Monday, 30 July 2012

Our Girls in Wartime

Three years ago I added some images from 'Our Hospital ABC' here:

Our Hospital ABC

and was lucky enough recently to find a copy of its sister publication 'Our Girls in Wartime,' again with pictures by Joyce Dennys and rhymes by Hampden Gordon. So here are a couple of the pages with their rhymes:


Martha, a Munition-maker
Manufactures shells
Martha's Father is a baker:
Cakes are what HE sells.
Martha swears the shells she makes
Do more damage than his cakes ...


Miranda mixed with all the Nobs;
Her Depot made a million swabs
(War Hospital Supply).
'It was the good hard work,' she said
'That turned my hair this vivid red.
Never, my dears, say dye.'


Thursday, 19 July 2012

More than Bombs and Bandages

Australian Army nurses at work in World War 1
Kirsty Harris
Big Sky Publishing, Australia, 2011

     There is relatively little written about nursing during the Great War particularly from the British angle. A few memoirs and diaries exist, but considering their large numbers, British trained military nurses rarely put pen to paper and if they did, most of the most of their efforts no longer survive.  Looking further afield, accounts from members of the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand nursing services are not only much more common, but there exists a continuing national pride in their contribution and a wish to ensure it doesn’t get forgotten as time goes by. A long overdue history of the British military nursing services has been commissioned and is underway, but at present there remains a huge gap crying out to be filled.

     Although this new book by Kirsty Harris deals exclusively with members of the Australian Army Nursing Service during the Great War, it also helps to fill a void in knowledge that surrounds British military nurses. It describes nurse training in Australia before the war, and then tracks the women through mobilisation; exploring new environments, roles and relationships; coping with wounds and diseases rarely encountered before, and the development of surgery and procedures made necessary by a protracted and violent war. The book makes no effort to spin out long tales of heavy convoys, blood, gangrene and death, although of course they get a mention.  It lays out a comprehensive, clear and concise account of how nurses worked during the war; how they learnt and applied new skills; their need to improvise in almost every area of life and work, and how lives were changed by their experiences, both in positive and negative ways. It also describes the manner in which military hospitals were organised and managed, and how varied and sometimes difficult surroundings affected the nursing staff.  It draws on many personal accounts by members of the AANS employed in military hospitals worldwide, including Egypt, India, Salonika, the United Kingdom, East Africa, on board hospital ships and of course in France and Flanders. And despite the star of the book being the Australian nurse, much of what’s inside also relates to her British counterpart.  There is a great deal here to be learnt, indirectly, about how the British nurse lived and worked; the way in which their nursing experience was expanded by new innovations in medicine and surgery; the types of problem they faced on a daily basis and how they coped with new and often troublesome obstacles.  This book is recommended reading for those looking for information about the Australian Army Nursing Service, but more importantly it demonstrates a wider picture of nurses and nursing during wartime, whoever and wherever they were, and is therefore a vital source for anyone wanting to learn more about all military nurses during the Great War.
     The book has been published in the UK for Kindle only, making the extensive and valuable notes and sources a little more difficult to negotiate, but it has been well edited for the format, with accompanying images appearing as clearly as the small page size allows, and they remain a helpful and worthwhile addition.  It takes a good nursing history to get me excited these days, but this one is thoroughly recommended for interested readers of all nationalities.

Hard copies can be obtained from the publisher in Australia:

Or on Kindle from Amazon
More than Bombs and Bandages

Queen Mary's Hostel for Nurses

The Nursing Times, 1 March 1919

     The work done by trained and untrained nurses in this war is a tale which is often told. A tale as yet untold is the fine work done for war nurses by Mrs. Kerr Lawson at Queen Mary’s Hostel for War Nurses, Bedford Place, London, one of the Hostels under the aegis of the British Red Cross Society. It falls to the lot of few women to have a grip – an unconscious grip – on the combined affection and admiration of hundreds of their fellow women. It points to some dominant quality which has so often belonged to some of our famous women leaders. The quality in Mrs. Kerr Lawson which holds other women was once expressed, more tersely and truly than she knew, by a Canadian sister: ‘That dear woman knows her job, and puts grit and love into it.’ The painful knowledge of the appalling burdens so many nurses are bravely and silently bearing came as a shock to Mrs. Kerr Lawson. The nurses with lightning intuition discovered that the right woman had been set down among them, and by degrees a never-ending stream of confidences relating to difficulties flowed to the superintendent in her restful study.  Mrs. Kerr Lawson found herself not only Superintendent of a Hostel, but the confidante of nurses, and very often the lifter of their burdens. There is a great freemasonry in trouble. Those who have received comfort have not been slow to speak.

