Yesterday I entered the final award from the third volume of the Royal Red Cross Register into my database which now covers the years from 1883 to 1994. Several things changed in more than one hundred years, but even at the end most of the awards were still going to the very senior or long-serving nurses - unsurprisingly perhaps. It seems likely that in many cases the award was given as a retirement 'present' for loyalty and devotion over a lifetime of service. From the 1950s onwards there appears to have been a sort of precedent whereby first-class awards (RRC) went to Brigadiers, Colonels and a very few Majors (and the relevant ranks in the Navy and Royal Air Force), and second-class awards (ARRC) to Majors, Captains, all NCOs and virtually all men, whatever their rank. But I came across two awards which stuck out like beacons, and they were two first-class awards, one to Captain Susan Pratt, published in the London Gazette in June 1989, and the second to Captain Sally Emmett (LG December 1989) both of Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. They appear to be two of the few awardees below the rank of Major to receive anything at all, and almost unique in receiving the RRC rather than the ARRC. Too early for the Gulf War, too junior for long-service to enter the equation, I wonder what Susan Pratt and Sally Emmett did to earn their reward? There was one similar award in 1993, to a Captain Christian Townend and as I work through the London Gazette to bring the database right up to date, it will be interesting to see if the trend changes, or whether these were quite as rare as they seem.
This fictional short story appeared in a booklet called 'The Goodbye Book of the Quai D'Escale' which was published to mark the closure of No.2 General Hospital, Havre, in March 1919. This piece is simply signed 'E. S. Duffin' and a check of the British Red Cross Register of Overseas Volunteers shows her to be Emma Sylvia Duffin. A subsequent web search found that she was born in Belfast in 1893, the daughter of Adam Duffin, a prominent businessman, and his wife Maria Drennan. Emma Duffin was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College, Churchill's School, Shrewsbury and Belfast Art College. She worked for more than three years as a VAD during the Great War, in Egypt and at No.2 General Hospital, Le Havre, and during the Second World War she acted as a VAD Commandant to hospitals in Belfast. She died in 1979. I hazard a guess that the ship (though fictional of course!) is based on the RMS Aquitania, though at the time that she wrote this she could have had little idea of how the ship would fare during the following decades.
It was a cold day in late October and dusk was beginning to fall when, with much blowing of whistles from her satellites, the tugs, and to the accompaniment of shouts from the porters on the quay-side waiting to unload her, the big transatlantic liner swung into her place in Havre harbour. An hour or two later the big restaurants and customs rooms were seething with a cosmopolitan crowd of people, jostling each other in their eagerness to get their luggage through the customs in the quickest possible time, or to obtain something to eat and drink before continuing their journey. People of whatever nationality seldom show themselves at their best when travelling. They almost invariably regard themselves as the only travellers of importance, and the fact that they should have to share a cabin, or even a railway carriage, with fellow travellers, or take their place in a queue to await their turn while a much harried Customs Official examines their baggage, makes them secretly indignant and causes them to regard their fellow passengers, especially if they happen to be of another nationality, as enemies, only travelling in order to retard their progress.
John Maxwell, a journalist by profession, and too accomplished a traveller to allow himself to be worried by the small discomforts encountered on such journeys, amused himself as was his wont, but studying the crowd and surmising what might be their various occupations and destinations, and what had brought them from America to Sunny France. He had had a touch of fever on his way over and had been confined to his cabin during most of the voyage, so he had not made the acquaintance of any of his fellow passengers, nor had an opportunity of hearing the usual gossip and tittle-tattle indulged in on board ship. The majority of the First Class passengers were naturally Americans come to ‘do the Continent’ with a good sprinkling of business men. Close to one of the glass doors opening on to the wide balcony overlooking the harbour, stood a slight fair girl with well dressed hair and piquant little face, and that curious colourless complexion which distinguishes an American girl from her English cousin. She was talking eagerly to a handsome square-jawed young man who was regarding her with adoring eyes, and as some of her conversation in a high, rather nasal voice, drifted to John Maxwell, he dismissed the pair with a smile as a honeymoon couple and turned his attention to the tall man with the fur collar on his coat whose air of unmistakable prosperity led to the conjecture that he must be one of the multi-millionaires from the States. From there his eyes wandered to a dapper little Frenchman who was talking rapidly in his own language to a fellow-countryman, discussing the business he had been transacting in New York. He had been standing there for some time thus, idly letting his imagination weave the supposed destinies of the various groups, when his eyes rested on a girl standing alone. She was quietly but smartly dressed and her rather vivid little face stood out against the background of moving figures, but what arrested his attention was her expression. She seemed to be in the crowd but not of it, her eyes were alert and she was glancing from one side to the other of the big waiting-room, yet, curiously enough, she gave the impression of not seeing the people in front of her, and of not knowing quite what she sought. Once a man jostled her and lifting his hat apologised profoundly in broken English, yet she neither seemed to see nor hear him.
