Belfast Telegraph

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

A portrait of Emma taken during the First World War in 1916
A portrait of Emma taken during the First World War in 1916
Emma Duffin
Patients in one of Emma’s wards

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.

The Great War. 1914-18. Flanders.
The Great War. 1914-18. Flanders.
Corporal Adolf Hitler, right with two other soldiers and a dog during his stay in a military hospital, WWI, Pasewalk, Pomerania. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
United We Stand - Postcard showing uniformed men representing Britain, Irish National Volunteers and Ulster Volunteers flanking a sailor with a sword in one hand and a gun in the other presented as united on the outbreak of war. The verse reads 'Old discords have sunk to oblivion, For the honour of Britain they stand, In Unity shoulder to shoulder, In defence of the old homeland.' Collection Ulster Museum
Troops at the Battle of the Somme
Rifleman Jackson Clarke of the Royal Irish Rifles (circled) marching off to war. He survived the Great War, remaining in the army until 1931. Pic from Stephen Kerr
First World War image of a British soldier pulling colleague from rubble. It is unlikely that the helped soldier would look as cheerful as he does or that the helper would pull the buried and probably injured man in so unprofessional a way if he had been lying beneath the weight of soil and rubble after an explosion. It is more likely that the man has slipped and fallen into this position while examining damage, the aftermath of which is depicted here. (Hogg, A. R ) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Women in Britain say go! - Hill, Siffken and Co (LPA Ltd) - First World War Recruitment poster; 'Women in Britain say Go!' This poster, produced by E V Kealey, in 1915 for the First World War British Army Recruitment Campaign shows an image (by artist Ernest Ibbetson) of mother and children at open window watching troops march off to war. which reflects the growing engagement of middle-class women in public life, civic and recruitment campaigns Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster no.75. Original accession card states it is Parliamentary Recruiting poster No.72 Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British stretcher party surveying wounded on battlefield. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image showing soldiers in snow with tanks on backs. The men may be carrying some kind of disinfectant or else a de-icing fluid as it is visibly a cold winterís day. The item on the cart looms rather like the flue of a fire or heater, indicating that the men may well be carrying hot water. (Hogg, A. R ) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image showing British soldiers washing in water held in shell hole, which appears to be the location for several British graves as indicated by the wooden crosses surrounding the crater, where the men may well have perished in an earlier explosion. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Theres room for you. Enlist to-day - W.M. Strain & Sons Ltd. - First World War recruitment poster; 'Theres room for you. Enlist to-day.' froman original drawing by W.A. Fry. Poster shows a cheery scene of soldiers going off to war by train. Published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London; poster no.122 Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers marching over battlefield. The devastation caused by repeated shellfire over four years left some parts of the Western Front and its hinterland a total ruin. (Hogg, A. R) Photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British soldier at machine gun post. Machine gun fire was sometimes effective against low-flying German planes. Note the bolt-holes for the gunner to hide during bombardment, the trench spike against the skyline and the horn of what may well be a gas-alarm. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British first aid team treating wounded soldier. There are three orderlies, treating a soldiers treating a man on a stretcher with head and shoulder injuries. The location would appear to be littered with shells and shell boxes and there is a building which has been damaged by artillery fire or an explosion. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers wearing capes carrying shovels, road-building party, along the Western Front, probably wet and muddy conditions of Flanders, 1917. The Irish soldier and poet Francis Ledwidge was killed in just such a group as this at ëHellfire Cornerí at Ypres in 1917. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of British soldiers grouping in battlefield. The road is long which soldiers marched to and from the front were known to enemy artillery which by the end of the war was becoming more and more accurate in its fire. Note the posts which mark the line of the road, all too easily spotted by air reconnaissance (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of tank and troops. Tanks were first used in September 1916, at Delville Wood. There were over 6,000 tanks in allied possession by the end of the war whereas the Germans did not greatly make or use them. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
