Saturday 26 December 2009

Lucy Liptrot

Just because somebody asked, I thought I'd mention that the rather attractive nurse currently at the top of the page goes by the wonderfully Dickensian name of Lucy Liptrot. She was born in Orrell, near Wigan, on February 21st, 1889, the daughter of a grocer, and she trained as a nurse at Hope Hospital, Pendleton. As Google is so great at picking up anything published on the blog, at least if there are any Lucy Liptrot searchers out there, she will definitely grab their attention now!

Thursday 26 November 2009

The sinking of the hospital ship "Anglia"

Another extract from 'Reminiscent Sketches' which has provided several posts before, this time an account of life on a hospital ship plying the English Channel in 1915. It describes the sinking of the hospital ship "Anglia" when she hit a mine in the Channel in November 1915. I have a personal interest in this account, as my son-in-law's uncle, Harry Eastwick, was one of the patients on board who did not survive the sinking that day.

Harry Eastwick CWGC entry

Alice Meldrum, QAIMNS Reserve

Of my many and varied experiences, at a General Hospital, at numerous Casualty Clearing Stations, at a Stationary Hospital, and on board a Hospital Ship, the latter was, to me, the most interesting, as it was the most exciting experience of my life.
I was posted to the Hospital Ship "Anglia" in May, 1915, and served on board her till November 17, 1915, when she struck a mine while crossing the Channel on the way to Dover, with a complement of wounded patients, and foundered.
Work on a hospital ship varies very much according to what is going on "up the line." During the heavy fighting the ship often did two journeys a day, to and from England. As soon as we were warned to expect a convoy of patients, each sister went into her own ward, where cots were made ready, feeds prepared, hot bottles filled, and everything put in readiness for the reception and comfort of the wounded and helpless patients. The patients were usually kept on board for the day only, but occasionally they remained overnight, then it was found easier for each sister to take three hours on night duty, and thus were all in readiness for the unloading which usually took place first thing in the morning. As a general rule the patients made very bad sailors. On arrival at Dover where the ambulance train was waiting, the patients were very quickly transferred, and after a fresh supply of stores had been taken on board, the ship at once returned to Boulogne, Calais or Dieppe. On the return journey the cleaning of the wards took place, beds were remade and everything put in readiness for the next convoy.

One never-to-be-forgotten day, orders were received to prepare for a distinguished patient. Shortly afterwards the Director-General of Medical Services arrived, and informed our Matron that the King, having met with an accident up the line, was coming on board. Four orderlies were sent to the station to meet the train and the King was carried below to a small ward, which had been previously prepared and beautifully decorated with flowers. There being only a small load that day the ship soon got away. With destroyers guarding the ship on either side, and bluejackets on board to keep a lookout for mines and submarines, we all felt very important. The sea was rough but fortunately the ship reached port without mishap.

The last and very memorable journey was on November 17th. About five hundred patients had been taken on board at Boulogne, and a very happy crowd they were, fractured femurs and head-cases who had been in different hospitals in France for some months. In their anticipation of returning home, they were anxiously watching through the portholes for the first sight of the white cliffs of England, which, alas, many of them were destined never to see. About 12 noon, when some six miles from Dover, there was a tremendous crash, and iron girders, etc., came falling down like matchwood. All too quickly it was realized that the ship had either been torpedoed, or struck a mine. My first act was to fix a lifebelt on myself, feeling that I was then in a better position to help others. All sisters and orderlies did likewise, and the patients who were able to do so, were ordered to put on the lifebelts which every patient had under his pillow; the walking cases were ordered on deck. We immediately set about removing splints, for the obvious reason that if a patient with his legs in splints got into the sea, his body would go under while the splints would rise to the surface. As many patients as possible were carried on deck, and those that could, threw themselves into the sea. Others were let down into the lifeboat, but unfortunately, as the ship was sinking so rapidly, it was only possible to lower one boat. The patients kept their heads wonderfully. There was no panic whatever, and when one realizes that in the majority of cases they were suffering from fractured limbs, severe wounds and amputations, it speaks volumes for their spirit, their grit and real bravery, for they must have suffered agonies of pain. After we had satisfied ourselves that there was no possible chance of getting any more patients out, for by that time the bows had quite gone under and only the ship's stern was above water, with the propellers going at a terrific rate and blinding us with spray. We got down on to the rudder and jumped into the sea, where hundreds of patients were still struggling in the water.

