghe. As a result of shelling the CCS was moved to Bailleul in May.
This volume comprises just 19 typed pages, starting at page 112 - part way through the entry for 5 April 1915 and ending with three lines of the entry for 9 April. The first 111 pages are missing and sadly we have no information about them. After two more missing pages (113 and 114), the diary starts with just one word from the entry for 13 April (page 115) and continues until page 132 which ends part way through 29 May 1915.
This is very tantalising and our hope is that the missing pages may have somehow found their way into a museum collection or be lurking on a back shelf in a second-hand bookseller. Watch this space!
These typed pages are held together in two heavy card binders tied together with ribbon through three punch holes. On the front cover the inscription reads: 'WAR DIARY FOR 1914-15 E.E.A' and inside the front cover is written 'This Diary belongs to E.Appleton July 1915. Pinewood Cottage, Beech Hill, Headley, Hants.' Clearly, Edie's diaries began in 1914 and the only other clue as to precisely when she first went to France is an entry in Volume 4 for Sunday 8 December 1918 which begins: 'This morning reminded me - of 1914 - the morning we arrived in Ostend.' Presumably she meant it was an anniversary but this speculation.
This volume covers the period when Edie has returned from 10 days leave in late July 1915 until late April 1916. She is right behind the front lines at Casualty Clearing Station No. 3 near Ypres. In November 1915 she gets orders to move to General Hospital No. 1 at Étretat, between Le Havre and Fécamp. This hospital, established in December 1914, was one of several hospitals on the Normandy coast which were on the casualty evacuation chain. There are a number of mentions in Edie's diary that she longs to be back near the Front. However, she remains there and is still there in Volume 3 in November 1916.
Edie is still stationed at General Hospital No. 1 at Étretat. This volume begins with a number of little sketches and is a sustained account of everyday life at one of those hospitals on the French coast. Periods of what Edie calls slackness, with time for beautiful walks in the countryside and the occasional trip out in some sort of vehicle, are mixed with days and weeks of relentless pressure as convoy after convoy unloads wounded soldiers (including Germans) for treatment. Many are too badly wounded to survive for long.
We have no diaries for the nineteen month period between 15 November 1916 and the beginning of this volume on 21 June 1918.
Returning from leave to Abbeville, Edie finds orders to proceed forthwith to No 3 General Hospital in Le Tréport. No 3 General Hospital had been established there in November 1914. The mixture is as before with frankly described horrors interspersed with delightful descriptions of days out, concerts etc. Anticipation grows about the war ending and towards the end of this volume Edie spends several weeks in charge of a carriage on an Ambulance Train, trundling back and forth across northern France and into Belgium and Germany, to collect wounded soldiers and take them to the coast for treatment and/or repatriation.
There are many reflections from Edie about the progress of the war and a sustained period of anxiety about her youngest brother, "little Taff", who is fighting with a New Zealand Division. The mood lightens after the Armistice and there is a wonderful account of Christmas festivities, including a concert, on the train. The final volume ends all of a sudden and it is clear that some back pages are missing.
Family memories have it that Edie stayed in France until well into 1919 and was responsible for repatriating Canadian nurses. However, thanks to the wonderful Sue Light (http://scarletfinders.co.uk/), we now have copies of Edie’s papers and official records and these show that she joined the staff of the redoubtable Dame Maud McCarthy in Boulogne in February 1919, remaining there until her demobilisation in December 1919.
This website was set up and is maintained by Dick Robinson (my grandfather, Sydney Appleton, was Edie's younger brother): firstname.lastname@example.org. My cousins, Jill and Piers Stainforth (we share Sydney as our grandfather), who live in Canada helped with turning the typed and handwritten diaries into text. We are advised and supervised by Anne Stainforth (Piers' and Jill's mother and Dick's aunt) who is 91, lives in Victoria, BC, and was Edie's favourite niece. Here are two photos (July 2007) of Anne reading the diaries in Canada.
It has been an emotional rollercoaster for us transcribing Edie's diaries and we are immensely proud of her. How can our generation, born in the 1940s, ever really understand how it was for people like our great aunt, Edie? Well, perhaps this very personal account of one brave, resourceful and remarkable woman helps to enlighten us.
As we have already said, if by some great good fortune you are reading these diaries and can perhaps shed light on where the missing volumes got to, we would love to hear from you. The missing sections are: