World War I nurse Edith Blake was not awarded the Victoria Cross. His name does not appear on the honor roll of the War Memorial. In fact, most people wouldn’t even know his name.
But his story is no less incredible.
In 1918, aged just 32, Edith would be the only nurse killed in action during the Great War, drowned after the British medical ship she was serving on was hit by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat in violation of wartime rules.
Nearly a century later, Krista Vane-Tempest, a passionate historian and writer and great-niece of Edith, will discover 138 letters written by the heroic nurse during her service.
By compiling over 100,000 words written by her great-aunt, Krista has written a book that brings Edith’s inspiring story to life.
In “Edith Blake’s War,” readers know Edith, or as Krista affectionately calls her, “Edie,” intimately through excerpts from her letters that span from her training as a nurse to the month of her death.
In 1885, Edie was born into an average family living in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville. Her father, Charles, worked hard as a businessman selling goods to improve the lives of his wife, Catherine, and his three daughters, of whom Edie was the eldest.
“The book is a story of little people, the leaves in the river like Edie, who were swept away by the currents, the decisions of others,” Krista explains.
“It’s important to know these stories because for a lot of people it’s probably what their loved ones did. Those stories of people who got pushed around and kicked out and got scared but tried to keep that stiff upper lip.
“It’s those normal people who have done their duty every day that give people a clearer window into the past through which to look.”
Before writing “Edith Blake’s War,” Krista knew only faint details about the service her great-aunt enlisted shortly after Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914.
That was until 2011 when, while searching through the family history, Krista’s father retrieved a plastic bag that had been stored in the back of a cupboard.
Inside were 138 letters written by Edie covering an incredible range of times in her life. In some cases, she tells her family about her training as a nurse at Sydney’s Coast Public Hospital, where she worked 12-hour days caring for some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable patients.
“You won’t mind getting up in the morning, to see how a really bad case is progressing and you’ll start to realize that maybe the little you do for that patient, maybe you’re helping them get better.
Later, his letters describe the horrors of the operating table during his war years. They detail his experiences nursing wounded soldiers from Gallipoli while serving in Cairo.
Edie would even deal with German POWs, her letters revealing deep conflict as she felt sympathy for enemy soldiers:
“I don’t like them. But somehow, when I lick their wounds, I forget their nationality.
When you see them discouraged when they get their letters home and occasionally shed a few tears, we can’t help but feel the kindred spirit that makes us wonderfully kind, and yet when you hear about the raids in London and the loss of non-combatant lives, you feel like you could fuck them all up their necks.
“It was a game-changer to find these letters, her own voice is in there, she speaks for herself,” Krista says.
“That’s what people are most often interested in. They want to know what these people have actually seen and experienced.”
The process of setting up Edie’s story was no easy task. It was a journey that would take Krista more than four years.
“Sometimes, honestly, it felt more like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle than just writing a book,” she says.
While “Edith Blake’s War” is definitely non-fiction, Krista said she still wanted the book to “read like a story.”
The excerpts from the letters are placed between an extremely detailed look at the war-crippled early 20th century.
Krista uses her own search words to contextualize each of Edie’s, saying she wanted to “create a time capsule of how people back then saw the world.”
The result is a moving account of her parent, one that Krista says she hopes Edie would be “flattered” and maybe even “honored.”
With the family’s permission, Edie’s letters have since been donated to the Australian War Memorial, where Krista is also a volunteer tour guide.
She describes the Memorial as a “place of stories”, and she is proud that her great-aunt is now more of a part of it.
“You can see in these stories that these people worked so hard,” Krista says.
“They were so stoic, they didn’t think they were exceptional, they did what was expected of them and they did what they expected of themselves.
“It shows that power of the human spirit, the human spirit that’s not just in those iconic heroes that we all know, but in the everyday everyday person.”
Edith Blake’s War is available in all good bookstores and online.
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Ian Meikle, editor