It was some time before the destroyers could get out to render help, but when they did, boats were quickly lowered and the survivors taken into them. Unfortunately, in some cases, the struggling patients hung on to the sides of a boat and capsized it, and once again all were thrown into the sea. It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight to see armless and legless men struggling in the water, very many of whom were eventually saved. I personally was in the water about forty minutes before being taken on a destroyer. That would be about the time the majority were in the water. The kindness of the men on the destroyers we shall never forget, their helpfulness was beyond words. Imagine our delight, on reaching Dover, to find many of the patients lying on the Admiralty Pier; they had last been seen floating in the water, and had been picked up by other destroyers. Many were the handshakes, kindly greetings, and expressions of real thankfulness at meeting again on terra firma.

There was a humorous side to it, for we must have looked very weird in the different garments with which we had been so kindly supplied by the officers and men of the destroyers. I would remind you that forty minutes in the water in November is not the kind of sea-bathing that one would indulge in from choice, yet, largely due to the kindness of the men of the destroyer, I do not think that anyone suffered seriously from cold. After a good meal on the ambulance train we were soon on our journey to London. So ended my experience with a hospital ship.

The sinking of the H.S. "Anglia" is now a matter for the war records only, but it supplied the most exciting moment of my life as a member of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, and little as I should again like to go through the experience of being on a sinking ship, I shall always look back to my time on H.M.H.S. "Anglia" - prior to that incident - as one of the happiest I have ever spent. We were a very happy party on board and our work was always interesting, in addition to which the life was healthy. Most of the time we were at sea, and when in port we always had opportunities of going ashore for exercise, either at Boulogne or whatever port the ship put in at. The actual sinking of the ship itself pointed out to me the value of a life-belt, and the advantage of having it always at hand. In my own case, and still more so perhaps in the case of wounded patients, the majority could never have kept afloat in a cold sea for forty minutes had we not had the life-belt to support us. Another very valuable means of saving life was the bouyant deck seat, of which there were many on board. As soon as the patients below had been attended to and as many as possible taken on deck, we set about unlashing these seats and throwing them overboard. Many a man must have been saved by being picked up by the boats of the destroyers while hanging on to these floating structures. Anyone who has been to sea and spent some time in one ship will realize what we all felt when H.M.H.S. "Anglia" disappeared from view. She had been our home for many months and all felt very sad about it.

The King, who had had personal experience of the "Anglia" - and who had graciously expressed thanks for the attention received while on board - on hearing of the loss of the ship made special enquiries as to the welfare of all who had been on board at the time.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

The New Cavendish Club

When I was a student nurse in the nineteen sixties, one of my friends had a rather exciting and seemingly well-heeled aunt - Aunt Jude. One day Aunt Jude took us to have a meal at her London club - my own background was not one in which private clubs featured, and I soaked up the experience with eager interest. I might not have easily recalled that visit, but last week I was honoured to be invited to speak at a lunch held in that same club - the New Cavendish Club - to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the voluntary aid movement in the United Kingdom. The Club is immensely proud of its history, and has also recently hosted an exhibition of photos and artefacts associated with VADs and their work over the last hundred years. It's a very different age today from the one which gave birth to the Club in 1920, but I was still able to talk to women who wore their VAD badges with pride, and could look back to the Second World War and say 'I was there.' The history of the Club can be read here - a wonderful peep back into the past, and women's history, in the midst of twenty-first century London.

