Thursday, 10 April 2014

The 'Volunteer Nurse'

     With the screening of 'The Crimson Field' on TV, there seems to have arisen some confusion over the 'Volunteer Nurse.' This morning I came across a newly-published edition of Olive Dent's book 'A VAD in France,' first published in 1917 by Grant Richards, and for some years available in new editions or as a free download from the web.**   I was rather shocked that not only is it being promoted as some sort of spin-off from 'The Crimson Field' complete with a cover illustration strongly suggestive that its contents are related, but that the original title has been changed to suit the publisher. It seems an incredibly arrogant stance for a publisher to take, and I have to wonder whether they think the change in title will fool the unwary into believing that it's a different book to the one that can be found free elsewhere. At the very least it shows dishonesty and a complete lack of integrity.

A Volunteer Nurse on the Western Front

     But back to the 'Volunteer.'  When women joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment in the United Kingdom, they received no pay, but were provided with board and lodging if working away from home. When they went overseas, the majority found themselves in a very different position. VADs who worked overseas in British hospitals under War Office control were paid. They received a basic salary of £20 a year, with extra allowances which were extremely generous, and in total added up to more than £115 a year in payment or in kind. It put their annual salary on a par with, or above, many women workers in the UK. To imply that they were working as 'angels and heroines' for nothing is entirely wrong. In the recently published 'Dorothea's War,' the wartime diary of VAD Dorothea Crewdson,* she was constantly surprised at the size of her monthly pay-packet. On the 4th August 1915 she wrote in her diary:

Pay night and we have all received a monstrously and wonderfully large sum of money … The Sisters of course have different pay and more of it. We all feel robbers of the Matron as our salary for the month comes to more than £10 and we only expected £20 a year.

On September 21st she continues:

All the night staff were paid yesterday morning after breakfast.  Matron dispensed coins, done up and packed as usual. VADs got fr 302.75 which is more than £10. Pay is a wonderful mystery and seems always more than one ever expected.

And even when allowances for heating and lighting were discontinued the following year, she had no complaints:

Pay night yesterday and we got fr 334.90, the last big pay we shall have before allowances are cut down. But I am glad as I think it is a waste of English money to pay us all so much.

     So whenever you see VADs overseas patted on the head for doing their job for free, please bear in mind that they did not. They were paid appropriately for their work and they well understood the value of their pay.

*Dorothea's War: Edited by Richard Crewdson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
** If you'd rather not pay for your e-book, Olive Dent's original text of 'A VAD in France' is available free:
A VAD in France

Monday, 31 March 2014

Peace Parade - More Names

After yesterday's post, I managed to find a fuller list of names of nurses who took part in the Peace Parade in London on July 19th, 1919. It covers members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, the QAIMNS Reserve, and Assistant Nurses and Special Military Probationers attached to QAIMNS, but not the Territorial Force Nursing Service.  The original pages can be found within the Women's Work Collection at the Imperial War Museum.


Sunday, 30 March 2014

Peace Parade 1919


I was given the photo above many years ago, and it shows the contingent of military nurses marching at the Peace Parade in London on the 19th July, 1919. There are a few familiar women among a sea of faces, including Dame Maud McCarthy, Dame Ethel Becher, Dame Sidney Browne and Florence Hodgins, all senior members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. Also at the front, in dark uniform, is Margaret Russell, Lady Ampthill, representing the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. As for the others, I've never been able to positively identify any of them, so was delighted to find a note written by Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders, giving the names of nine of the nursing sisters chosen by her to attend the march.  It's still not possible to put faces to names, but at least if your relative is one of those named, you can be sure that she's there somewhere.