John Maxwell felt suddenly compelled to make her acquaintance and he slowly began to make his way towards her. It was with a distinct feeling of disappointment that he saw her suddenly turn, and rather to his surprise, pass through the glass doors on to the balcony and make for the Third Class waiting rom. After a moment’s hesitation he followed her, and found her standing at the door with the same wide-eyed interested expression, yet again he had the impression that she was not seeing what was before her. Finally he plucked up courage to address her, and raising his hat asked her if she was looking for anyone or if he could be of any service to her. She turned on him a slightly puzzled expression like someone awaking from a dream, then smiled a delightful, bright smile, and with a delicious little laugh she said, “Of course you think I am quite mad. I know I’ve been wandering about looking like a lunatic, but you know, this was a Hospital in the big war and I was a V.A.D. here; and while I am waiting for my husband to get our luggage through the customs I have been amusing myself trying to see it all again as it was.” Maxwell was interested. He remembered now having heard that this had been a big surgical hospital, and he too turned and looked at the room trying to picture it as it must have been. “How very strange it must seem to you,” he said. “Strange isn’t a strong enough word. It is quite, quite an eerie feeling. I feel rather as I imagine mortals must feel who have been in fairyland, and come back to visit earth again, - a little homesick and full of regrets for many things and yet not wishing to come back to it all. Oh, the lockers I have scrubbed there, and there isn’t a ledge in this room I haven’t dusted.” As she spoke she ran a finger in a beautifully fitting suede glove along one of the ledges in question. She laughed a little rippling laugh as she held it up for his inspection with a thick coating of dust on the point. “How shocked our Matron would be if she could see them now. And I was just thinking in the other room, when that very beautiful and elegant young woman was serving out drinks, how Sister would have ‘strafed’ me if I hadn’t polished the counter better than that.” Her eyelids crinkled up and her eyes twinkled at the remembrance, then suddenly took on the dreamy look they had worn when John Maxwell first encountered them, and a sad note crept into her voice as she continued, “And the men I have seen die here, and suffer; and the hundreds who spent sleepless nights gazing at the rafters in the ceiling. I can hear them now, the Jocks, ‘Sister, can ye sorrt my pillows again? I canna bide still.’ The old Paddies, ‘Sister dear, could ye get me something wud let me slape? Oi’m desthroyed wid the pain in me leg.’ The Yankees and the Canadians, ‘Gee, I guess that hurts some.’ And the Ozzies, ‘That’s bonza Sister.’” One by one she imitated the different accents. “And the Englishmen, don’t forget them” said Maxwell as she paused. “I’m one of them and I’m beginning to resent being left out.” She turned a reproachful look on him. “As if I would forget them. Nobody ever would who had nursed them. I didn’t forget any of them, not even the poor old Boches with their ‘Wasser, Schwester, Wasser bitte.’ It made you so sorry for them that you forgot to hate them.” “Why Molly,” a man’s voice made them both turn and Maxwell saw a tall, broad-shouldered, clean shaven Englishman regarding them with surprise. “What are you doing in the third class room? I told you to stay where I left you till I came back; I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” “I’m so sorry Don, I’ve been reminiscing and I forgot.” The tall man smiled down indulgently at her. “Well, I’ve got our luggage through and I find we can get through to Paris tonight, so I think we’d better go and secure seats in the train.” She assented, and with a bright nod to Maxwell she passed through the open doors, and he watched the couple go down the broad shallow stairway and disappear from his view.
The second account is of events at the time of the sinking of the Aragon, recalled by a V.A.D. It comes from The Nursing Mirror and Midwives' journal of 9 February 1918.
