Monday, 25 February 2013

Lest We Forget ... the women among us

Over the next few years there's likely to be much publicity given to the men and women who died during the course of the Great War. VADs - the army of untrained nurses who supported the military medical services at that time, and without whose contribution those same services may well have collapsed, have always been rather hard done by when it comes to official recognition.  As civilians, they are not eligible for commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission unless they died while on active service abroad, or later in the UK of illness contracted abroad. So most* VADs who died 'at home,' have remained a forgotten band, officially at least.

In 1918 the Imperial War Museum was busy collecting material to represent women's work during the war and to acknowledge the important contribution they had made. One aspect of this was to approach the next of kin of women who had died on war service to obtain portrait photographs which would eventually form part of a Roll of Honour. Agnes Conway headed the Women at Work Committee at the Museum, where her father, Sir Martin Conway, was Director-General, and she had overall responsibility for the task. I recently came across some interesting correspondence between her and Lady Ampthill, at that time Chairman of the Joint Women's V.A.D. Committee, which shows that even then the deaths of VADs were strictly divided in some quarters between those considered worthy of commemoration, and those who didn't quite make the grade. It shows the dividing line that exists today had its roots in thought and deed even before the war had ended.

* There are many anomalies in the commemoration of women and always a few who don't seem to fit in with the criteria


Agnes Conway to Lady Ampthill, 6th November 1918

Dear Lady Ampthill,
I have received a list of 20 names of members of Voluntary Aid Detachments who have died on service during October.  It occurs to me that some of these members may have died of influenza. Do you think it is advisable to collect photographs for the War Museum of V.A.D. members who have been the victims of an epidemic that has carried off so many of the general public?  I think that when we ask the next of kin for photographs we ought to confine ourselves to members who have really given up their lives on direct war service.  If you agree, have you any means of eliminating the names of those who have died of ordinary illness from your lists before I receive them?

Lady Ampthill to Agnes Conway, 8th November 1918

Dear Miss Conway
Thank you very much for your letter of the 6th inst.  All those members whose deaths have been announced to you, died of Influenza, and Pneumonia whilst actually nursing in hospitals.  I think, therefore, as they died actually at work, we cannot make any difference between them and others.  Do you not think so?  They probably got Influenza whilst in performance of their duty, and it would seem very difficult to differentiate.

Agnes Conway to Lady Ampthill, 12th November 1918

Dear Lady Ampthill
If you think it best not to distinguish between nurses who have died from Influenza and others we will go on just as we have been doing, and I will write to all the next of kin for their photographs.  When the time comes to compile a permanent Roll of Honour, I think we ought to make some distinction between those who were bombed, torpedoed, etc., and those who died of actual illness, but there is, of course, no hurry at the moment.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Leaving France

Several years ago now I transcribed the official war diary of Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders during the Great War. She arrived in France on the 15th August 1914, and except for a break after suffering a serious illness, she worked continuously and tirelessly until her final return on the 5th August 1919. She spent five years of non-stop work with barely a day off and only the briefest periods of leave, running the military nursing services with precision, inspecting hospitals and casualty clearing stations, and leaving her mark on everything and everybody she came into contact with.  She was not a young woman, fifty-five when the war started, but her energy and charisma were remarkable. I typed my way through Miss McCarthy's war - four thousand pages of it - and began to understand just a little of the difficulties she faced as the war grew and she struggled for staff, and order, and perfection - nothing less was good enough for the sick and injured. When I reached her final day in France I found it almost impossibly emotional. The account, written by her successor, Mildred Bond, paints the most vivid picture how much respect and love she commanded. While going through some photos I found a series of grainy snaps taken by a nurse that day.  They are of poor quality, indistinct, and faded, but along with Miss Bond's words, go some way to describing the feelings on the quayside at Boulogne on the 5th August, 1919.