Received War Office telegram requesting names to be submitted of 6 Members of the Q.A.I.M.N.S. and three members of the Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve who will be in England on 16th July and would like to take a part in March on July 19th.
Forwarded to D.M.S. the following are the names of ladies who will be in London on 16th and will be pleased to have the privilege of joining in the March: A/Matron Congleton, Q.A.I.M.N.S., Sister N. I. Jordan, Q.A.I.M.N.S., Sister N. Molloy, Q.A.I.M.N.S., Sister J. Todd, Q.A.I.M.N.S., A/Sister M. McCormick, Q.A.I.M.N.S., A/Sister K. M. Barkley, Q.A.I.M.N.S., A/Sister N. Easby, Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve, A/Sister M. E. Southworth, Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve and A/Sister E. C. Ramsay, Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve.

(Jessie Hume Congleton, Nelly Ida Jordan, Norah Molloy, Jane Todd, Marion McCormick, Nora Easby, Margaret Southworth, Elizabeth Ramsay. A/Sister Barkley believed to be Mary Kathleen Barclay, later Mrs. Harris)

Saturday, 29 March 2014


     Some time ago I left a review on Amazon commenting on Emily Mayhew's book 'Wounded - From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918.'  I've spent a lot of time over many years trying to counter a great deal of misinformation about military nurses that appears both in print and on the web. My own view is that the role of women in wartime needs to be accurately recorded, that less should be written about those engaged in hair-raising theatricals, and more about the basic facts of their service, their life and work, without embellishment, as only then can a true picture emerge. The true picture might not be as dramatic, but the women themselves didn't need drama, just a platform for hard work, experience and professionalism, with an occasional act of bravery thrown in as well. But truth is all.

Wounded - From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918

     I found 'Wounded' hard to read, so full of invention and errors, that after writing the review I put it aside. I'd written about just one section of the chapter on nurses, the story of Winifred Kenyon (Mrs. Williamson) - to do much more would have gone against the whole point of a review. Then last week I was contacted by members of her family who had read both the book and my review and they also felt unhappy that her story had been filled with fictional passages. Winifred Kenyon's life has been well recorded, not only in her papers held at the Imperial War Museum but also in print as in 2012 her daughter, Ann Mitchell, wrote a short biography recounting her mother's full life:

Winifred: The Life of Winifred Lilian Williamson (1892-1990)

     My assessment of her work was not quite accurate, as although she did indeed work as a cook during the Great War, she also undertook some nursing duties in the French military hospital, run under the auspices of the British Committee of the French Red Cross, her name also appearing in the index of Laurence Binyon's book 'For Dauntless France.'  My contact with her family led me to re-read the chapter in 'Wounded' and to further assess its content. So I will raise a couple of extra points - whether they can be taken as typical of the entire book I can't say, but this chapter is what I know and care about. The chapter 'Nurses' starts with an account attributed to 'Jentie Patterson,' though as her surname was actually 'Paterson' I'll stick to that. Jentie Paterson was a member of the Civil Hospital Reserve who went to France in late August 1914, and her first posting was to No.4 General Hospital, at that time situated just outside Paris at Versailles. 'Wounded' tells us that:

Patterson had worked at a general hospital in Versailles, which ran on similar lines to the large metropolitan hospitals back in Britain - formal, planned, organised. In fact, that was the reason she left. It was all a bit too much like nursing at home. She had wanted the challenge of working close to the front, and now she had got it.

     So that much is true, but as she was a member of the military nursing staff she would not have 'left,' but moved, and her movements were the decision of the Matron-in-Chief, not her own. Unfortunately I can't confirm that she did leave at that time, nor whether she was ever posted to a casualty clearing station, but the opening paragraphs are a remarkable and ridiculous muddle of poorly researched nonsense.

One night in her office at the No.5 Casualty Clearing Station on the Normandy coast, Sister Jentie Patterson set aside the last of her official paperwork and started a letter to her sister Martha in Scotland. Even though she was exhausted and a cold wind had found its way through he wooden planks of her hut and had frozen her hands and feet to numbness ...  it was late November 1914.