'Everyone should do his bit. Enlist now' - Roberts & Leete Ltd. - First World War recruitment poster; 'Everyone should do his bit. Enlist now.' Poster with boy scout standing musing in front of a wall covered in recruitment posters. Published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee London No.121 Original artwork by Baron Low Collection Ulster Museum
First World War image of a British soldier using periscope to look over rim of trench. The soldier also exhibits other features of trench hardware such as water-bottle and Lee Enfield rifle. There were various models of periscope, some improvised by the men themselves. (Hogg, A. R) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum
Posters and Memorabilia at the launch of the National Library's World War One Family History Roadshow which takes place between 10am and 7pm on Wednesday March 21st next. Pic Steve Humphreys 15th March 2012.
British troops manhandling a field gun, World War I
Belfast Telegraph. Page. Wednesday 5/8/1914 "Britain Declares War on Germany"
German troops and dogs prepared for the threat of 'chemical warefare' during the Great War, with gas masks.
Women making cartridges for British troops during the Great War. 1914-18
The return of British pow's, from the Great war, met on arrival at London by frienfs and family with refreshments.
Awarded the Victoria Cross for services in the Great War: Edmund De Wind (top left) James Somers (top right) Captain JA Sinton (centre) J Duffy (bottom Left) Robert Quigg ( bottom right)
Lord Kitchener inspects the 36th Ulster Division before deployment to the Great War.
British troops supply line during the Great War.
Crowds in Belfast line the streets as soldiers returning from the Great War march past Belfast City Hall.
British artillery on parade during the Great war.
British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench in a ruined landscape before an advance during the Battle of the Somme
Men of war: soldiers remove an injured man from the battlefield
The will of Private John Fleetwood, grandfather of Mick Fleetwood, who died during the First World War
First World War soldiers were treated for venereal disease in a camp at Chiseldon, Wiltshire.
The 36th Ulster Division march past at Belfast City Hall in May 1915
Undated handout photo of the front page of the Flanders Fields Post, a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, which has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
File photo dated 04/08/14 of the Grenadier Guards being watched by a crowd as they leave Wellington Barracks in London for active service in France at the beginning of World War I, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
The wills of soldiers who died during the First World War will be made available online
Family handout photo of Captain F. J. Roberts with his son Bill Roberts in 1914, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Undated family handout photo of Captain F. J. Roberts with his division, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches
16-year-old Lee Dunion re-enacts the conditions in the trenches as a soldier in Thiepval Woods during the First World War
File photo dated 17/08/14 of British soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Cheshire Regiment in a Belgian town on their way to Mons as part of the British Expeditionary Force, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
Sgt David Harkness Blakey who died in 1916
Handout photo issued by London Transport Museum of Ole Bill, a 1911 B-type bus No. B43 flanked by standard bearers in the Armistice Day parade 1920 as wreaths are being laid at bus stations and garages across London in memory of the transport workers who died in the First World War.
A British soldier uses a periscope device in a First World War fire trench, as it was revealed a system of practice trenches have been found in Hampshire
File photo dated 20/08/14 of the scene outside the Enlisting Office in Thogmorton Street, London, at the beginning of the First World War, as royalty, political leaders and families of the fallen will unite in Belgium and the UK today in marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
Men of the Royal marines landing at Ostend, during the Great War. 1914
Family handout photo of Capatain FJ Roberts (right) with family (L-R) Bert, Will, Nell and Fred Roberts, (front) dad Henry and mom Mary Roberts in 1900, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.
Records show newspapers urged women to send 'small comforts' like cigarettes and warm clothes to troops in the trenches
Research suggests most people in the UK do not realise the First World War extended beyond Europe
Wooden wing sections from a First World War bi-plane have been saved by RAF conservation experts
The Winchester Whisperer, a journal handwritten on toilet paper that was circulated by conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for their beliefs during the First World War. (Religious Society of Friends in Britain/BBC/PA)
Horror of the trenches: many from here made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War
Family handout photo of a young Captain F. J. Roberts, as a newspaper inspired by the historic Wipers Times created by First World War soldiers Captain FJ Roberts and Lieutenant JH Pearson in 1916, has been recreated to mark the centenary of the war.

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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