The History of the New Cavendish Club

Saturday 14 November 2009

VADs - One hundred years

This year is the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Voluntary Aid movement in the United Kingdom. On the 16th August 1909 the War Office issued its 'Scheme for the Organisation of Volunatary Aid in England and Wales' which set up both male and female detachments to fill gaps in the Territorial medical services, with a similar scheme following in Scotland in December of that year. Somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 women served as VADs during the Great War, the majority of them unpaid - probably the largest single example of voluntary service ever seen in the United Kingdom. In addition to working as nurses in almost every theatre of war, they worked as dispensers, cooks, drivers, clerks, storewomen, orderlies, waitresses and laboratory assistants.

Has their contribution been forgotten? In an age when the story of the Great War soldier has reached a level of great importance, the story of the service of women at that time has remained low-key - they continue to be seen as the 'also-rans'and often viewed as being of more use as a morale booster for the troops than as a group of skilled and hard-working women who put their own lives on hold for the good of their country. Family historians who find a VAD in their family tree are usually rather proud of them, and interested to find out what their contribution was during the war, but in general their part in the story has been written out. Last week included both the day when we 'remember' and also the announcement that nurses would, in future, need a degree to do their job. No degrees for the VADs - they were well-bred, educated women, with drive and integrity; with the resourcefulness to see what needed to be done without being told; with compassion, and an inbred ability to cope with the unexpected. I hope that today's young women who enter nurse training can put claim to the same attributes.

Saturday 31 October 2009

The missing eighty thousand

After more than a century, the phrase 'Lies, damned lies and statistics' still rings true on many occasions today. I frequently browse search engines to see if I can find anything about military nurses that's new to the web and of interest to me, and have known for some time that there's a fundamental error on a prominent nursing website, quoting 100,000 thousand for the number of nurses who served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Reserve during the Great War. However, a recent search shows that this error has now been replicated on numerous other sites - those which blindly copy what they find elsewhere without any effort to verify that the information is accurate, although they probably wouldn't have the first idea where to start in getting it right.
So I would like to shout out that there were never 100,000 members of QAIMNS and Reserve during the Great War, or in WW2, or for both of them added together for that matter. The National Archives holds service records for 9,349 members of QAIMNS/Reserve who served during the Great War, and another 6,640 for members of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. This run of files is not complete, as they were weeded during the 1930s and a percentage removed if the women were not able to serve again due to a variety of reasons, or if they went on to serve during the Second World War, in which case their files will still be held by the Ministry of Defence. The full number is unknown, but it's estimated that probably 20-30% more women actually served with the British military nursing services during the First World War than the run of files suggests.
Even a generous estimate pushes that number up to perhaps 13,000 members of QAIMNS/Reserve and 9,000 members of the TFNS, giving a total of about 22,000 women who served. So if you ever read that 100,000 nurses were members of QAIMNS during the war, please ignore it, and if you're really bold, drop a line to the webmaster pointing out the error.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Edith Appleton re-visited

Some time ago I wrote about Sister Edith Appleton, who kept a diary throughout her time in France as a member of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, and which is now online:

Edith Appleton's diary

Wisely, in the face of such an interesting, compassionate and humorous work, BBC radio have decided to broadcast some extracts from the diary on three days during Remembrance week. The online diary is a family collaboration, and Dick Robinson, collaborator-in-chief, travelled down to Brighton for the recording of the programme, and an account of the day, and details of the programme are on his website here:

Edie makes it on to the radio

Very well done to all concerned - certainly something to look forward to.

Friday 16 October 2009

The Diary of a Zepp. Night

This account, written by a VAD, is taken from the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital (TF) Wandsworth, and published in the June 1916 edition. The Gazette was probably the best of all hospital magazines, due mainly to the foresight of the Commanding Officer, Colonel Bruce Porter, in employing a group of men who were all members of the Chelsea Arts Club and too old, or unfit for normal military service. In addition to their work as orderlies at the hospital, they wrote, illustrated and published a monthly magazine which resulted in one of the finest insights into life in a large military hospital during the Great War.

