Saturday, 31 December 2011

Something to be learnt ...

My fingers need to be typing ... preferably lists. Lists of anything really. I thought lists might become boring after a while, but with the radio on and my brain detached, typing lists is really very relaxing. After toying with a few medal roll bits and pieces, I've decided to transcribe some medal rolls in full. I discovered that quite a few of the medal rolls at The National Archives cover 'miscellaneous' medical units, which seem to be useful as they not only give full names, but also state which unit a person was attached - information not easily found elsewhere. So I've started with the British Red Cross Society 1914 Star roll (WO329/2505), and it's proving rather interesting. I've already typed my way through W. Somerset Maugham working as a volunteer driver, artist C. R. Nevinson slogging away (I hope) with the Friends' Ambulance Unit, and a few of the great and the good such as Fabian Ware and Lord Robert Cecil.

I've now reached a part of the roll devoted to the rank and file British Red Cross orderlies who went to France between August and November 1914. As a few of them have rather unusual names, it's been possible to check their occupations with the help of the 1911 census. Rather surprisingly (to me, anyway) most of those I've been able to find so far were pre-war coal miners from County Durham, or from Wales, and it seems likely that they were recruited as a group early on in the war. I wonder who initiated 'coal miners as hospital orderlies' and why the men found it so appealing at the time? But it proves that however boring lists might seem, there's always something to be learnt ...

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

United States Army Nurse Corps

It's hard to find sources which outline the involvement of American nurses in the Great War. A few served with the British Expeditionary Force in France from as early as 1915, but the majority arrived with the entrance of the US into the war in 1917, and worked with the American forces in areas outside of those controlled by the British. Recently a friend came across a brief history of the US Army Nurse Corps and bought it for me (thanks Harry!). Below is an extract which describes the activities of American nurses during WW1. It surprises me that considering the short period that the US were involved overseas, and the small numbers of both troops and casualties, relative to the other Allied nations, that there was such a high number of American trained nurses taking part in some capacity or another. I can only wonder at how so many women were kept fully employed.


30 June 1918
Of the 12,186 nurses on active duty, 5,350 were serving overseas

9 July 1918
The Nurse Corps (female) was redesignated the Army Nurse Corps by the Army Reorganization Act of 1918. The 1918 Act restricted appointments to women nurses. Base pay was increased to $60 per month.

11 November 1918
Armistice Day. During World War 1, the peak strength of the Army Nurse Corps reached 21,480 on 11 November 1918. More than ten thousand nurses had served in overseas areas in France, Belgium, England, Italy, and Serbia, as well as in Siberia, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Included were ten Sisters of Charity who served with Base Hospital No.102 in Vicenza, Italy. Army nurses were assigned to casualty clearing stations and surgical teams in field hospitals as well as to mobile, evacuation, base, camp and convalescent hospitals. They also served on hospital trains and transport ships. Following the Armistice, nurses served with the occupation forces in German until the American forces were returned in 1923.

Several nurses were wounded, but none died as a result of enemy action. There were, however, more than two hundred deaths largely caused by influenza and pneumonia. The Distinguished Service Cross (second in rank only to the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration in combat) was awarded to 3 Army nurses. The Distinguished Service Medal (highest decoration in noncombat) was awarded to 23 Army nurses. In addition to other United States Army decorations, 28 Army nurses were awarded the French Croix de Guerre, 69 the British Royal Red Cross, and 2 the British Military Medal. Many Army nurses were named in British Army dispatches for their meritorious service.

Nurses who remained in the United States served with distinction in busy cantonment and general hospitals, at ports of embarkation, and at other military outposts. Many were cited for meritorious service.

Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps
Edited by Carolyn M. Feller and Constance J. Moore
U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1995

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Mrs. Seacole at Christmas

Excuse this for being rather out of period for this blog, but as it's the season of festive cheer (hopefully) I thought that a look back to Christmas towards the end of the Crimean War might be in order. This extract comes from Mary Seacole's memoirs 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands' published in 1857.


So Christmas came, and with it pleasant memories of home and of home comforts. With it came also news of home—some not of the most pleasant description—and kind wishes from absent friends. “A merry Christmas to you,” writes one, “and many of them. Although you will not write to us, we see your name frequently in the newspapers, from which we judge that you are strong and hearty. All your old Jamaica friends are delighted to hear of you, and say that you are an honour to the Isle of Springs.”

