Happy New Year to everyone! Sorry it has been a while since I posted on here but now the festivities are over I’d like to tell you about a rather amazing diary in our collection and about its author, Sister Florence Oppenheimer.
The Diary of Florence Oppenheimer (later Florence Greenberg) is a rare object as not only did Florence keep notes on her work as a nurse on hospital ships during the First World War, it also contains many photographs from the time. Although these photographs are quite faded in places, they give us a rare glimpse of what it was like to be nurse and a patient on a hospital ship during the Great War.
Born in 1883 Florence was the 4th of 8 children, her father was a meat importer, born in Holland and naturalised in 1892. Her family lived in a large basement house in Beresford Road, Cannonbury, North London.
Florence recalled; “We were a happy united family with a sweet gentle mother and rather strict father”.
Florence was educated at Lady Holles School and went to Bork on Rhine boarding school for a year. After school she stayed at home to help her mother with the cooking for the next 10 years. Florence had always wanted to train as a hospital nurse but her father was old fashioned and opposed to women nursing men. By the time she was 29 years old she knew if she didn’t start training then she would be too old. So, her brother discussed this with her father and he finally gave in. Florence started her nurse training at the Royal Sussex Hospital, Brighton, in 1911.
Florence embarked on 5 years of service on-board hospital ships during the First World War, sailing to Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. She kept her diary from 1915, originally writing each day but slowly becoming more infrequent. In 1918 and 1919 Florence added the rest of her story.
Florence Oppenheimer left London on 19th July 1915 and travelled by train to Devonport, Plymouth.
“19th July 1915… Coming along through the peaceful country, it seemed impossible to realize that there really was this fiendish war going on but now it was bought home to us”.
Once they arrived at the port she found quite a sight
“19th July 1915… There were lots of boats there. Transports, battleships in for repairs-oh such grim looking things… As we got off our train another transport was just leaving – crowded with troops and a good sprinkling of Sisters amongst them. Lots of Officers had arrived before us and we got such a cheer. Our luggage was all piled up on the platform and we waited patiently while 100 men (who had been detailed off for that purpose) carried it on board.”
Conditions on the ships
Florence describes how cramped the ships cabins were, having to share with 3 other nurses.
“19th July 1915… The cabins are very small, there is just room for our holdalls underneath the berths, our cushions, bags and clothes have to live on the end of our berths when we are asleep and we can only dress two at a time.”
The conditions on board the ships were very hot and uncomfortable especially when the ships reached warmer climates such as Malta and Egypt.
“24thJuly 1915… It is intensely hot today the officers are wearing their sun helmets and we are sweltering in our thin cotton frocks. The officers even take off their coats and roll up their shirt sleeves at dinner – OK for a cool evening dress.”
The heat made the already cramp and humid cabins even more unbearable to sleep in and when the conditions became too much to bear the soldiers and nurses on board would take their mattresses onto the deck and sleep in the open air which Florence seemed to enjoy;
“Another glorious night on deck. I feel I don’t ever want to sleep with a roof over my head again.”
The food on board the ships does not seem to have been bad at all, Florence often wrote about drinking champagne and eating ‘Hors d’oeuvres , 2 soups, fish and at least 6 various entrees and plates to choose from, sweets, ices, desserts and coffee’ , which seems strange as this was a ship sailing into war.
Whilst travelling to reach the Eastern Front Florence describes how both the nurses and officers had to book chairs for the journey.
“20th July 1915… After breakfast we found the deck steward and booked chairs for the journey. They are delightfully comfy, and you can lounge at full length if you want to, and we only have to pay 3\. for them. One side of the deck is reserved for our chairs and one side for the Officers, but of course we all trot round to each other.”
Florence writes about the long journeys to reach Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo and how she was often bored and wishing to do anything to occupy herself.
“23rd July 1915…I am beginning to find the enforced idleness irksome, One can take absolutely no exercise. There are such a lot of us, so little room on deck one cannot even get a decent trot around.”
To pass the time Florence and the other nurses did ‘some odds and ends of needlework for some of the boys’, sewing badges, mending seams and making covers for the soldier’s rifles.
Florence describes particular occasions where the soldiers and nurses tried to forget about what they were sailing into, or back from, and arranged a ‘sports day’
“Return journey to Alexandria Sept. 13th - 25th…We had sports on deck one day about a week after we sailed and good fun they were too… Just the usual sports but everyone entered into them with a will and they were quite a success in consequence. Washing the men’s faces was one of the funniest. The poor things had their faces greased and well covered with soot and in 10 seconds we had to see how clean we could get them. There was no time to think about soap going in the eyes or water tumbling down their backs, and the poor things who won their heats and semi-finals had the extreme pleasure of being washed three times.”
The men even dressed up in fancy dress on this particular afternoon, as “Charlies Aunt” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charley’s_Aunt) and “Babes In the Wood”.
However the boredom did seem to affect Florence as she writes ; “August 4th 1915…Where are they going to take us? Do they think we all want a holiday at the Governments expense. We are all thoroughly sick of it all.”
On another occasion Florence even blames the boredom of the ship for a proposal she received!