9.15 - Night Sister blows in rather hurriedly. "All lights out, and just run round to the other wards." Start off on my travels, beginning by badly barking my shins on radiator. Make a frantic dive for the door and land with a resounding crash into a screen. Start once more, and eventually arrive - falling over every possible object en route. Dash upstairs and drop metal matchbox down well of staircase with a noise like several bombs. Await result in palpitating silence. Nothing happens, so "carry on."
9.45 - Suffering from shock and ready for anything. See figure silhouetted against window. Ask what it's doing out of bed, and find it's the statue that adorns the ward. Retire crushed.
10pm - Frenzied search for respirators and solution by matchlight. Wake most of the patients with the striking and singe hair and eyebrows, but success attends my efforts. All is prepared. Do your worst, O Hun!
10.15 - Obtain electric torch, and, shrouding it in kit handkerchiefs, go forth in search of adventure and, incidentally, of Night Sister. Am asked by a gentleman if I can direct him to L ward. Offer him the services of my glow-worm, and put him on the broad road that leadeth to L. The same old tale again, I suppose: cherchez la femme.
10.30 - Fire in side ward insists on blazing. Damp its ardour, but it bursts forth afresh every few minutes. On ordinary occasions to look at it is to put it out. Tonight it needs a pint of water or so every half-hour (more or less) illustrating the cussedness of things as they are.
11pm - Toast feet on radiator and search the heavens for the foe. Nothing doing.
11.30 - Still nothing doing.
12 midnight - Suspense is wearying. Decide to have supper. Cook something - bacon - by the smell thereof - make coffee, and pour three parts down the sink in the endeavour to strain it. Eat and drink in solid darkness; but all is tasteless, dust and ashes as it were. Queer what a difference sight makes to flavour.
12.15 - A tiny light comes down the ward, swaying and dancing through the blackness. Is it a fallen star or a Will o' the Wisp on his nightly travels? 'S neither, but our "Lady of the Lamp" on her midnight round. And the news she brings: "Raid in the ___ district, nothing definite." Cheering. Will they blow usup en masse or a ward at a time? Take a gloomy survey of my past, and speculate on the chances of arriving 'there' whole or in portions.
12.45 - Patrol the ward, pitying the unsuspecting patients slumbering regardless of peril!
1.30 - A not very lucid interval.
3.15 - Another visit from the Lady of the Lamp. No tidings either way. Why, oh why, did I leave my happy home and come on night duty?
4am - Dawn begins to lighten our darkness and the order "Lights out" coincides with the running of the first train to be released. It dashes through with a whoop of triumph and defiance, and I pull myself together and decide that it's not such a bad life after all.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Not All Angels

Why do I get increasingly irritated by hearing women who nursed during the Great War described as 'angels'? I realise that it's been used for decades as a catch-all compliment, but surely there are far better ways of describing this group of women.

Angel - a divine or semi-divine being; a spiritual helper for humankind; a personification of the concept of holiness; a person whose actions and thoughts are consistently virtuous.

But angels don't actually exist, do they? Perhaps that depends on an individual's religous beliefs, but to me, no, they are definitely 'pretend.' But nothing 'pretend' about the women who served as nurses during the Great War. I've done a fair bit of research and looked at the life and work of hundreds of individual women who worked as military nurses and VADs, and can come up with many more suitable ways of describing them than by use of the word 'angel.'
They were hard-working, professional, responsible, strong, fit, frail, delicate, robust, nervous, lazy, sympathetic, workaholic, caring, gentle, indifferent, kindly, polite, thoughtful, hard, highly-trained, compassionate, tactless, altruistic, uncaring, intelligent, artistic, literate, rude, middle-class, working-class, loyal, trustworthy, untrustworthy, popular, unpopular, selfless, selfish, honourable .... a group of normal women.

And definitely not all angels!