Departure of Matron-in-Chief, France
On August 5th the Matron-in-Chief, BEF left France, from which date I took over the duties of Principal Matron of France and Flanders. On the evening of the fourth, Dame Maud McCarthy GBE, RRC, dined with the DMS General Gerrard CB, and the officers of his staff, who were giving a farewell dinner in her honour.  The following guest were present:  Colonel Barefoot DDMS, L of C, Colonel Statham the DDMS Boulogne and Etaples, Colonel Gordon the ADMS Calais, and also the A/Principal Matrons of the Areas, Miss L. E. Mackay QAIMNS, Miss Allen QAIMNS and Miss Rowe QAIMNS; also Miss Congleton QAIMNS, Matron 32 Stationary Hospital; Miss G. Wilton Smith and myself.  In the centre of the dinner table was placed a gorgeous basket of choice hot-house flowers which was afterwards presented to Dame Maud, and the DMS made a very appropriate and gratifying speech in which he expressed so much appreciation of her noble work and character and regrets at her leaving France, in which we all concurred so heartily.

On the afternoon of the 5th, Dame Maud left by the afternoon boat for England.  I went with the DMS in his car to see her off, and Miss G. Wilton Smith and Miss Barbier CHR went with her in her own car.  There was a large crowd waiting on the Quay when she arrived.  Among those present were a  Representative from GOC, General Asser being absent from Boulogne; the DMS and his staff; Brigadier General Wilberforce CB CMG the Base Commandant; Colonel Barefoot DDMS L of C; Colonel Statham DDMS Boulogne and Etaples; Colonel Gordon the ADMS Calais; and many other officers; Major Liouville, who represented the French Medical Service and Monsieur M. Rigaud, Secretary to the Sous-Prefecture who represented the French civil population, came in place of Monsieur M. Buloz who was absent from Boulogne.  These two men thanked her on behalf of the Military and Civil Authorities for all the goodness and courtesy they had always received at her hands.  The Matrons and the Nursing Staff from all the near Units who could be spared from duty and who were anxious to show a last mark of respect to their retiring chief were present.
She shook hands with everyone and was wonderful to the last, in the way she carried through a most difficult and trying farewell.  Her cabin was a perfect bower of most beautiful flowers sent from the staff of the different Hospitals.  One of her own staff, Miss Hill VAD, was able to cross with her as she was going home on demobilisation.  As the ship moved off the Matron-in-Chief, Miss Hill and Major Tate RAMC of the DMS staff, who was proceeding to England on transfer, escorted Dame Maud to the bridge and remained with her.  They all waved from the bridge and we all waved and cheered our loudest and sang “For she’s a jolly good fellow” as the ship sailed out of the harbour.  I think we shall never forget that sight and shall always like to remember the courageous and plucky way in which our chief carried our flag flying to the very last moment into her civilian life, where we wish her all happiness and success and where she will still command the love and respect of us all.


The war diary is held at The National Archives, ref: WO95/3988-3991 and the transcription can be found here: Official War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief with the B.E.F. in France and Flanders

Monday, 18 February 2013

A Tale of Nurse Tickle and Nurse Romp

The following report was found in a nurse's service file and is a great example of how easy it was for military nurses of that time to blot their copy-books.  While there seemed no problem with the professional ability of either of the women involved, their behaviour was considered so improper that dismissal was the only possible outcome. A hundred years on, I wonder how pulling at pillows and tickling patients' feet would be viewed by hospital staff today? Although I don't know what became of Nurse Thayer after she left the Territorial Force Nursing Service, Amelia Shee joined the Scottish Women's Hospital, and served from October 1915 until December 1918, first in Serbia and later at Royaumont, France, making her one of the longest serving trained nurses with the SWH during wartime. I guess she might then have had a more exciting and fulfilling war and perhaps her transgressions had a satisfactory outcome for her.



