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People have described you as independent, steadfast, intelligent, and resilient. You always seem to find a patient who needs your help and you never turn your back on them, even if it means risking your life. You are a nurse who will not back down from a situation or a mystery. But you also have scars from being on the front lines and seeing so many men maimed and killed during this Great War.
Elise Cooper: Why did you choose to become a nurse?
Bess Crawford: After my father retired from the army we went back to England. Then war came. Of course, I couldn’t march off with the regiment to France, however much it meant to me. The next best thing was to be a nursing Sister, and save as many of the wounded as I could. Unfortunately, some of those we saved had to go back into the line and were killed. But we did what we could, and I believe we made their dying easier even when we couldn’t make them well. It was difficult, not an easy task, there on the front lines. I saw some terrible things, and sometimes I dream about them. But I have no regrets. And I am so grateful to my parents for letting me train for the Queen Alexandra’s. They could have said no, but they understood why I felt I must do this.
EC: Do you think WWI brought more power to women, as many took on professions?
BC: The answer must be no. We didn’t achieve any power at all, not really. It was always made clear that we were replacing men who were needed in the field. Even the nurses knew that many Army officers were appalled at the thought of women so close to the Front, and they’d have been just as happy to have orderlies take over our work. The fact that we were trained to deal with wounds didn’t enter into it. We were women. I’ve heard that some of the Australian nurses in Egypt were denied resources, to force them to give up. They didn’t, of course, but it was a rough patch, and it was the patients who suffered. However, I think we showed our country that we could pull our weight when England was in danger, and she didn’t collapse from our mismanagement. (Bess smiles.)
We grew vegetables, we took over desks where men could be spared, we worked in factories and drove omnibuses—and we did it all well. That was what mattered. And after the war, some women will be allowed to vote, if the Government keeps its promise to the Suffragettes. There will be restrictions, I’m sure, and I probably shan’t be old enough. Nor do I own property or stand as head of a household. Still, it will be a beginning. Although some men will go on claiming we aren’t emotionally capable of wise decisions. I ask you!
EC: When the War is finally over would you like to be a detective?
BC:(Laughing.) I don’t think so. Heavens, no. I did what I had to do, out of duty and a sense of what was right. But my cousin, Melinda Trent, also a soldier’s daughter, tells me that trouble always knows where to find me. (Laughter fades.) That could be true. I was part of a regiment, however small a part that was. And I expect that will shape my life for a long time. When someone is in very great trouble, how do you shake your head and just walk away? The Army never runs. How could I?
EC: How has your dad influenced you?
BC: We call him Colonel Sahib, which is what the native soldiers called him. It’s a term of respect, rather like Colonel Sir. He was such a good officer, and the Army called him back during the war to do certain missions and deal with certain matters—my mother and I never knew what these were. But he continues to serve in any way he can. And that’s good, because he’s wise and experienced and level-headed. I have always admired and loved him, and I can speak to him on any subject, and he listens to me and gives me his honest opinion. He dealt with a regiment and he still found time for a small daughter.
EC: Do you think he admired you for serving during WWI?
BC:Although he’s never said it, I think he was very proud of what I did in the war. Even though he must have been terrified for me there in the forward aid stations, he gave me permission to go. He didn’t want me to have my own motorcar, either, but he just shook his head and accepted it when I drove up.
EC: How has your mom influenced you?
BC: My mother’s rather exceptional too! As the Colonel’s Lady, she had a good deal of responsibility toward the wives and children of the men in our regiment, and she took that quite seriously. She’s the daughter of a country squire, well-educated, brought up with great marriage prospects because there was money in the family. And then she fell in love with a handsome Army officer, and my poor grandparents were appalled! But they had the good sense to see that it was really love, not just the uniform, and they agreed to the marriage. She insisted I learn to play the piano, draw, sew and cook and run a household, while I was more interested in riding and other exciting things. And I am so glad she did, because even wild little girls grow up to be women. She’s warm-hearted, sensible, calm in emergencies, a good tennis player, and I love her more than I can say. She married a man with responsibilities, grave ones, and she’s given him the support and love he needed to be his best. I hope I can do the same one day.