     Queen Mary’s Hostel opened in Tavistock Place in the July of 1915 with free accommodation for twenty-three war nurses, irrespective of unit. The following July it was moved to Bedford Place with accommodation for thirty-five, though sometimes entertaining up to forty nurses. Two years later No.2 Hostel was opened at 52 Russell Square, for the Home Service Sisters of the British Red Cross, with twenty beds.  In the February of 1918 a No.3 Hostel was opened at 50 Warwick Square for all members of the nursing services who required to spend one night only in London. The mother-hostel had not been open for long before it gained the reputation it now holds so firmly. News of it travelled to Gallipoli, Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, and to Mesopotamia, as well as to the great centres of nursing on the Western front.  When it is realised that all war nurses of the Empire are welcomed, irrespective of unit, the fascination of the contact with the women of far lands will be apparent. Those of us who have roughed it in home and foreign service appreciate to the full the home comforts in the hostels – the cosy bedrooms, the restful drawing-room, the well-cooked, daintily served meals – all the little thoughtful considerations following one’s kind welcome as an honoured guest.

     Owing to the generosity of theatrical managers outside recreation has not been lacking. The mental refreshment this has meant to tired women can be but dimly realised.  Our beloved Queen has taken a keen personal interest in the Hostel which bears her name, and has graciously sent gifts of flowers. On one of the occasions on which she visited the Hostel she addressed all the maids, and expressed her pleasure that they were working so happily and harmoniously in the common cause. Princess Mary is another Royal and welcome visitor.
‘How many of us have passed through this hostel?’ I once asked Mrs. Kerr Lawson.
‘About eight thousand.’
‘Then you have met a fairly representative crowd of us. What has struck you most about us, that is to say about the British nurses?’
‘The way in which some of you are putting up a fight against desperate odds, bravely and alone; the tragedy of those who have lost or are losing their precious health through war service, and who have others dependent on their earnings; the sad and bitter loneliness of those pushed through circumstances from their special home niche which, once having left, they never quite regain; and, above all, the scant means which so often renders them helpless when they should be independent.’ I knew this was cruelly true, and I thought of the spectre of Charity which is not always Love lurking for so many in days of misfortune behind the inadequate pay nurses receive for what is perhaps the most arduous but most devoted work in the world.
‘May you be given the strength to carry on; we sisters need women like you so sorely.’  A warm hand-clasp and I passed out, one more ship in the night, one which had received a God-speed from a very pleasant sport.

     The time has come when this clash of arms is stilled, when nursing sisters need tend the sad results of war but little longer. They will then disperse in their thousands and go their world-wide ways once more. What memories they will have stored, of battle on the land and in the air, and of perilous journeying on the seas – of the super-human endurance of our fighting men! Midst memories sad and drear will come one tender one – of the understanding woman, with true and steadfast eyes and mother’s heart, who gave to them the richness of her sympathy and to many a despairing nurse the strength to bear her load.


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Sunday, 15 July 2012

VADs - A Summing-up from Land and Water Extra

Voluntary Aid Detachments
Land and Water Extra, April 1919

     No women’s movement has a more thrilling history of daring heroism than may be found in the story of the V.A.D.’s.  Founded in 1909 to provide detachments of trained women all over the country to be in readiness to supplement the Army Medical Service in case of invasion, the movement had grown to such an extent that in August, 1914, there were over 40,000 enrolled members.  During the war these figures have again increased to something like 100,000 members.  How these women responded to the call of their country and were mobilised for whole or part-time to staff the 1,400 odd auxiliary hospitals which sprang into existence all over the country, is well known.  The work done by V.A.D. members during the war, however, has been many-sided and much of it is little known.  How many of us, for example, know the story of the first little group of V.A.D.s who went to Belgium in the early days of the war?

     It was about the 12th August, 1914, in response to an appeal of the Belgian Government, that a hundred British nurses, amongst whom were eight V.A.D.s, left for Brussels.  These women staffed two hospitals in the Belgian capital, one being housed in the King’s Palace and the other in a Fire Brigade Station.  But a few days after – on the 20th of the month – the Germans entered the city and the little band of hospital workers became their prisoners.  They continued their work until the middle of October, when they were conveyed under an armed guard and in fourth class carriages to Germany, eventually to be sent home via Copenhagen.  Two or three, however, had become detached from the main party at Brussels, having been sent to Charleroi and after many thrilling adventures they at last made their escape disguised as peasants.  One can gain some idea of the spirit of these women from the fact that certain of these members instead of returning home proceeded to Petrograd to carry on work there.

     The ‘official’ start of V.A.D. efforts in France, however, was made in the October of 1914, when a unit was sent to France to establish a Rest Station at Boulogne.  True pioneer work awaited these girls, no ‘ready-made’ accommodation being available for them.  Some old luggage vans were put at their disposal and they set to work to transform them into capital dispensaries, doing their own carpentering and white-washing in the process.  Nor did their ingenuity end there.  No mugs were available for the men and the enterprising unit therefore set to work to collect all cocoa and condensed milk tins, filing them down and soldering handles to them.  Apart from the routine work at the Rest Camps the unit undertook the collection of the sisters’ and doctors’ linen from the ambulance trains, returning it laundered and mended.  About this time a hospital was established at the ancient French town of St. Malo, at the Convent of Notre Dame de Grèves, where French poilus were tended by the V.A.D.s.  Another hospital in France to be staffed by V.A.D.s was for British troops working at the Convalescent Horse Camp Depots.