At a meeting of the Advisory Council of the Territorial Force Nursing Service held at the War Office, 80, Pall Mall, on 27th July 1915, an enquiry was made into the case of Nurse Amelia G. Shee and Nurse Gladys A. Thayer who had, at the request of the Matron of the 2nd Eastern General Hospital, Brighton, sent in their resignations on 27th June, 1915, but who desired that enquiry be made into the circumstances of their doing so with a view to possible continuance in the Service.  At the request of the Administrator of the 2nd Eastern General Hospital the matter of their right to appeal was submitted to the Matron-in-Chief, and she brought the question before the Advisory Council.

On 24th June it appeared that the Matron, Miss Williams, reported to Colonel Rooth, Officer-in-Charge, 2nd Eastern General Hospital, that she wished with his approval to send a letter to Miss Bird, the Principal Matron, requesting that she would have Nurse Thayer and Nurse Shee removed from the hospital on the ground that the Night Sister (Elliott) reported that she had seen the nurses in the act of tickling the patients, also romping with them and rolling over the bed, and that when spoken to the nurses were insolent.  This letter was forwarded as requested on 25th June; Miss Bird, Principal Matron, wrote to the nurses in question asking them to resign stating that the alternative would be dismissal from the Service.

In a letter dated 25th June,  the two nurses wrote acknowledging that they had acted very foolishly, but protested against being suspended from duty.  On 27th June they sent in their resignations, but after having asked and received an interview with Miss Bird, Principal Matron, Miss Thayer requested her, in a covering letter, to appeal to the Matron-in-Chief for a transfer to another hospital.  Miss Bird forwarded the application, but the Matron-in-Chief replied to her that this would not be possible as Miss Thayer appeared not to be suitable for military service.  On 2nd July both nurses sent in a formal request to the Matron-in-Chief to have the case referred to the Advisory Council.  On 10th July the Matron-in-Chief wrote to Miss Bird that she thought the enquiry undesirable in the interests of the nurses, but that of course it should be held if they desired it.  On 13th July the nurses again requested that it might be held.  Lieut. Colonel Rooth, Officer-in-Charge, 2nd Eastern General Hospital, brought the matter to the notice of Colonel Butt, A.D.M.S. Sussex, who in forwarding the appeal of the nurses to the D.D.M.S. for General Officer Commanding, Eastern Command, stated that he considered that the nurses should have been given an opportunity to explain their conduct, and that though their action was thoughtless and unseemly their resignation from the Service was more than was called for.
The matrons and nurses were interviewed by the Advisory Council, and the whole of the correspondence was read as well as a written statement handed in by the two nurses.  The facts appeared to be as follows:

On the 22nd June, Nurse Thayer had, as she acknowledges, awakened a patient by tickling his feet.  As there was much noise in the ward the night sister had come in and she then saw this done. On 23rd June Nurse Thayer was in another of her wards and Nurse Shee came in, she stated, to ask for some gauze, though it was not her ward.  Whilst there she caught hold of a patient’s foot telling him it was time he got up. The night sister came in at the time and censured her, afterwards reporting the matter to the Matron. These facts are established by the statements of the nurses themselves. The Matron, Miss Williams, states that the Night Sister (Elliott) had informed her that both nurses had been behaving in a very unprofessional and unbecoming manner in the wards in the early mornings, and that she had twice remonstrated with them, but that they had refused to recognise her authority, and, before the patients, had told her she had no business to interfere.  Sister Gould (Day Sister) had told her that the patients of the wards of which she had charge spoke in her hearing of the familiarity of the two nurses, and stated that they had no difficulty in waking in the morning as the nurses tickled them and threw pillows at them.  This, however, she had not herself seen.  On the request of the Advisory Council, the evidence of the two sisters was given in writing.  Miss Williams also stated that the Night Sister had seen pillow fighting and romping, but this is not mentioned in her letter.  Miss Williams stated that a visitor had also made a formal complaint to her to the same effect.  In an interview the nurses were likewise said, by the Matron, to have admitted having pulled the pillows from the patients.  Miss Bird, the Principal Matron, stated that she considered the nurses unsuitable for military duty.