EC: How come you have not had any intimate relationships?
BC:(Laughing). This is early 1919, Elise, nice women don’t have “intimate relationships.” And I respect my parents too much to be anything but the woman they want me to be. I’ve had so many friends, many of them men because of my upbringing, and I enjoy working with them and talking to them. I didn’t expect Sergeant Lassiter to propose, you know.
EC: Why didn’t you accept it?
BC:That was such a terrible moment, because I knew he meant his proposal, and I wasn’t ready to fall in love. Well, I couldn’t, could I? I’d have been dismissed from the Queen Alexandra’s. And this was my work, my duty–I’d taken it on and I wanted to keep serving as long as the wounded needed care. Several of my friends, including my flat mate, Diana, had to keep an engagement secret for several years, or lose her own place. I didn’t feel I could do that. I tried to let him down as gently as I could, but that’s painful all the same.
EC: How would you describe Simon and your interactions?
BC: (Smiling.) Simon is Simon. He lied about his age, you know. Tall and strong as he was, he got away with it, but he was just a wild boy. He exasperated my father, but the Colonel Sahib could see beyond the wildness, and he knew what Simon could be capable of. He took him under his wing, made him a man, and he asked him to go back to England to train as an officer, but Simon refused. I think my father knows something about him that my mother and I don’t, because he never insisted on Simon going back. My mother did something for Simon out in India that he owes her for. Something rather serious, I think, but I don’t know about that either. And it’s Simon’s secret, not mine. He’s become the son my father never had. And that’s precious to me.
EC: So do you consider him a brother?
BC:Simon is also the brother I never had, in and out of my life since India, since I was small. (Looking away.) I’m terribly fond of him. And he’s been such a rock…
EC: What effect has the war had on you?
BC: There was fighting out in India, wounds, men dying, trouble with the tribes along the Frontier with Afghanistan. We saw that and I thought I’d seen war. But the Great War was so much worse. And I was grown, a nurse. No one spared me the bad news, as they tried to do in India when I was small. I have nightmares, as I’ve mentioned. And I have had to learn to put my emotions aside and try to help a patient, no matter how terrible his wound might be. A nurse must remain calm, no matter what. And the discipline I learned in India, where it could be so dangerous, and the discipline I learned in nursing, to be objective and sensible, have helped. I hope some of what I’ve seen will fade with time. One day I’ll want to marry, have children, and I don’t want them to see the shadows of war in me. My mother is a good model there—she never let me feel threatened or afraid of anything, even when she was most worried about my father out in the field in India.
EC: From your viewpoint what effect has the war had on the fighting men?
BC: Of course, there are the dead, so many, many of them. And the missing. Many men were taken prisoner during the fighting too. This is never good for morale, but they were all so brave, the men I worked with. You know, they didn’t fear death as much as they did losing a limb or being terribly disfigured—burns, facial wounds, ugly scars. I have worked with so many amputees and burn victims, and I have sometimes seen them break. Especially when they realize they can’t support their family. The last thing they want is to be a burden. Even now since the war is over, we’ve lost too many to depression. I find it so sad.
EC: There are emotional wounds?
BC: These are the other wounds you don’t see. Of the mind. Shell shock. People who don’t know anything about war call that cowardice. I know too well that it is the shock of losing so many men in too short a time. The officers felt this most particularly. New recruits would arrive, and before anyone could learn more than their names, they were killed. And an officer had to send men back over the top even when he knew it was useless to try again. There were the men caught in shell blasts, who died without a mark on them. Others deafened or shocked senseless by the tunnels going up. I was so proud of our Army. But when a battle lasts for months, as it did on the Somme, men will break. Some will be stronger afterward, though. I have seen that too.
EC: What have you learned about yourself after serving in the War?