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Funeral of a VAD

This poignant account of the funeral of a VAD in Rouen comes from 'A VAD in France' by Olive Dent. Its descriptive qualities add a sense of being there, and bring understanding of a ceremony not often available to an 'outsider.' The book does not necessarily run in chronological order, and it's therefore difficult to be sure of the identity of the woman; I first thought that it was likely to be Jeannie (Jessie) Smith Lee, who was working at No.9 General Hospital, Rouen, and died on the 30th March, 1917, but it could also refer to Mary Dickson of No.9 General Hospital who died on the 16th February 1917:

A V.A.D. Funeral

As many as possible of the nursing staff were asked to attend the funeral this afternoon of a V.A.D. When we arrived at the cemetery it was just in time to join the cortege.
A cordon of R.A.M.C. lined the road, and down it passed the padre followed by the pipers wailing a dirge. Next came the coffin, a plain, unstained wooden one covered with the Union Jack. Then came the A.D.M.S., and some other staff officers, and then we nurses - Q.A.I.M.N.S., Territorial, Reserve, St.J.A.A. and B.R.C.
We grouped ourselves round the grave, and the padre read the address exquisitely and most impressively. It was a beautiful spring afternoon with a fleckless blue sky and floods of soft sunshine. A bird on a bough swayed up and down, up and down, with a continual cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep. We all stood taut and still, at attention, and the words rolled magnificently to us:
"Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from Thee."

The Union Jack is folded and laid aside, the pageantry and the impressive dignity of the scene loses its grip on one. Instead there comes to mind a picture of the dead girl, white and still, with closed eyes and crossed hands. We hear the rattle of ropes, the coffin is lowered, the swaying bird becomes a blurred vision. A French peasant woman with a tiny bunch of half-faded violets is sobbing loudly. The grave faces of the English nurses become a little more set.
Then come the prayers, the Last Post - poingnant and haunting - and the volley. Two French nurses drop into the grace a bunch of carnations, we take our flowers and lay them by the grave and turn to go back through the cemetery. No matter what consolation is proffered, death is always an irreparable loss. But surely better to have it come when doing work that counts, work of national and racial weight, than to live on until old and unwanted.
And what a magnificent end to one's life, to lie there among those splendidly brave boys in the little strip of land which the French Government has given over in perpetuity to our dead. Thousands of children that are to be, will come to such cemeteries, and will be hushed to reverence by the spirits of those who are not, by the spirits of the fallen that will forever inhabit the scene.
May eternal rest be given to the poor shattered body and glory eternal to the ever lasting spirit!

A V.A.D. In France, Olive Dent: published by Grant Richards Ltd., London 1917

Sunday 6 September 2009

Territorial Force Nursing Service - a summing-up

I've recently added to my Scarletfinders website an account of the wartime work of the Territorial Force Nursing Service, taken from a report given by Dame Maud McCarthy in December 1920, and published in the British Journal of Nursing. In addition to that account, a less formal version was published in 'The Hospital' the following week, which is given below. In 1920 Maud McCarthy moved from her position as Matron-in-Chief of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service after a five year tenure of office, to the same position within the Territorial Force Nursing Service.


From 'The Hospital' 18 December 1920, page 269

The veil of secrecy which hid the operations of the nursing sisters during the war has not yet been lifted. Lightning glimpses have come through from time to time, chiefly in the telling little narratives recounting deeds which have earned distinctions. But nothing approaching a detailed history of "Nursing in the Great War" has yet been attempted. Hence we hail with particular pleasure the all too brief report furnished by Dame Maud McCarthy, G.B.E., of her own nursing service handed in last week at a meeting of the Territorial Force Nursing Service Committee, City and County of London.
Dame Maud writes with restraint, but her pride in the service of which she is Matron-in-Chief is not entirely banished by official reserve. It was a noble band of women, ably officered, admirably chosen, rising to heights of skill and endurance unguessed at by any at the outset of war. We can remember a time when much criticism was levelled against the preliminary organisation of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. The principle of selection in advance from the major training-schools of the kingdom, on the matron's recommendation, was strongly objected to in certain quarters. How splendidly it was vindicated by the event has become manifest.

The main body of Territorial Nurses ready for service in 1914 amounted to a total of 2,738, of which the number 2,116 nurses were required for 23 general hospitals and 667 to replace casualties. This was the backbone of the Service. As years went on, the principal matrons charged with this duty enrolled 5,357 more members. The total figures are 8,140, but the actual number who served was 7,117, for always they had a large body ready to join up as required. Out of the 24 regularly organised hospitals of the Territorial Force, 10 were sent to France, 1 to Malta, 1 to Egypt, 1 to Mesopotamia, and one to East Africa. All these as well as the Home Territorial Hospitals were served by the Territorial nurses, and in addition the Service sent large reinforcements to the regular Army Nursing Service, and these were posted to casualty clearing stations, ambulance trains, and barges and hospital ships.

