Irish nurse’s account of the war: A Very Private Diary

Review: Mary Morris’s absorbing diary is a tonic to so many outsized histories of the second World War by those who had not been there

‘We must believe that this war was fought and won in order to preserve decency’: recruitment poster for the Civil Nursing Reserve in London in April 1939. Photograph  Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

‘We must believe that this war was fought and won in order to preserve decency’: recruitment poster for the Civil Nursing Reserve in London in April 1939. Photograph Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:28


Book Title:
A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime


Mary Morris

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Guideline Price:

The Russian troops who liberated Auschwitz in January 1945 were embarrassed, even revolted, by what they saw. The Jews before them were casualties of starvation and had the furtiveness of hunted animals.

Primo Levi was one of hundreds of Jews rescued that day. Friends hurried to embrace him when, nine months later, he reached his home in northern Italy. Yet within days the exhilaration of his homecoming had evaporated. Levi feared death in a way he had not done in Auschwitz. Was this the collapse that follows a “great relief”?

Levi’s insight into his psychological state seemed to be rare among survivors. He became aware of the disturbance – the neurotic aftermath – that lay ahead so soon after the war’s end.

Mary Morris, who was a volunteer Irish nurse during the second World War, understood something of the paradoxical joys and miseries attendant on Hitler’s defeat. “The awful thing is that the after-effects of war go on for years after the war is ended,” she wrote in her diary, in December 1945. She added that the aftermath can be “excruciating” for Jews and others whose “minds have been wounded” in the conflict.

Her insight into the disturbance was all the more remarkable as the effect on the psyche of those who had survived the Hitlerite terror was little known about in 1945. Yet this young Irishwoman seems to have intuited something: that the liberation of Europe was not always a heroic prelude to healing and suffering.

Born Mary Mulry, in rural Co Galway, in 1921, she had seen enough horrors for a lifetime. Having trained as a nurse in London, in 1939, she tended critically wounded children during the Nazi bombing raids and narrowly escaped death herself.

Searchlights were seen to rake across the sky as tracer bullets slashed through the darkness; clouds of cinders, lit red by the blaze, floated down over St Paul’s Cathedral. “It was almost more than nerves could stand after a hard night’s work on duty,” Morris writes. To top it all there is a constant danger of being hit by flak splinters whirring through the night; at least once Morris is operated on.

She went out to inspect the damage at dusk before her ward rounds. The stench of the burnt London streets, compact of charred flesh, dust and pitch, was overwhelming. The imperial city was a vision of rubble and fear such as Morris had never seen: bombs had ploughed up the London streets like a field. Amid the “constant rumours” of a German invasion, she can scarcely believe she is still alive.

Scenes of horror

Very few nurses’ diaries survived the second World War; the Morris typescript was discovered by Carol Acton, a Canadian academic, in the Imperial War Museum archives.

In pithy, occasionally sardonic entries, Morris builds a picture of the pity of war and, above all, the moral and material ruins of post-Hitler Germany, where she danced the nights away in Allied officers clubs but also got to know the stench of diphtheria (“so foul and sickly”) and gangrene. The scenes of horror and distress she recorded are leavened by childhood reminiscences of the Connemara coast and the glories of whiskey fruit cake.

Free of nationalist prejudice, Morris pities the German war wounded, who come to her from British prisoner-of-war camps in states of starvation and physical abuse. “It looks as if we too have our war criminals,” she writes, adding: “We must believe that this war was fought and won in order to preserve decency.”

The Allied troops who defeated Hitler were not always as virtuous in their behaviour as the cause for which they fought. But the mistreatment of German prisoners was as nothing compared to the enormities of Bergen-Belsen, writes Morris.

When British troops entered the camp, in April 1945, it seemed the Third Reich’s “worst secret” was out: the piles of naked, decomposed corpses showed that some in Germany had departed from the community of civilised human beings. Bergen-Belsen lent a moral clarity to the war: this is what Morris and her nursing colleagues had been fighting.

As an Irishwoman, however, she is sometimes regarded with suspicion by her colleagues. It may be that Ireland’s neutrality was cause for resentment.

The author’s father had fought the British as a Sinn Féin member during the 1916 Easter Rising (and, presumably, supported Roger Casement’s German-aided plot to restore Irish independence and overthrow Ireland’s colonial administration).

He is not at all pleased when Mary falls for a handsome English soldier at a dance in war-hit Belgium, in April 1945, and marries him. (“He seems to think that all Englishmen are like the Black and Tans,” she writes.)

For all her cheerful and practical compassion, Morris provides gruelling reportage of the D-Day invasion and the carnage left on the beach-heads. Arriving in Normandy in late June 1944, on the heels of the Allies, she is transferred to a hospital filled with fear-ridden “boys” who have lost their arms and legs.

They scream through the night and tell Morris of frequent desertions to the German side. (“There were soldiers crying with fear and exhaustion crawling to the German lines,” she says.) The diary raises awkward questions about the behaviour of men in the firing line and conditions of psychological terror.

Amid the chaos of blood transfusions, plasma drips, amputated limbs and gangrene, Morris never loses sight of a future for herself or, indeed, for post-Hitler Germany. “It seems almost too wonderful to realize that I shall be able to sleep tomorrow night,” she says on her way to a hospital in Hamburg, in 1946.

Given the millions of Germans who had applauded the Hitler regime, she is understandably impatient of those same Germans in Hamburg who display defensiveness and self-pity about Nazism. “It is very embarrassing to see proud people begging for cigarettes,” she writes, primly.

Morris died in 1997, at her home in the Wye Valley, still married to her English wartime husband, Malcolm, with whom she had four children.

Scrupulously edited by Acton, A Very Private Diary conveys a woman’s role in wartime with integrity, humour and pity. As well as being magnificently absorbing, the diary serves as a tonic, so unlike outsized histories of war by academics and others who had not been there.