No.5 CCS had been set up just outside Tréport to process casualties coming from the front to the hospitals ships on the Channel coast.  It was an abandoned monastery, with dormitories and some tenting that served as extra ward space. Like all CCSs in 1914, it was intended as a staging post, where dressings were changed and fluids administered before the men were moved on to their next destination. But in the 'race to the sea' the German armies tried to outflank the Allies, and now No.5 was in the thick of it, the furthest medical facility up the line. Sister Patterson could hear the guns roar day and night and she knew it meant they weren't just a staging post any more.

     Casualty clearing stations were sited near enough to the front line to provide a facility where soldiers could be actively treated and advanced surgery performed, usually between five and twelve miles behind the lines. From there men would be transferred back to the base hospitals on the coast by ambulance train. It is of course impossible that a CCS would ever be set up at distant Le Tréport, and immediately obvious that it is quite impossible for any unit to be both 'just outside Tréport' while also being 'the furthest medical facility up the line.' Just for those among you who actually want to know where No.5 CCS was at that time, it was at Hazebrouck, many miles north-east, up towards the border with Belgium - let Google be your friend. And I wonder how the family of the officer commanding the unit, Colonel Bentley, R.A.M.C., feel about Ms. Mayhew referring to him as a 'fat ass'? I find it hard to believe that these were actually Jentie Paterson's words.  Did she ever work at No.5 C.C.S.?  Certainly not if she thought it was at Le Tréport.

     Skipping over Winifred Kenyon this time, the last 'tale' in the chapter is that of 'Elizabeth Boon' and a letter she wrote to the family of Pte. Joseph Simpson. I was rather intrigued that I could find no evidence of an 'Elizabeth Boon' working as a member of the military nursing services so I had to look a little deeper. The original of the three-page letter is held at the Imperial War Museum and attributed to 'Nurse E. Boon' who was working at No.54 General Hospital at the time the letter was written in 1918. Knowing how shallow much of the research had been for the book I made the assumption that the author didn't actually know who this woman was, and had simply made up her first name. A search of nurses' service files at The National Archives found the file of Effie Boon, and sure enough she was working at No.54 General Hospital at the time - a real dearth of any women with the surname 'Boon' left little doubt that this was the right one.**

Boon had arrived at the front in 1916, one of the new nursing intake brought over for the Somme offensive. Two years on and she had written so many sympathy letters that she had lost count.

Wrong. Effie Boon arrived in France for the first time in March 1918, and of course there was never a 'new nursing intake brought over for the Somme offensive.' The account continues:

All she knew was that she had to make sure she didn't get behind with them. A colleague tried to write at least a dozen letters a night, but during the battle of Arras he had got behind and had to write almost sixty letters to catch up. [24]

     [24] is the number given to a source reference, and it actually relates to a passage in Kate Luard's book 'Unknown Warriors' in which she tells this exact story. Ms. Mayhew has used a passage from another factual account for her book, referenced the original, but then presented it as fiction - there is more than one instance of this, and I would consider it a pretty unforgivable method of working. The book needs more research to correct very obvious mistakes; the names should be removed or anonymised and it could then be presented as fiction, for that's what it is. As it stands it may provide dramatic reading for the uninitiated, but purporting to be fact and falsifying people's lives can only confuse and mislead anyone who looks a little deeper.


** Effie Boon was born in 1881 in Worthing, Sussex, the daughter of Henry Boon a wheelwright and his wife Esther, the family later moving to Horsham. She trained as a nurse between 1908 and 1911 at Worcester General Infirmary. 


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Unknown Warriors - The Letters of Kate Luard

There are probably many people who will be delighted to hear that a new edition of 'Unknown Warriors' is due out in August this year. Kate Luard's first book was published anonymously in 1916, and because of that it's been available in the public domain for some time. The continuation and sequel, 'Unknown Warriors,' (1930) has remained out of print for decades, and although still in copyright, this new edition is the result of much hard work and devotion by members of her family. It will be published by The History Press in August, and promotion of the new edition is due to start in May. With so few copies of the original available, this will surely be a welcome addition to many bookshelves.

The letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918
ISBN 978-0-7509-5922-3

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Intelligence Officer

This is part of an account written by Sister Catherine Black while working at a Casualty Clearing Station in 1916. Born in Ireland and trained at The London Hospital, Whitechapel, she was later the private nurse to King George V until his death in 1936.

Catherine Black - 'Blackie'


     The German wounded had exactly the same treatment as our own, except that they were not allowed to speak to one another, and we were always ordered to place them in beds as far apart as possible. I can only remember one departure from this rule, and that was at a C.C.S. just behind the lines. A German prisoner, an officer of high rank, was brought in slightly wounded, and given a bed in the corner of my ward. On the day following his admission the British medical officer in charge of the station sent for me and told me that he had some instructions of the utmost importance for me. A patient, who would appear to be a German officer, would be brought to my ward later that day and I was for once to reverse all previous orders and put him in the bed next to the prisoner. He would in reality be an officer from the British Intelligence Department seeking certain valuable information, but I must be most careful to keep up the illusion. Although he would not, of course, be wounded, I must nurse him in the usual way and allow him every opportunity for getting acquainted with the German in the next bed. The Sister on night duty was to be given the same instructions as I. No one else in the station was to know anything, for the entire success of the plan depended on its secrecy.

     Late that afternoon another convoy came in and among them was a German officer.  His uniform was torn and covered with mud, and when he was carried in by two ambulance men he seemed so obviously ill and in great pain that I thought at first sight he could not possibly be the one for whose arrival I was prepared. Then he gave me the signal that I had been told to look for, and I ordered the stretcher-bearers to put him into the empty bed next to the German prisoner who had been admitted the day before.  Then began an elaborate game of make-believe. Never on any stage have I seen such an actor as that Intelligence Officer! His part was carried out to perfection. Not only did he completely deceive the German next to him as to his credentials, but he even hoodwinked the nurses and orderlies into believing him a badly wounded man. The Night Sister and I backed him up for all we were worth. At the proper times we put screens round his bed, carefully dressed and re-bandgaged his imaginary wounds to the most realistic exclamations of pain and protests in broken English. When he appeared to be suffering very much we carried out the pretence of giving him injections. Every day the whole performance of nursing him was carried out with scrupulous care, the only difference between him and the other patients being that no orderlies were allowed to attend him; Sister and I did everything for him ourselves. To avoid creating suspicion, we carried out exactly the same procedure in the case of the bona fide German officer. Very soon there were whispered conversations between the two beds, but we took good care to be out of earshot when that happened.

     On the fourth day the German officer was transferred to a prison camp, and our mysterious patient was 'evacuated.' We never knew his destination, but a week or two later I received unofficial information that the plan had been a great success. Somehow or other I linked this up with the news that our troops had taken an important German position.

King's Nurse, Beggar's Nurse, Catherine Black, published by Hurst and Blackett, London, 1939

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Nurse, the German, Spying and Sinn Fein

National Army Museum

 Attributing the labels of 'angel' and 'heroine' to nurses who served during the Great War seems increasingly common. I've always thought that although 'heroine' may on occasions be accurate, 'angel' never is. Nursing sisters were well trained and experienced over many years, and they relished the opportunity of their skills being publicly recognised. Even the untrained VAD learnt quickly, and found a position as a full member of the nursing team in hospitals at home and overseas. They were not angels, not ethereal creatures, not myth or legend; they were a normal range of earthly women, good, bad and indifferent. As one extreme, I've recently come across the story of a nurse whose behaviour definitely went against the grain and left her in a lot of trouble. The name of the nurse has been removed (for now) but I can add that she came from Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, and trained as a nurse in Belfast.  I first noticed her through a brief entry in the official war diary of the Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders on June 11th, 1918:

Received a telephone message from the A.A.G. ...  Found that he wished to let me know that a certain S/Nurse of the name of W___  Q.A.I.M.N.S.R. had been found carrying on correspondence with the enemy.  She was thought to be a Sinn Feiner, and it was probable that she would be tried by Court Martial.  He wished it to be entirely confidential until the official information came to Headquarters.  He did not wish it talked about.

