Thursday, 27 September 2012

Star Struck

In an effort to make a list of women who served in some capacity during the Great War, but whose work might be unknown by later generations, I've been browsing through medal rolls for French Red Cross workers, and some of those who worked for a multitude of other miscellaneous medical and 'caring' units overseas. The majority, but not all, were women, and I feel sure that in most cases their descendants will be totally unaware that they crossed the Channel to 'do their bit.'  They ranged from Directors and Administrators of large units, to the most humble of drivers, orderlies, cooks and canteen assistants.  But what orderlies and canteen assistants! In places the lists read like Who's Who, and the members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry alone could have kept 'Country Life' in photos and copy for decades. Countesses, Duchesses, Honourables and Lady's; writers, actresses, poets and singers; politicians and businessmen - their names litter the lists.

Included among them, John Masefield and Laurence Binyon; Herbert J. Gladstone and his wife Dorothy (Paget); Lady Louise Mountbatten, Sir Herbert Grotrian, later MP for Hull East, and his brother Frederick. Also included, from vastly opposing spheres, Percy Dearmer, Decima Moore and Enid Bagnold, the latter dismissed from one job by the War Office only to find her way to France as a driver with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Some of them only stayed a short time, and looking at how many returned after just a month or two I wonder if a few had only medals in mind when they volunteered.  Others stayed for years, working with true devotion in humble occupations. I've enjoyed my wander through the upper classes both at work and at war, and would suggest that if you come from a middle-class sort of background, check the medal index cards, held at The National Archives, just to see if your great-aunt or great-grandmother was there.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Edie and the VADs

In trying to work out more about that mysterious and often poorly expressed relationship between trained nurses and VADs, Dick Robinson has put together all the references that his great-aunt, Edith Appleton, has made in her diaries to VADs while working in military hospitals in France during the Great War.  It's rather refreshing to read about one side of hospital life without the more dramatic aspects of medical care getting in the way, and this is a rather unique look at one trained nurses' view of her untrained colleagues.

Edith Appleton's Diaries - the VADs

Edie's diaries were published earlier this year, and are available at Amazon (and I'm sure other booksellers as well!) with a paperback version due soon:

A Nurse at the Front

Sunday, 16 September 2012

General Nursing Council Register

I'm lucky enough to have a couple of editions of the General Nursing Council Register here - one for 1928 and one for 1942 - which have proved a real asset when trying to find individual women, where they trained and when.  They are very hefty volumes - the smaller 1928 version runs to 2,000 pages and around 60,000 entries, and by 1942 the increase in the number of trained nurses has resulted in three books of that size making up just the one year. A complete run of the Registers for England and Wales are available at The National Archives, but I thought I'd add a page here as an example of what they offer.

There are some interesting patterns that run through the Registers, and one seems to be the tendency for sisters to train in different hospitals.  Because of the obvious age differences, there could be some years between each sister starting her training, but even when their training coincided they seem to have preferred to be apart. I wonder if the one who started first found it so arduous and spartan at her particular hospital that she urged her sibling to look elsewhere.  One extreme case is that of Alice and Margaret Behn from the Isle of Man, whose training did overlap, but with one in Liverpool and the other in London.  There must have been a great deal of rivalry and comparing of hardship when they met!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Parade's End

I noticed while watching Parade's End this week that Benedict Cumberbatch was languishing in a Casualty Clearing Station in France that once again was entirely staffed by VADs.  These particular young women appeared to be direct descendants of those who were so numerous in the CCSs of 'Testament of Youth' more than thirty years ago, in remarkably similar uniforms of the wrong colour, and completely unsupervised by anyone with a shred of nurse training. I realise that many people might think me nit-picking, pointing out that this is historical fiction and not 'real life,' but surely just occasionally a programme could manage to get the detail correct. I wonder why, when out country has such a long history of trained nurses for the Army, splendid in their scarlet capes and floating caps, it's only VADs, who never actually worked in Casualty Clearing Stations during the Great War, who are allowed to appear on our screens. Are the writers and producers so historically ignorant of Great War medical services? Do they ever do (or get done) any research at all on hospital life? The answer of course is 'yes' and 'no.'  However serious the drama, however deep the plot, however grave the outcome, the on-screen portrayal of military nurses remains a joke.