I wonder if the people of other countries are as fond of carrying with them everywhere their home habits as the English. I think not. I think there was something purely and essentially English in the determination of the camp to spend the Christmas-day of 1855 after the good old “home” fashion. It showed itself weeks before the eventful day. In the dinner parties which were got up—in the orders sent to England—in the supplies which came out, and in the many applications made to the hostess of the British Hotel for plum-puddings and mince-pies. The demand for them, and the material necessary to manufacture them, was marvellous. I can fancy that if returns could be got at of the flour, plums, currants, and eggs consumed on Christmas-day in the out-of-the-way Crimean peninsula, they would astonish us. One determination appeared to have taken possession of every mind—to spend the festive day with the mirth and jollity which the changed prospect of affairs warranted; and the recollection of a year ago, when death and misery were the camp’s chief guests, only served to heighten this resolve.

For three weeks previous to Christmas-day, my time was fully occupied in making preparations for it. Pages of my books are filled with orders for plum-puddings and mince-pies, besides which I sold an immense quantity of raw material to those who were too far off to send down for the manufactured article on Christmas-day, and to such purchasers I gave a plain recipe for their guidance. Will the reader take any interest in my Crimean Christmas-pudding? It was plain, but decidedly good. However, you shall judge for yourself:—“One pound of flour, three-quarters of a pound of raisins, three-quarters of a pound of fat pork, chopped fine, two tablespoonfuls of sugar, a little cinnamon or chopped lemon, half-pint of milk or water; mix these well together, and boil four hours.”

From an early hour in the morning until long after the night had set in, were I and my cooks busy endeavouring to supply the great demand for Christmas fare. We had considerable difficulty in keeping our engagements, but by substituting mince-pies for plum-puddings, in a few cases, we succeeded. The scene in the crowded store, and even in the little over-heated kitchen, with the officers’ servants, who came in for their masters’ dinners, cannot well be described. Some were impatient themselves, others dreaded their masters’ impatience as the appointed dinner hour passed by—all combined by entreaties, threats, cajolery, and fun to drive me distracted. Angry cries for the major’s plum-pudding, which was to have been ready an hour ago, alternated with an entreaty that I should cook the captain’s mince-pies to a turn—“Sure, he likes them well done, ma’am. Bake ’em as brown as your own purty face, darlint.”

I did not get my dinner until eight o’clock, and then I dined in peace off a fine wild turkey or bustard, shot for me on the marshes by the Tchernaya. It weighed twenty-two pounds, and, although somewhat coarse in colour, had a capital flavour.

Upon New Year’s-day I had another large cooking of plum-puddings and mince-pies; this time upon my own account. I took them to the hospital of the Land Transport Corps, to remind the patients of the home comforts they longed so much for. It was a sad sight to see the once fine fellows, in their blue gowns, lying quiet and still, and reduced to such a level of weakness and helplessness. They all seemed glad for the little home tokens I took them.

There was one patient who had been a most industrious and honest fellow, and who did not go into the hospital until long and wearing illness compelled him. I was particularly anxious to look after him, but I found him very weak and ill. I stayed with him until evening, and before I left him, kind fancy had brought to his bedside his wife and children from his village-home in England, and I could hear him talking to them in a low and joyful tone. Poor, poor fellow! the New Year so full of hope and happiness had dawned upon him, but he did not live to see the wild flowers spring up peacefully through the war-trodden sod before Sebastopol.

The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Sunday, 18 December 2011

VAD post-war scholarships

In order to show appreciation of the work done by members of Voluntary Aid Detachments during the War, soon after the Armistice the Central Joint V.A.D. Committee founded a number of scholarships designed to 'meet the needs of Red Cross peace work'. They offered funding to enable VADs to undertake training in the following areas:

Medicine; Nursing; District Nursing; Village Nursing; Midwifery; School Nursing; Nursery Nursing; School Matron; Physical Culture; Instructors of the Mentally Defective; Pharmacy; X-Ray Assistant; Dentistry; Domestic Science; Institutional Cookery; Sanitary Inspector; Health Visiting; Welfare Supervision; Hospital Almoner; Infant Welfare.

