Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
Nurse Mellor's Autograph Book

Cartoon by 'Pip' from Nurse Mellor's autograph book
She collected drawings, watercolours, verses, jokes and messages from the wounded soldiers in her care.
Part of 'Next of Kin' exhibition
© National Museums Scotland

ENQUIRIES: 

  • You can see some more pages from Nurse Mellor's autograph book here: 
    National Museums Scotland: Nurse Mellor’s Autograph Book

    What do the cartoons tell us about the importance of a sense of humour in relation to the war? Do you find them funny? How might the definition of 'funny' have changed since then? How has this been affected by changes in our understanding of mental health and its causes, such as the trauma of war?

  • Sassoon called Craiglockhart Hospital 'Dottyville'. Why do you think he did this? Look at the Hospital magazine cover; why might it have been called the Hydra? Why did hospitals publish their own magazines during the war?

  • What ways did people find to cope with the strains and stresses of war? What was the role of laughter? What is 'black humour' and where else can we find evidence of this in relation to the First World War?

Why was humour so important in the First World War?

During the war, Florence Mellor, from Kirkcaldy in Fife, worked as a nurse at Edenfield Auxiliary Hospital, Cupar and Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. As was common practice at the time, she kept a series of autograph books – collecting drawings, watercolours, verses and jokes from the many wounded soldiers who passed through the hospital.

Craiglockhart was one of many specialist hospitals treating soldiers suffering from shell shock. They were looked after by volunteer nurses – known as VADs – who, like Nurse Mellor, were often young girls.

This light-hearted cartoon by 'Pip' gives no indication of the serious and debilitating symptoms suffered by thousands of men returning from the Front Line. The nightmares, paralysis, muscle spasms, and uncontrollable shaking – which were thought at first to be the result of physical injury to the nerves and exposure to heavy bombardment.

Craiglockhart (best known as the place where poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were treated) published its own magazine, called The Hydra – a common practice in war hospitals.

It was believed the patients would get better if they were engaged in 'meaningful' and structured activities such as handiwork and other creative tasks. Owen himself edited six issues of this magazine. As well as serious poetry, it included humorous material –  jokes and puns – and enthusiastic reports of Hospital clubs, such as poultry-keeping, model-boats, photography and gardening.  

The importance of humour and laughter had long been recognised as a powerful way of counteracting, or masking, the disturbing anxieties and chaos of war – both behind the lines and on the home front.  

Music hall entertainments, stage comedy and early cinema were full of slap-stick humour: Charlie Chaplin – a great favourite with the troops – made his film debut just months before the war started. Humorous postcards, even strip cartoons in the newspapers, helped people to cope with the daily strains of war.

One of the most popular marching songs – the cheerful instruction to Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile – seems to capture this resolute determination not to give in to despair.

There was also much 'black' and ironic humour in the trenches, and at home. 'Pip's' cartoon on the closing page of this autograph book, dated May 1918, is a grim reminder that the reality of death was never far from young peoples' thoughts.

Only one month earlier, Nurse Mellor's own brother, Hayden, serving with 8th/10th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, had been killed in France. She kept these objects not only as a reminder of her own war service –  but of the loss of her brother.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • During the First World War, artist William Haselden drew thousands of daily cartoons, charting the progress of a country at war that were published in newspapers. How do these add to, or alter, your understanding of the war? 

    British Cartoon Archive: First World War Cartoons

  • Read 'The last Laugh' by Wilfred Owen. How and why does this poem make use of language associated with humour? How effective is this?

  • Find out why the wartime song: Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile – became an international success. What role does music play today in helping people to cope with life?

EXPLORE RELATED OBJECTS:

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Cartoon by 'Pip' from Nurse Mellor's autograph book

She collected drawings, watercolours, verses, jokes and messages from the wounded soldiers in her care.
Part…

Drawing of Florence Mellor by Private W Drew

1917. Florence Mellor of Kirkcaldy, Fife, served as a volunteer nurse during the First World War. This…

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon

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Tablecloth embroidered in white thread with signatures of staff and patients of the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital, 1917

Patients were being treated  for the effects of shell shock.
© Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Vesta Tilley

published by The Philco Publishing Co
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Charlie Chaplin

by Alick P.F. Ritchie, issued by John Player & Sons
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Cartoon by 'Pip' from Nurse Mellor's autograph book

She collected drawings, watercolours, verses, jokes and messages from the wounded soldiers in her care.
Part…