     January 1915 saw the beginnings of a new enterprise on the part of the V.A.D. authorities and a unit was despatched to Serbia, being conveyed to its destination by Sir Thomas Lipton in his yacht, The Erin.  A terrible epidemic of typhus was raging in Serbia when the members of the unit arrived, nearly all from them contracting it from their patients, but through all the horrors of a winter spent in the midst of the snow and mud of the mountains of Serbia, the little band continued at their posts.  Some few later returned home but the main unit were taken prisoners.  Happily they met with kindness at the hands of the Austrians and were sent home via Austria and Switzerland.  A small unit was sent somewhere about the same time to Montenegro, two of the members receiving the Monetnegrin Order of Danilo for their gallantry and devotion to duty.

     Meanwhile the Military authorities had decided to utilise the services of V.A.D.s to supplement the work of the trained nurses in the Military Hospitals, and in March, 1915, the first requisition from Hampstead was received, followed by demands from hospitals all over the country.  August of the same year saw two important developments. First the arrival of the General Service Members; cooks, clerks, housemaids, dispensers, X-Ray assistants – to release for active service the male orderlies in the Military Hospitals, and second the sending of two big units, consisting of two hundred members each, to Egypt and Malta.  The latter party arrived just in time to meet the rush of the arrival of the Gallipoli wounded, and every one of those two hundred women proved to be badly needed.  There must be mention made also of those heroic V.A.D.s who staffed the Hospital ships, and in particular, those on board the Hospital ship torpedoed off the Dorset coast in 1917, when the most perfect discipline and order was maintained amongst the nursing staff.

     Probably the most striking feature of V.A.D. work during 1917 and 1918 was the active part taken by members during air raids both on the Western Front, in Salonika and at home.  We know the strenuousness of hospital life at the best of times, but can we imagine what it meant for these women when night after night the day staff had to take refuge in the trenches outside the hospitals  Whitsuntide, 1918, perhaps, saw the climax of these air raid horrors when at Etaples the hospital buildings themselves were bombed. The scenes were indescribable, but not one of the staff lost her presence of mind.  In the darkness and in the midst of falling bombs, these women would crawl from bed to bed, under which the patients had been placed for better safety, and even when a bomb had hit the building itself, they would tend the dying and extricate the wounded from the debris.  Well did these women merit the Military Medals that were awarded to them.  Similar bravery was exhibited by the V.A.D.s in Salonika, one of them being awarded the Medal of the British Empire for gallantry.  We must not forget, too, that the V.A.D.s at home showed a similar spirit and that in London they were to be found during an air raid at every Tube station and every Police station.

     It is impossible to even touch upon all the various sides of V.A.D. work during the war, but a few figures may prove of interest.  Nearly eight hundred V.A.D.s have either been mentioned in despatches or have received decorations or awards for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Nine V.A.D.s have lost their lives through drowning, six of these through their vessels being torpedoed. Still another V.A.D. was brutally shot by the enemy from a submarine during the sinking of the Aquila after it had been torpedoed in the Bristol Channel.  There is a very general feeling that now the war is over the splendidly patriotic service which the V.A.D.s have rendered must not be lost to the nation. Who are better able to assist in looking after the nation’s health? 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Miss Shappere and the Royal Red Cross

While browsing through the tiny hand scribbled notes in the front of the Royal Red Cross Register, I came across one which reads:

'Miss Shappere was refused R.R.C. for service at Intombi Camp Ladysmith because her subsequent behaviour was not satisfactory'

As I'd never heard of Miss Shappere and was intrigued to know how she'd blotted her copy-book, I started with a web search which resulted in a fascinating insight into her life and work. Rose Shappere was an Australian nurse serving during the Boer War and this first newspaper item states quite clearly that she had been both mentioned in despatches (unproven) and that she had been awarded the Royal Red Cross 'which medal she now wears.'

Nurse Rose Shappere

But obviously not! This was written after her return to Australia, so I wonder if she had acquired a medal to wear that she was not entitled to, or if perhaps the newspaper just assumed on her say-so that she had received it. Other items such as this one give the impression that Miss S. was not shy of publicity:

Rose Shappere in London

There is also a good biography of Miss S. here:

Rose Shappere biography

So did mention of her 'subsequent behaviour' relate to indiscreet public comments about the conditions of the hospital at Intombi, or did she fall foul of the authorities in some other way? I shall keep my eyes open for any further references that I come across.