Gateway to the Classics: Great Englishwomen by M. B. Synge
Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

Florence Nightingale


O f the early and private life of Florence Nightingale there is no need to speak, but you should know what good work she has done for her country, how she left her English home to go and nurse the poor soldiers who were wounded in battle in the Crimea, and how well she did the work that she undertook to do. Not only did she work out of England, but in England she has improved some of our hospitals, taught some of our English nurses how to work better, and has made nursing into the happier labour it is now, instead of the drudgery it was too often before.

She was born in Florence in 1820, and therefore named after that town, but her home was always in Derbyshire. She was always fond of nursing, and her early ambition was to improve the system of nursing, and to get many things done that she saw would make pain and suffering more bearable in our English hospitals.

Now in Germany, in a little village on the great Rhine, is a large building where women are trained as nurses for sick people. They all wear full black skirts and very white aprons, deep white collars and caps, and all the sick people come from the village and villages round to be nursed by them. There was no training-school for women in England, so it was to this kind of hospital home that Florence Nightingale went in 1851, and there she worked for three months. They were three happy months, and she learnt the best German rules of nursing, and saw how a large hospital ought to be managed; and so she got some of the training which fitted her for the great work which she undertook some years later. On her return to England, she became head of a London hospital for women.

But before you hear about her work, and how she nursed our soldiers, you must know about the war in the Crimea, how our soldiers were wounded, and why they wanted good nursing.

For several years a dispute had been going on between Russia and Turkey, and at last Russia pushed her troops into Turkey, and Turkey declared war. England and France had promised some time before to help Turkey if she needed help, and now they found themselves at war. English and French steamers kept hurrying backwards and forwards from the Black Sea to try and make peace;—but it was impossible; so armies were sent, and Lord Raglan, who had lost one arm at Waterloo, fighting under the great Duke of Wellington, was given the command of the English army. Now at the south of Russia is a peninsula called the Crimea, and the allied armies of England, France, and Turkey knew that if they could take a large town in the Crimea called Sebastopol, the Russian fleet in the Black Sea would be rendered powerless for a long time. So they chose this town for their attack. But they were divided from it by the river Alma, and here the Russian army was posted in great strength on a line of steep rocky hills on the other side of the river. They thought that the English and French would never dare to cross the river in the face of their fire. But the allied armies were very brave. The order was given to cross the river; the men waded the stream, and, under a deadly fire from the Russians, they scaled the heights bravely. The Russians were brave, but badly commanded, and before long they fled, leaving the allied armies victorious. The English had fought their first battle, gained their first victory in the Crimea, and a loud British cheer rose from the troops as they stood on the well-won heights, and struck terror into the hearts of the retreating Russians. Our soldiers had fought nobly, but three thousand lay dead or wounded on the field of battle.

Great were the rejoicings in England when news of the victory arrived, but the joy was mixed with sorrow at the terrible accounts of the English soldiers who were wounded so badly on the field. All night the doctors worked, trying to dress their wounds, and relieve their pain, and have them carried to hospitals and tents. But the work was enormous, and there were not enough doctors to perform it, and no proper nurses to take charge of the hospitals. The cry for doctors and nurses reached England, and England responded readily to the call. Many Englishwomen offered themselves to go out and nurse the sick soldiers, and their offer was accepted by the Government.

One of the first to volunteer was Miss Nightingale, and owing to her great experience she was entrusted with choice of nurses, and the leadership of them. It was a difficult matter to choose the fittest nurses out of the many who offered themselves, but at last the work was done, and one October day Miss Nightingale and thirty-seven nurses left Folkestone by steamer for the East. They were received by a crowd at Boulogne to wish them "God speed" on their mission, and then some of the chief citizens entertained them at dinner. The fisherwomen of Boulogne in their plain bright skirts and coloured shawls, carried all the luggage themselves up from the steamer, amid the cheers of the people.

All through France the nurses were received with sympathy and respect; for France and England were joined in a common cause, and France had already sent out nurses for their sick soldiers.

Then Miss Nightingale and her little band sailed from Marseilles to Constantinople. They had a very stormy passage, but arrived at Constantinople on November 4th, 1854, on the eve of another great battle.

The battle of Balaclava—made famous by the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which so many brave lives were lost through a mistaken order—was over, but November 5th, the day after Miss Nightingale arrived, was to be made famous by another splendid victory over the Russians.