This nurse has a service file at The National Archives and it gives extensive details of what led up to her arrest. Space only permits a few extracts from witness statements and letters, and some of the evidence produced seems laughable today, but it does show how even little events could start a major alert and have far-reaching consequences. The Staff Nurse was at this time working at No.11 Stationary Hospital, Rouen, and many of the witness statements were given by patients being treated in the hospital at the time who had watched, followed and taken note.


SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE in the case of Staff Nurse M. W ___, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, No.11 Stationary Hospital :

[There were several witness statements, all broadly similar]

I have seen Sister W___ drop a match-box at the back of Tent 55 and return to the ward. A few minutes afterwards I observed a German Prisoner of War come to this spot and pick up the match-box. A few days afterwards Sister W___ asked the patients in the Ward for a match-box, which was given to her. That same evening she was seen dodging between the huts and was seen to put two packets of “Commander” cigarettes behind the Sisters’ Bunk. I and two other fellow patients searched for the match-box but could not find it. We found the cigarettes and a stick with the word ‘Pudding’ written on it. A few days after, she was seen by witness and another patient hiding twelve bars of chocolate and a tin of cigarettes under tarred paper and tarpaulin sheet at the side of the hut.  I took the articles found to Major Chappel ... [Later] we noticed Sister W___ with another Sister coming across to this same spot later in the evening, about 9 p.m.  The other Sister walked between the huts and Sister W___ went to the same spot and then went up to the top of the extension and back again and went away.'

After similar evidence was given by another witness, the accused asked:

 ‘Did you suspect me of being a German spy?” to which he answered ‘I could not say.’  
‘Had you any suspicions at all?’  
‘When I saw you drop the box, I thought there was something suspicious about it.’

And from a Sergeant supervising a German Labour Company:

At 4.30 p.m. it was reported by Ptes. Roberts and Doughty, 944 Artizan Coy., that they had seen a German Prisoner of War creeping towards the Sisters’ Hut.  They then went to the place where they had seen the Prisoner of War go, and found a match-box and part of another with a letter in each. They handed these letters to me … I read the letters. I could recognise the German prisoner of war that went to the hut.  On one occasion I saw Sister W___ wave two handkerchiefs, green and white, coming down from the farther end of the Extension Hospital towards 55 Ward. She waved these two handkerchiefs in a peculiar manner, one down and one across. I saw no answering signal …

The German who had been recognised by the Sergeant was Corporal Max Ehmke:

Memo from Major Vernon Dupree, Captain and Adjutant:

I beg to report that P.W. No.15 Cpl Ehmke, Max, has been detected in writing letters to a Nurse in No.11 Stationary Hospital. The letters, which are now in my possession, were enclosed in match boxes and discovered by my Escort.  The Nurse, I believe, is under arrest.

And a subsequent memo from H. A. Lash, Captain and Adjutant, 15 Labour Group, Auxiliary Camp, Quevilly.

I understand from Major Dupree that P/W No.15 Cpl. EHMKE used to work at No.11 Stationary Hospital, but has not worked there for some weeks. He is now working at No.6 but he managed to get letters through by means of another German prisoner.  Apparently from the enclosed letters, another nurse is corresponding with a German prisoner in the 82nd P of W Company. I have instructed Major Dupree to recall the Cpl. EHMKE from work, and place him under close arrest so as to prevent him corresponding with the Nurse in question by means of his comrade.  Major Dupree has made a thorough search of Cpl. EHMKE and his belongings to see if he can find any letters written by the Nurse to the German prisoner, but has failed to do so, the German has told him that he has burnt all the letters.

