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The moving story of a Co Down nurse and her secret treasure trove of photos, poetry and art from the wounded and the dying men she tended at the Somme

BBC journalist Denis Tuohy takes a look at the legacy left by Olive Swanzy, who built a unique bond with the wounded soldiers she looked after during Great War

Published 29/06/2016

Olive Swanzy
Olive Swanzy
A soldier’s poem from the First World War found among the items Olive collected
Journalist Denis Tuohy outside the house in Rostrevor where Olive had lived
Olive in her later years
Some of the drawings Olive collected
Some of the drawings Olive collected
Some of the drawings Olive collected

Co Down woman Olive Swanzy not only saved lives during the First World War, but also saved the thoughts and preoccupations of many soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Olive, who passed away in 1974 aged 92, rarely spoke of the time she spent as a nurse in the tented front line hospitals of northern France.

Even family and close friends were unaware that in the attic of her Rostrevor home was a box filled with the poetry, letters and drawings of more than 100 squaddies who had been treated by Olive and her fellow military nurses.

The box was only discovered in the 1990s, but even then its contents failed to fully reveal themselves.

A woman who lived near Warrenpoint was doing a clearout. In the attic of her home she came across an unfamiliar box that she believed was filled with her own possessions.

It had been transported to Warrenpoint from her previous home in nearby Rostrevor, where Olive had once lived.

The container had been left there among unwanted bric-a-brac after Olive died.

It contained watercolour sketches, photographs, a book entitled 'autographs', a number of notebooks and several other items.

The contents were destined for the skip when a friend of the owner, the artist Marie Claire Douglas, impressed by Olive's delicate paintings, bought the entire box for £50. She took the box home and after a few months decided to examine the paintings in detail and perhaps frame some of them.

Only then did she discover what was hidden beneath Olive's pictures. It was an astonishing legacy from the First World War - a collection of writings and artworks composed by wounded soldiers while they were being treated in field hospitals, a few of them in Portsmouth, but the vast majority in France.

According to the Imperial War Museum, no other comparable collection in terms of content and extent has yet come to light.

Olive's family had a longstanding connection with the Newry area, and her father and two of her brothers were vicars of St Mary's Church of Ireland in Newry in the late 19th and early 20th century.

During the First World War Olive and her sister Beatrice enrolled as volunteers to help the war effort.

Beatrice served at home by collecting sphagnum moss from the Mournes. When treated and dried this was used as a replacement for cotton wool, which was in short supply because of the sheer number of injured soldiers.

Olive joined the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses and served outside Ireland, first in a military hospital in Portsmouth in 1915, and then, from July 1916 to March 1919, in a series of military hospitals on the Western Front in Rouen, northern France.

During the war Olive painted a series of watercolours of the hospitals she served in and the landscapes and townscapes she encountered.

She also accumulated a scrapbook album of photographs and postcards, and kept a series of autograph books to which the injured soldiers she nursed contributed drawings and poems.

There is much more than autographs in these books. There are also poems, jokes, comments, cartoons and sketches by soldiers who were being cared for by Olive and her fellow nurses.

Many of the contributions are signed with names, ranks and regimental details. The writers and artists are English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, American, Australian and South African, and many of the entries include dates through which connections can be made with specific events in the war.

Among the artwork is a sketch by Private Fergus Mackain, an illustrator by trade, from New York, who designed humorous postcards for soldiers to send home to their families.

The postcards, which became known collectively as the Tommy's Life series, provide a vital document of real life in the trenches.

The drawings and poems collected by Olive and her colleagues appear to have served as a kind of therapy for injured and dying soldiers, helping them to express their feelings and emotions.

Taken together, they convey the courage, patriotism and fear of the soldiers, as well as their black humour and the banter they had with the nurses who cared for them.

Some years after she had become aware of the full contents of the box, Marie Claire asked me to take a look at them.

I immediately realised the significance. And I could scarcely believe that so much material could have been collected.

Marie Claire told me that she had wept when she discovered the poems and drawings, and I, too, was deeply moved by what she showed me.

You have to ask how on Earth people created this work in such horrific circumstances, perhaps with somebody in the next bed shouting in pain because he had his leg amputated the day before.

Perhaps it's a poem by someone who knows that as soon as he is well enough he will be sent back into the hell of war. Or by someone who fears he may never recover and may die.

Some of the writings and artwork are staunchly patriotic and some are black comedy, but most are personal and reflective.

Of all the items, the piece that affected me most is called The Hero's Mother, a poem in which the writer imagines that he is his own mother writing about him after he has been killed.

His mother is telling the story of her 'darling baby boy' as she called him at birth, and then my 'gallant hero boy' in the second verse which is about him being a soldier, and then my 'own my angel boy' after he has been killed.

It is known that patients in war situations talk a lot about their mothers when they fear they are going to die. But this poem takes that fear to an extraordinary level.

After Marie Claire and I had examined the collection I showed it to Michael Longley, some of whose own poetry deals with the First World War.

He said that even if you disregard the extraordinary circumstances in which this material was created, some of it is very good indeed and he rated it very highly. He believes it to be an important contribution to the history of World War One.

When the war ended and Olive returned from France she worked for a while as matron of Newry Hospital.

She continued to be active with St John Ambulance and as a Sunday school teacher.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, she led a team of nurses in Newry's victory parade.

Following the death of her brother in 1950 Olive came to live with Beatrice in Rock House, Rostrevor, and the box of 'autographs' and art was stored in the attic.

She spent much of her time walking in areas around Rostrevor, particularly the Fairy Glen, and painting postcards and calendars depicting the Mourne country and Carlingford Lough which would often be sold at church events.

The story of Olive and her collection feature in The Arts Show on BBC Two Northern Ireland this Friday at 10pm.

Part of a Somme special, the programme also examines other art that emerged as a result of the experience of war, and some for which the battle provided inspiration.

Presenter Marie-Louise Muir meets playwright Frank McGuinness and discusses how a Donegal man came to write Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme.

The programme also profiles Ireland's answer to famous war poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, Francis Ledwidge.

The Box, a play (which goes on tour later this year) written by Carlo Gebler and staged by Kabosh Theatre Company, explores the question of why Olive kept the contents of the box secret, and in a fictional scenario she explains to her gardener that she couldn't look at the poems and drawings because they remind her of a time she wanted to move on from.

Personally, I think there must have been a really special relationship between the nurses and the soldiers in their care.

Perhaps Olive promised that nobody else was going to see them, therefore making it easier for the soldiers to express their true feelings.

Maybe this mysterious and private lady knew she would keep that promise to those brave soldiers - as she did for her own lifetime.

  • The Arts Show, BBC Two Northern Ireland, Friday, 10pm

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