In the Admiralty official list it is reported that the transport Aragon was torpedoed and sunk in the Eastern Mediterranean on December 30, and also that eight female nurses on board the Osmanieh were lost. The following nurses are officially announced as ‘accidentally drowned': Sisters F. D. Compton, F. Tindall, and A. Welford, and Staff Nurse M. D. Roberts, all of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve; also Miss F. M. Faithfull, Miss G. Bytheway, Miss L. Midwood, and Miss H. Rogers, all V.A.D.s; in addition to Miss C. Ball, Miss W. M. Brown, Miss U. Duncanson, and Miss N. Hawley, whose details we announced in our issue for January 26.
A V.A.D. Nurse who was on board the Aragon writes home to her parents that the vessel sailed from Marseilles with destroyers as escorts. The vessel left the harbour the following Sunday. Proceeding, the writer says: "No doubt we were watched then, but as we were so close to land we thought we were quite safe. At about 10.30 in the morning we could see the land. I went down to my cabin, and the steward was attending to my trunk, which had got damaged on the journey, when, at 10.55, there was a terrible crash, and the steward cried out 'My God, we've got it!' Anyway, he got me outside, though I was not frightened, and gave me my life-belt, and I ran up the two flights of stairs to our boat stations, as we sisters had been detailed to boats. In a minute we had orders to get into the boats, which we promptly did without any confusion. We were lowered - which was a shaky business - a doctor and a colonel accompanying us, and we got away from the ship as soon as we could. By that time we could see the stern of the Aragon down in the water and her bows in the air. The troops on board her were singing. By Jove! It took some doing. We picked up a lot of the boys in our life-boat off the rafts, and when we were packed we made for a trawler which was close by. Fortunately, there were several close at hand, as we were so near land.
In the meantime we looked at the Aragon, which was rapidly sinking. There were hundreds of boys in khaki on board her, and the sight I shall never forget. In fifteen minutes she had completely gone - no sign of her at all. Anyhow, we got into the trawler, and in another minute our destroyer was torpedoed right amidships. She went clean in half. She was close by, and had picked up hundreds of Tommies. They had to go down again, and, to my mind, that was the worst of all. The trawlers headed for land at once. All the sisters were saved, but there was a heavy death-roll. We had many troops on board. As soon as we reached land we were taken to a sergeants' mess close by, where we had brandy and hot tea. We were then put in ambulances and taken to hospital. We had nothing in the wide world except what we stood in." The writer adds: "A most awful thing happened yesterday morning. Another ship was torpedoed in exactly the same place. She went down in five minutes. There were forty nurses on board, and they were all in the water. A good many, I believe, were drowned. I know they brought eight into the mortuary of the hospital.
Several times over the last couple of years I've sent people a copy of an account of the Aragon, both before and at the time of her sinking. As it seems popular, I thought I'd add it here, which will make it easy for a web search to pick up. The first account is of the Aragon during the days following the Gallipoli landings.
Some Memories of the Good Ship A. M. Cameron
The Gallipoli campaign must always be a poignant memory for the Army sisters who tended the wounded and sick brought to the hospital ships in such overwhelming numbers. The sinking of the good ship Aragon will bring it to the remembrance of hundreds of sisters who have so often seen it in their journeyings to the Dardanelles in the days when it was a stationary staff ship in Mudros Harbour in the Island of Lemnos. My special memory of the Aragon is a sad one.
It was in April 1915. The landing of our heroic troops at Cape Helles had been satisfactorily accomplished, though at a woeful cost. We gathered in a shipload of wounded and carried them to Alexandria. Just before the harbour was reached we had got all our patients ready for disembarkation, but when we reached the quay the news was brought to us that they must remain where they were. There was no room for them. The hospitals were flooded with wounded, and still the wounded came. The hospitals ships were insufficient to meet the rush. Temporary hospitals were being hastily improvised, and medical and nursing help and hospital ships were being hurried to the East with all possible speed. There was no dearth of willing volunteers, but they were untrained, and the number of trained nurses to meet the overwhelming need was pitifully small. Our orders were to carry our wounded to England. As we had over a hundred men who could not possibly live through a rough sea passage they were taken off and room was found for them somewhere. Our French troops were also removed. This resulted in over 200 empty cots, and these, we learned, were to be filled with wounded from the Aragon.
