“Every chance brought forth a noble knight”: Jill Rose, “Nursing Churchill”

“Every chance brought forth a noble knight”: Jill Rose, “Nursing Churchill”

Jill Rose, Nurs­ing Churchill: A Wartime Life from the Pri­vate Let­ters of Win­ston Churchill’s Nurse.  Fore­word by Emma Soames. Stroud, Glouces­ter­shire: Amber­ley Pub­lish­ing, 2018, 286 pages, $27.95, Kin­dle $20.02. Reprint­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For Hills­dale reviews of the hun­dred Churchill works pub­lished since 2014, click here. For a list and descrip­tion of books about Churchill since 1905, vis­it Hillsdale’s anno­tat­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy.

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Jill Rose…

…begins this fine World War II nar­ra­tive with a friend­ly warn­ing. Don’t wait till your par­ents are gone before pre­serv­ing their mem­o­ries. The par­ents of “baby boomers,” Rose writes, lived through the most momen­tous times of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Tru­ly we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. I have dug around to find out as much as I can about my family…but sad­ly there is so much more that I will nev­er know.”

Mrs. Rose knows and shares much about her par­ents, Doris and Roger Miles—he a sur­geon-lieu­tenant, Roy­al Navy; she a nurse at St. Mary’s Hos­pi­tal, Lon­don. The book is built around Doris’ let­ters to the absent Roger. She knew only that he was aboard HMS Tar­tar, a famous ship which earned twelve bat­tle hon­ors dur­ing close encoun­ters with the ene­my.

Their cor­re­spon­dence began at their moment of sep­a­ra­tion, and con­tin­ued until Roger was “de-mobbed” in 1946. It offers insight to the many ordi­nary Britons who served faith­ful­ly in the great bat­tle. As Churchill said, quot­ing Ten­nyson, “Every morn brought forth a noble chance. And every chance brought forth a noble knight.”

Doris nursed through­out the war, but her noble chance came in Feb­ru­ary 1943. That was when, on orders of Churchill’s doc­tor Sir Charles Wil­son, she was sum­moned to White­hall. The PM was back in Lon­don, still unwell after a grim bat­tle with pneu­mo­nia fol­low­ing the Casablan­ca Con­fer­ence.

A significant patient

Doris was advised by Sir Charles (lat­er Lord Moran): “I must warn you, the Prime Min­is­ter doesn’t wear pyja­mas.” Sure enough, Doris found, there was only a silk vest, and a vel­vet jack­et with dia­mond V on the lapel. But nurs­es are pro­fes­sion­als. “I had to give him a tepid sponge as he had a high fever…. WC took great inter­est in this and I knew that if his tem­per­a­ture didn’t go down I would have very lit­tle author­i­ty. Luck­i­ly it did.”

Churchill had a loy­al staff. If any kept records of cru­cial con­ver­sa­tions, they did so pri­vate­ly. (Grace Ham­blin, a devot­ed sec­re­tary, told this writer the boss would often say hope­ful­ly, “You’re not going to write, are you?”) But Doris was free to share the lighter moments, and with Churchill there were plen­ty. The patient, she wrote, “is all he is cracked up to be.”

He usu­al­ly requires me to bath[e] him at night, and he holds court to Sir Charles, one or more sec­re­taries, and any odd vis­i­tors who may be around, while I’m doing it!…. He’s very inter­est­ed in his blood count, which is done every day, and now talks knowl­edge­ably about ‘pol­ly­wogs’ and ‘Eowins.’ Actu­al­ly he is a lot bet­ter now, but it’s been a fair­ly bad hemolyt­ic strep pneu­mo­nia, and might have developed—after all he’s 68, although he doesn’t look it.”

Six­ty-eight was a lot old­er then than it is now. But the patient was hav­ing none of age. When he com­plained of head pains, Doris rubbed his head with oil of win­ter­green. This became a rit­u­al in which the PM revert­ed to his beloved music-hall songs: “Wash me in the water / Which you washed your dirty daugh­ter in / And I wilt be whiter / Than the white­wash on the wall.”

At Chequers

By March 3rd, Mrs. Rose con­tin­ued, the patient was much improved, and Doris Miles was the only nurse sent with him to Che­quers, the PM’s offi­cial coun­try res­i­dence. Her let­ters are full of admi­ra­tion for the old house which, despite its grandeur, she found homey. One night the PM called her to a win­dow. “…those are our boys going to Ger­many, we can rely on them.” Over­head, writes the author, “passed a flight of British bombers from near­by RAF Abing­don head­ing east at the start of the Bat­tle of the Ruhr.” Stir­ring times in stern­er days.

Doris Miles left Che­quers in mid-March, her work done, but not before a humor­ous cer­e­mo­ny. “I had to march into the din­ing-room after din­ner (all male) and present him with a ruby-red cap­sule on a sil­ver try, to be told, ‘The price of a good woman is above rubies.”’ The usu­al cyn­ics spin this as gauche misog­y­ny. In truth Churchill spoke with a twin­kle, and both of them knew it. “He is, of course, a lit­tle naïf when he preens him­self on not los­ing a night’s sleep,” Doris wrote. “He for­gets that he takes pre­cau­tion each night to pre­vent such a mishap, in the shape of a lit­tle red tablet.”

* * *

Doris lived to be 100, glad at the end that her last twen­ty-sev­en years with­out Roger were over. This is far more than a Churchill book. We can­not con­vey its rich­es in a small space. It is well worth the read. It describes two peo­ple deeply in love, sep­a­rat­ed by war, with shrewd obser­va­tions of life at the top; and at the bot­tom, amid the blacked-out streets of shat­tered Lon­don. Read­ers will prof­it from Jill Rose’s expo­si­tion of those times. They tru­ly exem­pli­fy “the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion.”

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