It was a misty winter morning, and the day had hardly dawned, when the Russians advanced, sure of victory, to the plateau of Inkermann, where a scanty British force was collected. So thick was the fog that the English knew nothing till, in overwhelming numbers, the Russians appeared pressing up the hill. At once the fighting began, and the soldiers bravely kept their post, driving back the Russians time after time as they mounted the slopes. All day the battle lasted, and the English were getting exhausted when a French army arrived, and the Russians were soon in full retreat, having been beaten by an army taken unawares and only a fourth part of their own number. This battle is famous because the soldiers, not the generals, won the day.

The wounded soldiers were taken to the hospital at Scutari, where Miss Nightingale had only just arrived.

The hospital was already full; two miles of space were occupied by beds, and there were over two thousand sick and wounded soldiers. Then the wounded from Inkermann were brought across the water, and landed at the pier; those who could, walked to the great barrack hospital; those who were too badly hurt to walk were carried on stretchers up the steep hill leading to the hospital. It was a large square building outside, and inside were large bare wards with rows and rows of closely packed beds. There seemed no room for the heroes of Inkermann, but beds were made up all along the passages as close as possible, and the wounded men were laid in them.

It was a cheering sight to the sick soldiers to see Miss Nightingale and the nurses moving about the wards. They all wore aprons, and bands with "Scutari Hospital" marked on them, plain skirts and white caps. The men had never been nursed by women before, only by men, some of them very rough, some knowing nothing of sickness and unable to dress their wounds. But these nurses moved about from bed to bell, quickly and quietly, attending to each sufferer in turn, and working for hours and hours with no rest. Some of the soldiers were too ill even to know where they were, until they slowly returned to life, and found themselves no longer lying on the battle-field, but in the hospital, being cared for and looked after by Miss Nightingale or one of her band. The nurses had a hard time of it; the Turkish bread was so sour they could hardly eat it; what butter they had was bad, and the meat, one of them said, "was more like moist leather than food."

But they worked on through the day, often through the night as well, carrying out the doctor's orders, giving medicine, supplying lint and bandages, and giving lemonade to the thirsty soldiers. There was barely room to pass between the beds,—so closely were they packed. Here and there a little group of doctors would stand over a bed talking over a bad case, while those soldiers who could walk would go to the bed of a comrade, to help pass some of the long hours away.

The winter was bitterly cold. The men on the bleak heights before Sebastopol were only half fed, their clothes were in rags, they had to sleep on the damp ground, and toil for many hours every day in the trenches ankle deep in water and mud. Many hundreds died, many more sickened, and were taken to the hospital. Besides the large kitchen which supplied all the general food, the nurses had another, where jelly, arrowroot, soup, broth, and chickens were cooked for those who were too ill to eat the usual hospital fare. Here Miss Nightingale would cook herself, if there were some urgent case, and with her own hands feed the sick and dying men. She had a great power of command over the soldiers; many a time her influence helped a wounded man through the dreaded operations. He would sooner die than meet the knife of the surgeon. Then Miss Nightingale would encourage him to be brave, and, while she stood beside him, he, with lips closely set and hands folded, set himself for her  sake to endure the necessary pain. And the soldiers would watch her gliding down the wards, and long for their turn to come, when she would stand by their special bed and perhaps speak some special word to them.

Then the men under her, the orderlies who had to obey her in everything, did it without a murmur.

"During all that dreadful period" not one of them failed her in devotion, obedience, ready attention; for her sake they toiled and endured, as they would not have toiled and endured for anyone else.

"Never," she said, "never came from any one of them a word or look which a gentleman would not have used," and the tears would come into her eyes as she thought how amid those terrible scenes of suffering, disease, and death, these men, accustomed to use bad language, perhaps to swear, never once used a bad expression which might have distressed her—their "Lady in Chief." But Miss Nightingale had very uphill work; among other things, when she first went to the hospital, she found there was no laundry, and only seven shirts had been washed belonging to the soldiers; so she had a laundry formed as soon as possible, and there was a grand improvement in the cleanliness of the hospital.

One December day great excitement ran through the wards of the great Scutari hospital, when it became known that a letter from the Queen had arrived.

"I wish," wrote the Queen, "Miss Nightingale and the ladies to tell these poor noble wounded and sick men, that no one takes a warmer interest, or feels more for their sufferings, or admires their courage and heroism more than their Queen. Day and night she thinks of her beloved troops." Copies of this letter were made, and read aloud in each ward, and as the last words, followed by "God save the Queen," were uttered, a vigorous "Amen" rose from the sick and dying men. They liked the Queen's sympathy, and they loved to think, in that far off land, that England was thinking of them.

