Thursday, 8 February 2007

My Grandmother Nursed on the Somme

.. is one of those phrases that tends to make my heart sink a little, and instil a shiver of fear inside, knowing that whatever I reply might disappoint.

The area of France officially called the Somme is quite large, extending in the west to the coast beyond Abbeville, and south to Montdidier, but for the British it almost always refers to that much smaller area of the Departement north of the River Somme, and east of Amiens, which was the scene of fierce fighting in 1916, and again two years later.

Most nurses, both trained and untrained, who worked under the auspices of the British Army, were employed in hospitals far back from the fighting, in Boulogne, Le Havre, Abbeville, Rouen, Etaples, and many points on the coast. Although technically some women were 'on the Somme,' they were far removed from trench warfare, [although later in the war did not escape German bombing raids], and were not giving aid to men in the trenches of the Somme battlefield.
A few nurses, specially chosen for their stamina, skill, and aptitude for 'acute' work, took their turn in staffing Casualty Clearing Stations, located nearer the front line, and even fewer in Field Ambulances, which might be only a couple of miles away from the fighting, but they would quickly be withdrawn if their situation became too hazardous. The majority of nurses spent most of their time 'at the Base,' working in large British military general and stationary hospitals with a constant turnover of both wounded men, and those suffering from common complaints and infectious diseases. Untrained women - members of Voluntary Aid Detachments [VADs], never worked anywhere other than hospital - no untrained nurse was ever permitted to go to a Casualty Clearing Station, however short-handed they were.

If your relative did go overseas during the Great War, and worked in units under the control of the British Army, she would have qualified for service medals, and should have a medal index card at The National Archives. This index is searchable online, and doesn't give a lot of information, but does confirm overseas service and unit. You'll find it at:

Click on the search button, and then on 'WW1 Campaign Medals'.

So if grandmother was attached to the British army, the likelihood is that she didn't see a lot of the Somme, other than gazing over the western reaches close to Abbeville. Mind you, she would have still have seen things that most of us could never even imagine.

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