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Blackwood – Iris’ War

Our first meeting of the new year was held on Tuesday 21st January. Mr Ewart Smith, agreed to talk to us regarding his aunt who, during WW2, spent the war years in the far East. He entitled his talk. ‘Iris’ War’, based on 120 letters in his possession, sent to his family by Iris..

Mr Smith’s opening remarks dealt with the decades leading up to WW2 from a time when China and Japan were friendly and traded with each other. In the late 1920’s and 30’s, Japan became a major industrial nation and started encroaching into Chinese territory including Manchuria leading to war with China in June 1937. Following this they carried out many atrocities against the Chinese including many deaths due to aerial bombing and torture of Chinese citizens. Britain became involved in keeping the so called Burma Road between India and China, open for supplying goods to the Chinese.

Mr Smith’s aunt Iris started training as a nurse at the Birmingham General Hospital in the 1930’s and when war broke out, was a sister at a hospital in Swansea. She volunteered to join the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service and on 15th March 1940, she was sent to Calcutta, the journey taking 27 days but with only 24 females amid 124 male officers, the trip was quite enjoyable. She also served in Singapore and Hong Kong but was in Rangoon when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7th November 1940 and was aboard the last ship to leave on the 11th ahead of the advancing enemy. She was fortunate as many QAIMNS nurses were captured in Singapore and Hong Kong and suffered greatly as prisoners of the Japanese.

Iris was stationed in Malaya and Burma and she described the extreme heat there and the many different insects, beetles, frogs, mosquitos and snakes which made life hard. She worked a 6 week cycle, 2 weeks of which were nights. Sleeping during daylight hours was difficult and she complained of having only 3 hours sleep and waking in a bath of perspiration and having to change her clothes twice a day. The social life was very good and dances and trips were a regular occurrence though she did say at one time she wished she had not joined the army. It is noticeable that rarely did Iris talk of the ugly face of war which she undoubtedly experienced (a Society member at the meeting showed a postcard received from his uncle to his uncle’s mother at Christmas 1943 where he said he had had an entertaining time. It was sent from Fukuoka 5 POW camp in Japan and clearly, army personnel kept the bad parts from the folk at home).

Iris was at a new hospital in India in January 1945 and wrote home on 7th April 1945 ‘I’m on my way home’. Senior Sister, Captain H. I. Bennet-Jones arrived at Newport Station later that month to be greeted by members of her family including the young boy, Ewart Smith. Mr Smith showed a photograph of his aunty Iris holding his hand at the station.

Former headmaster Ewart Smith has written and had published a number of mathematical textbooks and has also prepared a draft biography of ‘Iris’s war’ based on the 120 letters and some 30 photographs of Iris during the war years. His talk was extremely interesting and enjoyed by all members who asked a number of questions and applauded at the end.


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