Belfast Telegraph

Plaque honour for Belfast nurse Emma Duffin whose journals recorded war horrors

By Adrian Rutherford

A Belfast nurse who chronicled the horrors of war in a series of diaries is to be honoured with a blue plaque.

Emma Duffin vividly described her experiences as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse caring for wounded soldiers brought directly from the battlefield during the First World War.

She performed a similar nursing role in the Second World War.

Now, nearly 40 years after she died, her life will be celebrated with a blue plaque at University Square.

It will be unveiled tomorrow morning - International Women's Day - by her great-niece, Emma Makin.

Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said: "The Ulster History Circle is delighted to mark International Women's Day by unveiling this plaque to Emma Duffin, who made an important contribution to nursing in both world wars, and recorded a remarkable account of her experiences in her diaries.

"The circle would like to thank Queen's University for their assistance, and we are also grateful to Belfast City Council for their financial support towards the plaque."

Born in Belfast in 1883, Emma attended Cheltenham Ladies' College. On the outbreak of the First World War she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, serving as a nurse.

Her first posting was in Egypt, from 1915 to 1916, where she tended survivors of the Gallipoli campaign.

Then, from 1916 to 1919, she served in the military hospitals of Le Havre and Calais. There she tended the wounded brought straight from the Western Front and who were too seriously injured to be shipped to Southampton.

She wrote about her experiences in a series of journals, which were recently published.

Emma spoke German fluently and her tales of caring for wounded German soldiers add a humanitarian perspective to what is already a story of devotion and selflessness.

She renewed her VAD service when World War Two broke out. She was appointed commandant of the VAD nurses, based at Stranmillis Military Hospital.

She resumed her diary-keeping and provided a searing account of the impact of the Easter Tuesday blitz on Belfast, in which over 800 people were killed.

Most gripping is the day she spent in St George's Market, which was used as a morgue for the many unidentified bodies.

There, she helped stricken families search among the coffins for their loved ones.

Appalled by what she saw, she wrote in her diary: "I had seen many dead [in WWI], but they had died in hospital beds, their eyes had been reverently closed, their hands crossed on their breasts; death had been glossed over, made decent...

"Here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible ... Death should be dignified, peaceful. Hitler had made even death grotesque".

Emma served as honorary secretary of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare from 1933 to 1953.

In this role she was involved in ensuring that the comparatively rudimentary but effective social services it had provided between the wars in a city whose poverty had been starkly exposed during the evacuations were incorporated in the new welfare state that was created at the end of the war.

Emma died in 1979, aged 95, and is buried in Newcastle, Co Down.

Her journals were added to the already significant Duffin family archive in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

The Ulster History Circle is a voluntary, non-profit charity which puts up blue plaques in public places across all the counties of Ulster, to celebrate people of achievement.

A person is not considered for a blue plaque unless they have been dead for a minimum of 20 years, or would have reached their 100th birthday.

The circle's work on its blue plaque programme is carried out entirely by a small team of volunteer members.

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