The number of scholarships finally awarded was 557, as follows:

Medicine - 13
Welfare Supervisor - 15
Physical Culture - 6
Domestic Science - 14
X-Ray Assistant - 9
Massage - 32
Hospital Almoner - 9
Health Visitor - 35
Pharmacy - 29
School Matron - 51
Infant Welfare - 7
Nursery Nurse - 26
Village Nurse - 9
Institutional Cookery - 36
Midwifery - 134
Nursing - 129
Dental Mechanics - 3

Source: Reports by the Joint War Committee and the Joint War Finance Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in England on Voluntary Aid Rendered to the Sick and Wounded at Home and Abroad and to British Prisoners of War, 1914-1919 (HMSO, 1921)

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Always the bridesmaid ... ?

Following my frequent bouts of insanity after watching the last series of 'Downton Abbey,' someone suggested that I should watch the fourth series of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' which was set in the Great War, and, apparently, much more detailed and accurate. The thirteen-part series, screened in 1974, followed the trials and tribulations of the Bellamy family and their servants through the entire war. I was a great fan of the series, but as I was in Germany during that period (hatted, caped and 'doing the practical') it passed me by un-noticed.

A thirteen part series is much longer than we're used to today, so it was certainly possible to portray many aspects of the war which need to be omitted in a shorter series. In fact, every possible scenario of the Great War was there - tearful farewells, blood-stained returns, conscription, shell-shock, desertion and courts-martial, rationing, Zeppelin raids, the Silvertown munitions explosion, continuing London gaiety - in fact the episode titles alone spell out the war with 'The Beastly Hun,' 'The Glorious Dead,' 'Missing Believed Killed' and 'Facing Fearful Odds' among them.

And of course, then there were the 'gels.' Those well-heeled and aristocratic young women who 'did their bit' as VADs. I really wish I could watch scenes of hospital life during the war without hiding behind the sofa or taking a couple of aspirin. I really do. But I can't. Some of the portrayals in 'Upstairs, Downstairs' were good - the sensible, the scatterbrained, the soft-hearted - and I particularly liked the VAD who must have been a first cousin of Enid Blyton's 'George' of the Famous Five, frightfully practical at work and most adept at climbing over the hospital gates after hours. However, the usual problems and inaccuracies with dramatising Great War hospital life were already well ingrained in TV history.

Having been instructed by a lady on the tea-stall at a London station (quite correctly) to 'go to VAD Headquarters, Devonshire House, Piccadilly,' to join up, Miss Georgina (no relation to the aforementioned 'George') was, within a day or so, in charge of a ward at Guy's Hospital, and within a week (or so) supervising two more VADs who together seemed to make up the entire staff there except for a rather bad-tempered Irish nurse. Then, in the blink of an eye, Matron (who must now be turning in her grave*) interviewed Miss Georgina, suggesting that she would do very well in a 'field hospital' in France. Whether this was to advance her experience, or get rid of her was not made clear, but another blink and 'George' (I think she now deserves that accolade) was busy at a Casualty Clearing Station housed in a chateau somewhere in Northern France. Of course, as anyone who has spent time reading this blog will know (and I don't really expect anyone to put their hand up at this point) VADs never, ever worked in Casualty Clearing Stations in France - their service was confined exclusively to the base hospitals.

But my real problem is why it's always necessary to have them there? Why can't one of the characters be a 'proper' nurse in her rightful place? Why do the media have so much respect for the untrained VAD that they have to elevate her to the sainthood? VADs did a wonderful job and the medical services couldn't have survived without them, but why not give them their rightful place in history - show them for what they actually did and not just for what fits in to a modern storyline. The nurses who staffed Casualty Clearing Stations were trained nurses. They had all slogged their way through three years of training of the most onerous kind, and many had followed that with years of experience. They were the heart of the military nursing services - its backbone - and they are now relegated to bit parts in film and TV. They float by in the background, noticeable only for their severity, and occasionally barking out a word to one of our heroine VADs but otherwise invisible. Why does the trained nurse in wartime always have to be the bridesmaid and never the bride?

*The real-life Matron at that time was Miss Louisa Victoria Haughton, who retired in 1917 on the grounds of ill-health, but lived a long and productive life until her death in 1954, aged 86 years

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Princess Marie de Croy

While I was at The National Archives yesterday, I looked at the file of Princess Marie de Croy (1875-1968), which concerned the award of honours/decorations to her and her brother Prince Reginald de Croy for their work caring for British soldiers at their home, Chateau Bellignies, near Mons, in the autumn of 1914. I've put copies of a letter in her file below which outlines their activities. There must have been many more French and Belgian nationals who put their own lives at risk on behalf of the British. Luckily, Princess Marie wrote her memoirs, 'War Memories', and the book can be found on the web as a free download:

War Memories