Some short extracts from the German prisoner's letters are below. The originals are quite long and rather touching, though if one believes that there might have been spying involved, they could be looked on perhaps as a means of using extreme flattery and amorous advances to soften up a lamb for the slaughter! They are written from 'Jim' to 'Una' which both appear to be pseudonyms.

Dearest Una
When I was marching here tonight I was full of hope to get a letter from you dear, but I arrived at our Camp, I learned that the men had not found one. This news struck me as a blow and you can imagine how great my disappointment was.  I feel really uneasy about you and am wondering what has happened to you. … I risk to send you this note … Oh dearest, I could never bear, when you had been discovered, I feel responsible for it …  Perhaps I happen to see you tomorrow morning and then I shall be comforted seeing that you are still well
All my love dearest, Yours, Jim

Dearest Una
I too, cannot express my feelings, especially after having read your dear letters of 10th and 11th. When I saw you passing this afternoon I got absolutely shocked at you. I realised how much you are suffering. And the same I noticed from your letters. Oh Dearest, my heart is bleeding. I cannot bear seeing you suffer. I know a great deal of your sufferings are caused by the circumstances. I have experienced myself how one feels when one is suspected and watched by everyone. I can quite realise what it means for you to go and fetch the letters night for night, and always the fear of being discovered. Oh dearest, only a heroine can do that, but also a heroine has no superhuman strength. Therefore in order to prevent you having an absolute breakdown, we have to stop hour correspondence, Thus, this will be my last letter ... 

And this is part of one of the newspaper cuttings found with the match-boxes, and which raised suspicions of a connection to Sinn Fein:

A strange scene was witnessed in Dublin on Sunday, when 450 aliens, German and Austrian civilians, who had been interned in Oldcastle Camp, County Meath, were deported. They arrived in the City by a special train, and a special steamer took them from the Liffey.  They carried a great quantity of luggage, which included musical instruments of different kinds.  A large number of female relatives gathered outside the railway station and cheered the deportees, and waved Sinn Fein and green flags

On the 13th August 1918 Staff Nurse W___ was recalled to England, the Director-General of Medical Services stating in a memo to the Adjutant General:

There would not appear to be sufficient evidence to warrant a trial by Court Martial, but I think we are justified in dismissing her from the Service. Do you concur?

And his reply:

I notice that this nurse’s contract apparently expires today. I am therefore of opinion that the contract should not be renewed. I do not think it would be desirable to dismiss this Staff Nurse because political capital without a doubt would be made out of it. I should imagine from the newspaper cuttings she was sending to the German prisoner that she is a Sinn Feiner and after you have taken the necessary action I think you should pass the papers to the D.M.I. [Directorate of Military Intelligence] as it may be desirable to keep an eye on this lady’s movements in the future. I may be wrong but it seems quite possible that Miss W___ may be a dangerous person and I do not quite like the combination of Sinn Fein sentiments and love for a German, the natural corollary of which appears to me to be hatred of England etc. etc.

She was transferred to Boulogne and at first refused to leave - her Matron was given firm instructions to supervise her embarkation for England:

On informing Miss W___ of the orders she was very angry – said she was being blamed for the recent bombing near here, and that was why she was being moved, and that such blame was because she was Irish. She at first refused to go, stated she wished to resign at once, and go straight back to Ireland, and that she would not report at the War Office or do any duty in Home Hospitals.  Also that when she arrived in Ireland she intended to place the matter in the hands of those in Authority she knew, and, to use her expression, ‘have the whole matter thrashed out.’ On my pointing out the uselessness of not obeying orders she consented to go...

Her later life is not detailed in her file. She worked first in Glasgow, and the following year is believed to have returned to Ireland. Was this all a storm in a teacup, or spying; a love affair; a nurse being kind to prisoners, or being taken advantage of by the enemy? At least it's not the story of a nurse pretending to be an angel.