The Commanding Officer and the ship's captain went over to the vessel to arrange about the transference of some of these poor soldiers, and when they returned they told us a pitiful tale. Hundreds of wounded were lying all over the ship. A few medical men and a handful of orderlies had worked night and day for the relief of the sufferers, but what could they do among so many with no medical comforts and no nursing requisites? We were prepared for much, but it seemed almost more than we could bear, the passion of pity which surged up in our hearts when the men from the Aragon were brought to us. Undressed wounds absolutely polluted the atmosphere, and the poor souls, in their muddy, bloodstained clothes, their eyes bright with fever, their bodies weak through loss of blood and lack of food, made an unforgettable appeal not only to our humanity, but to our nursing instinct. They had lain in untold agony for days and nights, undressed, untended and unfed - and it had been no one's fault, merely the hard and cruel luck of war!
The cool, clean cots, the invigorating food, the careful, tender cleansing of bodies and of wounds meant more than we could ever realise to the poor men and boys who had endured so much. Doctors, sisters, and orderlies all appeared to be seized with one overwhelming idea, and that was that nothing was too good for these men from the Aragon. If human skill and nursing could save lives and limbs, the precious lives and limbs should be saved, those long and dreary hours of pain and suffering leave no permanent ill-effect. The gratitude of these men was quite pathetic. Some of them had wearily thought that only death could end their sufferings, and the unremitting care of the medical and nursing staff fell like healing balm on the tortured bodies. By the time our ship reached Southampton our patients from the Aragon were decidedly better, and I cannot remember that any deaths occurred on board.
In the 'Court Circular' a few days ago the announcement was made that the Queen had received Miss Margaret MacDonald, R.R.C., Matron-in-Chief of the Canadian Army Nursing Service, Miss Evelyn Conyers, R.R.C., Matron-in-Chief of the Australian Nursing Service, and Miss Mabel Thurstan, R.R.C., Matron-in-Chief of the Nurses of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. It was a gracious and spontaneous thought on the part of her Majesty, and it has behind it a significance far greater than might at first sight appear. All the nursing of the war has been carried out with a quiet reticence that has concealed the magnitude of the task performed with such splendid efficiency; and if those at home know little indeed of the actual work of our own Army Service and that of the Territorial Force Nursing Service, with the Reserves that they have built up, still less are they aware of the noble help that the daughters of the Dominions have brought to the wounded. For this recognition, truly queenly as it was, of the mercy of womanhood throughout the Empire has afforded to every nurse from overseas a sense of personal distinction. Canada, the first of the younger nations to send its highly-trained nurses, has contributed no fewer than 1,900 members to the service of the Allies. The contingents from Australia have numbered 1,500, and none will have forgotten the devoted services that they rendered at the time that the wounded from Gallipoli were needing all the care that gentleness and love could give them. From New Zealand have come 500, these being the round figures, which represents a fine response in relation to the population of the Southern Dominion. The Matrons-in-Chief have shown themselves to be women of high powers of organisation and control, and have insisted throughout upon a lofty standard of qualifications on the part of those who they have accepted for service.
Her Majesty accorded to the ladies the rare distinction of receiving them in her private apartments at Windsor Castle, and Princess Mary was also present. Specially in attendance was the Countess of Minto, whose knowledge of and sympathy with all that pertains to nursing has been so forcibly show in the service which bears her name in India. The Queen was not only extremely interested in the details that each matron could give in regard to the contingent for which she was responsible, but asked for any suggestions that might be desirable in improving the conditions and status of the nurses' important labours. Before the ladies left, the Queen showed them some of the specially notable and valuable things that she had acquired in the course of her travels, and delighted each of her guests with some of her reminiscences of their own homelands. It was indeed the intimate and homelike character of the reception that has made so strong an appeal to the nurses generally as a proof of the Queen's comprehension of the attitude of mind and the love of things domestic among the women of the daughter-lands. This is the point that is being emphasised in the hundreds of letters dwelling on the reception that are going to family circles, whether in Australia or Saskatchewan, New Zealand or Newfoundland.
A nurse and midwife for most of my working life, an interest in both family history and the Great War led me on to researching several local Sussex war memorials, and later some in-depth study of British military nurses from 1881. My particular interest now is the lives and work of nurses in France and Flanders during the Great War. I've lived in West Sussex for many years, where I work for a GP group practice.