The rejoicings in the wards over an English newspaper were great; small groups of soldiers would collect round the stove, while one would stand in the middle, perhaps with only one arm, or his head bound up, and read to his eager listeners the news of England and the news of the war, which was still being waged around them, and in which they were keenly interested. For the long siege of Sebastopol, in which many of them had taken part, was still going on. In the spring came the unexpected news of the death of Nicholas, Emperor of Russia. "Nicholas is dead—Nicholas is dead!" was murmured through the wards, and the news travelled quickly from bed to bed.

"How did he die?" cried some. "Well," exclaimed one soldier, "I'd rather have that news than a month's pay!" One man burst into tears, and slowly raising his hands, he clasped them together, and sobbed out "Thank God!"

In the summer Miss Nightingale went to visit the camp hospitals near Balaclava and to take some nurses there. She rode up the heights on a pony, while some men followed with baggage for the hospitals, and she was warmly greeted by the sick soldiers. A little later she was seized with fever, and carried on a litter to one of the hut hospitals, where she lay for some time in high fever. When at last she was well enough to be moved, she was carried down and placed on board a vessel bound for England. But she felt there was more work to be done, and though still weak and ill she returned to her post at the Barrack Hospital.

In the autumn of 1855 the interest among the soldiers became intense, as it was known that Sebastopol could not hold out much longer.

At last in September it was announced that Sebastopol was a heap of ruins. The effect in the wards was electric. "Sebastopol has fallen," was the one absorbing thought. Dying men sat up in their beds, and clasped their hands, unable to utter more than the one word "Sebastopol." "Would that I had been in at the last," murmured one, wounded while the siege was yet going on.

With the fall of Sebastopol the war was at an end and peace was signed the following spring. But Miss Nightingale still remained at Scutari, till the English had finally left Turkey in the summer of 1856. England had resolved to give her a public welcome, but she shrank from it, and quietly arrived at her home in Derbyshire unrecognized. But England wanted to show her gratitude to her in some way for the good work she had done, and the soldiers wanted to share. So a fund was started, called the "Nightingale Fund." And very heartily did all join in the home movement. The soldiers, both those who were wounded and those who were not, gave all they could, so universal was the feeling of thankfulness and gratitude to Miss Nightingale, who had given up so much for their sakes, and risked her life to ease their sufferings and cheer their long hours of pain.

At Miss Nightingale's special wish the Fund was devoted to the formation of a training school for nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital in London. For up to this time no woman could be properly trained in England, and there were not many who could afford to go to the training home on the Rhine in Germany.

The Queen presented Miss Nightingale with a beautiful jewel; it was designed by the Prince Consort; the word "Crimea" was engraved on it, and on the back were the words, "To Florence Nightingale, as a mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion towards the Queen's brave soldiers. From Victoria R., 1855."

In 1858 she wrote a book called "Notes on Nursing," and it soon became very popular; in it she tries to show how much harm is done by bad  nursing.

"Every woman," she says, "or at least almost every woman in England has at one time or another of her life charge of the personal health of somebody, in other words every woman is a nurse." And then she tells the women of England, what a good nurse ought to be, how quiet and clean, how obedient to the doctor's orders, how careful about food and air. "Windows are made to open, doors are made to shut," she remarks, and if nurses remembered this oftener, it would be better and happier for their patients.

But her life was chiefly lived in those two years at the Scutari hospital; the many difficulties she met with at first, the struggle against dirt and bad food, the enormous amount of extra work to be got through in the day because others would not do their full share, the terribly anxious cases she had to nurse,—all these told on her health.

"I have been a prisoner to my room from illness for years," she tells us, but she did more good, brave, noble work in those two years than many a woman has done in a lifetime.

One of our poets has written about Miss Nightingale. He was reading one night of the "great army of the dead" on the battle-fields of the Crimea,

"The wounded from the battle plain

In dreary hospitals of pain,

The cheerless corridors,

The cold and stony floors,"

and as he pictured this desolate scene, he seemed to see a lady with a little lamp moving through the "glimmering gloom," softly going from bed to bed; he saw the "speechless sufferer" turn to kiss her shadow, as it fell upon the darkened walls. And then he adds:

"A Lady with a Lamp shall stand

In the great history of the land,

A noble type of good,

Heroic Womanhood."

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