The Advisory Council, after full consideration of the case, came to the conclusion that they could not advise that the nurses should be allowed to re-join the Service.  Their conduct on their own showing was unseemly and was a clear indication that although they might possibly be technically good nurses they were absolutely unsuited for the nursing of soldiers.  They had no reason to disagree with the strongly expressed views of the two Matrons on the subject, and they did not feel that the nurses had been harshly used, especially as they were able to procure civil work at once. They therefore unanimously adopted the following resolution:

“The Advisory Council having heard both sides of the case and given it every consideration, are unanimously of opinion that there is no reason for asking either of the nurses concerned to withdraw her resignation.  From what they have heard from the Matrons, and from the manner in which the nurses put forward their case, the Advisory Council consider that they are both unsuited for work in a military hospital.  They wish also to add that this objection may not may not apply to the civilian nursing duties to which they have returned since they left the Territorial Force Nursing Service."

Names of Members present:
Miss Haldane, Chairman
The Countess of Minto
The Countess of Denbigh and Desmond
Lady Knox
Miss Finch, Matron, University College Hospital
Miss Cooper, Matron, St. George’s Hospital
Miss Lloyd-Still, Matron, St.  Thomas’ Hospital
Miss Cox-Davies, Principal Matron, T.F.N.S., Matron, Royal Free Hospital
Miss Sidney Browne, R.R.C., Matron-in-Chief, Territorial Force Nursing Service (Secretary)

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Scottish Women's Hospital

While looking at the service file of a nurse who joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve in 1918, I came across a set of application forms for the Scottish Women's Hospital.  This nurse had applied to SWH, who had immediately forwarded them to the War Office, seemingly offering them first chance of her services.  I've never seen a set before, which includes three references, and although I don't doubt there are some about, I thought it might be interesting for others to see them.

Monday, 11 February 2013

A New Year Message to the Boss

At present I'm going through nurses' service files and am finding all sorts of interesting items which escaped the violence of the 'weeding' process at the War Office in the 1930s.  One thing that stands out is the more compassionate tone (if that's the right word) of official correspondence in the Territorial Force Nursing Service files, when compared to similar items in QAIMNS files. The TFNS so often strikes a more personal, friendly note, and the senior members appear to have a closer and more genuine connection with their nursing staff.  And it went both ways as this letter shows, written by Helen Brotherton, while working as Matron of the Hospital Ship 'Newhaven,' to Miss Sidney Browne, Matron-in-Chief, Territorial Force Nursing Service.

Dame Sidney Browne by Austin Spare IWM Art 2768

Hospital Ship Newhaven
January 1st, 1916

To: Miss Sidney Brown, Matron-in-Chief, T.F.N.S.

My dear Miss Sidney Brown

It is just a little over a year since you said goodbye to a party of us at Victoria Station, leaving for France.  I've been going to write to you often since then, I have often thought and spoken of you, and how splendid you are to us and how proud we Territorials are of ‘our Matron.’  I've had such a happy time since I came out and was attached to the Indian Expeditionary Force at the Rawal Pindi Hospital, then when the Matron of my section was moved to a large Camp Hospital, I went with her as Home Sister.  We had a staff of 90 Sisters and V.A.D.s.  I did so enjoy life under canvas and was sorry when the hospital had to disband as we were under water.  Then I had orders to join this Ship as Matron, it was good of Miss McCarthy to give me the post, she too has been awfully good to us.

I hope that you are well and that you will excuse the liberty I've taken in writing to you, but I thought it was so unkind of us to think all the good things about you and never let you know how grateful we are to you, for all the care and thought you've given our service.  I shall always be grateful to you for giving me the opportunity of nursing in France and helping our Boys, when they've done so much.  They are such splendid fellows.  We always go to Dover on the Home side and if ever you were there I should be so pleased to show you round my ship.

This War has few compensations, but one of them is that it’s given me an opportunity of serving my Country and you and Miss McCarthy.  My best wishes for the New Year.

I am, Yours most faithfully,
Helen Brotherton.

[TNA WO399/10029]