“26th July 1915…The very atmosphere makes people very sentimental. What with moonlight nights and nothing to occupy one, even staid and steady men seem to go a little bit mad. After chatting for a couple of days to an apparently quite serious Doctor he was foolish enough to propose to me this afternoon. I wanted to laugh at him, however he really seemed in earnest, so I thought the best way out of the difficulty was to tell him my religion, in any case that hurt his feelings the least. I cannot think what made him do it, I certainly had not encouraged him at all. He is a Roman Catholic, his name is Brenner and he comes from Newcastle, Oh me: it is a funny world.”
The journey on the ships must have been such an adventure for the nurses on board who had probably never been away from England before.
Florence describes their arrival in Malta on 27thJuly 1915
“A long stretch of hilly coast line with a sun glaring at 7.30A.M. like I have never experienced before, 130° then, I wonder what it is like in the hottest part of the day and the hottest time of the year. Not a tree, not a petal of green, a certain number of houses built right down by the sea, square with flat roofs. The hills covered in dust and a few dome shaped buildings in the distant background. Interesting to look at yes- it was a real Easter picture”
Florence and the nurses were often given shore leave when the ships were docked at ports in Alexandria and Cairo.
“31st July 1915…We took a fly from the harbour and started exploring. Alexandria is a dirty smelly city with small narrow streets and the black people are disgustingly dirty. Some of the boys and men are very good looking. There is a square of modern shops in the centre of the town.”
When in Cairo Florence writes that “one day I thought I would like to go to Synagogue, so wrote to Norman Bentwich who I knew was living here for address and times of services”. This is almost the only reference to her Jewish faith.
There was no getting away from the reality that they were heading to war. When the ship left Devonport a torpedo Destroyer accompanied them. Without warning the soldiers would practice shooting their rifles and there were frequent lifeboat drills. Whilst passing particularly dangerous areas such as the Straits of Gibraltar there could be no lights on deck at night and all portholes had to be covered, as well as no noise of any description.
“23rd July 1915… Being a troop ship we will have no warning but will be simply torpedoed or shelled. I wonder if we are going to be safely landed. Well we are in God’s hand and what will be will be.”
On 8th August 1918 Florence was transferred to the hospital ship The Alounia near the Island of Imbros (a Turkish island in the Aegean Sea which commanded the entrance to the Dardanelles) “within hearing of our guns and in sight of the smoke”, and they started to take on casualties.
The conditions for nursing were cramped and difficult and Florence “got landed right in the very depths of the boat, a dreadful hole with not really hardly any air (Sic)”. By the end of the day the boat had 1980 patients on board, with only 10 medical staff, “stretcher cases were simply pouring in…Half our Sisters went off onto another ship during the morning leaving us with our own proper number – 12 – Two of these were ill so we had 10 to look after nearly 2,000 patients.”
Florence writes that it was agony to get the men into the bunks. There were six in a row and two rows deep. “If I wanted to do anything for the man in the top row in No. 2 bed I had to balance myself on the lower bunks and reach over the man in the top one.
I returned to my little hell once more and made the Doctors go on with dressings and I went round to try to make them a bit comfortable. Almost an impossible task, no clean shirts, no bed coverings, there was only a very limited supply of sheets and these had to be used for the very serious cases. No towels, no soap or flannels. I got a piece of my own carbolic soap an old flannel and with these, a pail of water and a couple of towels I went from bed to bed and gave them something of a wash.’
On other occasions Florence worked on the Upper Deck in the fresh air. There were 120 beds on both sides of the deck and were raised only 4 inches from the ground.
“At last I realised what war really meant. All these cases straight from the battlefield and other ships all round us also taking the poor fellows on as fast as ever they could. All the decks, every hole and corner of the place was utilised. “
Florence also spent time working at a hospital in Port Said and at a Military hospital at The Citadel in Cairo from October 1915 until April 1916.
“The hospital was built for a palace about 100 years ago and has been used as Military hospital for 25 years, but in peace time there are 200 beds but now there are 1000. The Citadel is an ancient fortress built by Saladin in the 12th Century and the palace is built right up at the top.”
In 1918 Florence took a short holiday and was then posted to a London hospital, in charge of an officer’s ward. However she got restless and wanted to see active service again so she was transferred to Cairo. Whilst in Egypt there were riots and here she tells a very interesting story.
“Our boys were out on duty and one day one of them was brought into my ward with a very nasty wound over his heart, shot by one of the natives. Fortunately he had his bible in his breast pocket, had this not been the case, the bullet would have gone deeper and his chance of survival would have been practically nil.”
An inch of the cover of the bible was shot away and a certain number of pages, and the top of the first page exposed reads “and the Lord hath delivered us from the hands of the Egyptians” (Book of Exodus).
Florence was in Egypt at the time of the Armistice. She signed on for another 6 months and transferred to Palestine.
In Dec 1919 Florence decided she wanted to go home, “After 5 years of really hard work I was very tired and thought I would be wise to return home.”
Florence married Leopold Greenberg, editor of the Jewish Chronicle in 1920. Returning to her love of cooking, in 1934 she compiled the Jewish Chronicle Cookery Book which was a staple in almost every Jewish home, and for which she is most famous for today.
Florence also broadcast recipes during WWII on the BBC’s morning program The Kitchen Front.
“I don’t think there are many people who have been privileged to have had two interesting and rewarding careers – one in nursing and the other cookery.”