BC: I went into nursing with great hopes of saving lives. I had to learn that one can’t save them all, no matter how skilled the doctors and nurses might be. I had to learn how to sit beside a dying man and keep his spirits up to the end, with smiles and a brave front. I had to face German soldiers taking over my aid station and keep calm, keep my patients safe. I had to watch over them in ambulances being fired upon from the air, or crossing countryside where there were no roads and my patients suffered. I’ve crossed seas where U-boats were waiting, and knew that if we went down, I might not survive, but none of my patients had a chance. I’ve had other problems to cope with, of course, helping people in various ways. I’ve learned to be braver than I thought I could be, but I try never to be foolish. Still, I hate injustice, I hate to see people being hurt or taken advantage of. I always have. The war hasn’t changed that.
EC: If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you want to go considering you have been to many places?
BC: I’ve had an invitation to a wedding in Ireland! A nurse I served with on Britannic. The ship sank, but we survived. I’m so happy for her. First, I must go back to France for a few weeks. Matron has something she wants me to help her to do there. And I want to go back to India. Melinda Crawford, my cousin, would like me to travel with her when it’s safe to go. We want Simon to come with us. He’s reluctant to return to India. But Melinda will persuade him, I think. And my parents would feel happier if we weren’t traveling so far alone. Melinda was a heroine in the Great Indian Mutiny. Imagine that. She’s traveled everywhere. I’d like to see South Africa. Perhaps Canada or America. So much of the world is unsettled now, so perhaps I shall have to be patient. (Smiles.) Or I might marry and never travel at all. Who knows?
EC: What do you do to relax?
BC: I used to ride quite often in India. Horses didn’t fare well in Africa, with the tsetse flies and other diseases, and so I didn’t learn to ride until I was in India. I enjoy a fast game of tennis. I enjoy reading. I had a very good governess who made reading exciting. My father taught me to play chess, too. As a child, I liked putting up fruits and jams with my mother and our cook, but my favorite thing was helping make our Christmas Puddings. And eating them too, of course. (Smiles.) I love to drive my own motorcar but don’t have many opportunities at present. I’ve driven Simon’s—it’s larger and more powerful than mine, but I can manage it. Although the first time I turned the crank on that one, I thought my elbow would break! My mother drives as well. I enjoy parties, but we haven’t had many since the war began. I’m quite a good dancer, and I rather enjoy that too. But so many of my dancing partners are dead now. So sad.
EC: If you had a crystal ball what would your life be like in five years?
BC: Oh my! In five years? I shall surely have finished nursing. Unless there is another war, of course. Married? I shan’t even be thirty by then. Before the war I’d be considered a spinster now! (Laughs.) Ah well. Perhaps someone will still wish to marry me. Simon tells me that I’m too stubborn. Well, he isn’t married either, so there!
EC: What are your hopes and dreams?
BC:For peace. I’ve seen enough death. It’s time the world learned to get along.
EC: Anything else you would like to say that has not been asked?
BC: You’ve been quite formidably thorough, you know. I’ve found myself thinking about things I haven’t put into words even to myself. I just got back from a most beautiful part of Wales. There were some rather awful things going on there, but some happiness came of that too. I’m glad. I’ve been summoned to London to the Queen Alexandra’s HQ to speak to Matron about an assignment in France. They’re talking about Peace there, but they don’t seem to be very friendly about it. I don’t know just what I’m to do there, but I’ll find out in London. Wish me luck. But there’s the Irish wedding in June, that’s to look forward to. My parents are a little worried about Ireland, but I shall manage, After all, I’m an Army Nursing Sister. What harm could come to me in Ireland? I nursed Irish troops during the war…
BC: Thank you, Elise. It’s been a pleasure. (Laughs) I don’t believe I’ve ever been interviewed before. Life is always full of unexpected things. And there’s Simon, arriving to drive me home. He’s amused by all this. I shan’t hear the end of it, you know.
EC:Thank you for doing this, much appreciated!
Charles and Caroline Todd are a mother-and-son writing team who live on the east coast of the United States. Caroline has a BA in English Literature and History, and a Masters in International Relations. Charles has a BA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on Business Management, and a culinary arts degree that means he can boil more than water. Caroline has been married (to the same man) for umpteen years, and Charles is divorced.Charles Todd is the New York Times bestselling author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Bess Crawford mysteries, and two stand-alone novels.