Book review: Always the Children by Anne Watts

One way or another, war has shaped and dictated the remarkable life story of nurse Anne Watts.

Friday, 18th March 2011, 6:00 am

Born in Liverpool as the city was ravaged by Hitler’s blitz, her career took her to some of the most dangerous war zones of the world – Vietnam, Cambodia, the Lebanon and Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.

It has been a rollercoaster journey for the girl who grew up in a small village in North Wales...a life which has witnessed the macabre drama of bloody war, the heartbreaking helplessness of families torn apart by conflict and the terrible injuries of those left maimed and mutilated.

Now approaching her 70th birthday, Watts has put pen to paper and recorded her truly incredible story as a tribute to the children to whom she brought hope, and the young soldiers whose hands she held as they died.

And what shines through the horror, the pain and the utter futility of war is Watts’ inspirational devotion, her spirit of adventure and her will to alleviate suffering whatever or wherever it might be.

Her story is made all the more extraordinary by a bizarre and shocking sequence of events – a tragic reminder of the consequences of the buttoned-up Fifties – which destroyed her childhood and culminated in her mother’s premature death.

But Watts is a survivor; she learned from her experiences but never allowed them to inhibit her own capacity for compassion.

Despite her father’s hostility to a career in nursing, Watts trained at Manchester Royal Infirmary and left older, wiser and determined to take her skills where they were most needed.

And in 1967, that was a Save the Children Fund centre near Saigon in Vietnam during the bitter and brutal war where a cocktail of refugees, fear, danger and soul-sapping heat proved deadly.

Watts had to come to terms with the horror of illness, injury and death on an unimaginable scale: ‘I felt like I had stumbled into some kind of hell.’

Nothing had prepared her for coming face to face with the evidence of what war does to human beings – toddlers with missing limbs, children left paralysed by blast injuries and young soldiers horribly mutilated.

There were lighter moments – a brief love affair and visits to a local Catholic hospital where nuns and nurses sat down to the latest Hollywood blockbuster – but there were also dark periods of anger at the politicians and deep disillusionment at the mindless waste of lives.

Undeterred by the horrors of Vietnam, Watts took her skills to troublespots all over the the victims of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Thailand and Cambodia, to Lebanon during the Israeli occupation and to Saudi Arabia as the first Gulf War broke out.

During those years, she saw cruelty, bigotry, blind hatred and cultural attitudes that were hard to accept but came to realise that ‘you can’t fix everything, you just do what you can’.

And despite it all – ‘humanity at its best and its worst, the terrible and the beautiful’ – Watts admits that the idealism of a teenager still burns inside her along with the belief that each of us can make a difference.

Always the Children is a humbling, terrifying, shocking and yet strangely uplifting story of one woman’s selfless devotion and her undiminished determination to alleviate the suffering of her fellow man.

Don’t miss it.

>(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)