The total of deaths was 48, of whom 6 were killed by enemy action; the rest, including 9 who died abroad, succumbed to illness. This low death-rate for a period extending over some five years reflects the highest credit to the organising ability of the heads of the Service. It is no higher in reality than what might be expected in a normal period out of an equal number of women engaged in ordinary occupations. When the prodigious toils of the war period be considered, the difficulties of transport, the improvised nurses' quarters, the many privations and dangers of war, nothing surprises us more than to learn how few nursing sisters died in the course of their duties. Yet perhaps it is after all more surprising still to learn that only 7 out of 7,000 were dismissed as "unsuitable." The art of selection has indeed been brought to a high pitch, and the art of training also, when but one in a thousand enrolled when increasing security of nurses at home restricted choice, should have proved a failure.

Dame Maud herself is filled with an admiration at the fine qualities which manifested themselves in those under her command. They preserved under all circumstances and difficulties a very high standard of nursing. This was expected of them, and the honour of the schools was safe in their hands. But they proved equal to many quite unaccustomed tasks. They were employed in surgical teams, had charge of wards where new forms of treatment were being carried out, took over small units and field ambulances in the very forward areas, managed a hospital for the Portuguese, where they gave a fine object lesson to some astonished gentlemen in the things British women could carry through; and, in fact, distinguished themselves under the most varied and bewildering experiences.

It is not merely their ability which stirs the imagination, it is their qualities of heart, their unstinted devotion to their patients and to the sorrowing relatives which move the emotions. When we thank God for victory, and not a day should pass without thanksgiving, let us thank Him for the quality of British nurses.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Camp Kit

The following list of equipment for nurses proceeding overseas is taken from the Standing Orders for the Territorial Force Nursing Service, but also applied to members of QAIMNS and the QAIMNS Reserve:

The following articles are to be provided by all members when proceeding on active service abroad. Uniform only is to be taken; no plain clothes are required. An Allowance of £8. 5s. for active service equipment, and £7. 10s. for camp kit will be given to each member.

1 Trunk not to exceed 30x24x12 inches
1 Hold-all
1 Cushion with washing covers
1 Rug
1 Pair of gum boots
1 Small candle lantern
1 Small oil stove and kettle
1 Flat iron
1 Looking glass
1 Roll-up, containing knife, fork, dessert-spoon and teaspoon
1 Cup and saucer
1 Tea pot or infuser
1 Securem tent strap
2 pairs scissors
2 pairs forceps
2 clinical thermometers

1 Portable camp bedstead
1 Bag for ditto
1 Pillow
1 Waterproof sheet, 7ft x 4ft. 6ins.
1 Tripod washstand with proofed basin, bag and bath
1 Folding chair
1 Waterproof bucket [canvas]
1 Valise or kit bag with owner's name painted upon it

Saturday 25 July 2009

A nice cup of tea

Looking at a list of requirements for VADs to take with them when proceeding on active service in 1916, I noticed an entry which said 'Etna Stove advisable'. I know what the usual Beatrice Stove looked like, but had never come across an Etna Stove before, and Googling took me to this piece of video on YouTube. This is, of course, a modern day self-build, but surely that 1916 version can't be so far removed. A great insight into life in a tent during the Great War!

Etna Stove

Saturday 6 June 2009

The Search

Anne Summers' book 'Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854-1914' has become my bible of army nursing prior to the Great War. First published in 1988 it is meticulously researched, clearly written, and brings together such a wealth of sources that my mind spins at the thought of ever being able to track down such a treasure trove of information. However, the difficulties must have been great. Of the women who joined the Army Nursing Service in its early days she writes:

What sort of woman joined the Army Nursing Service? The records which might answer this question are extremely scanty. Those women who lasted less than three years have, with the exception of those sponsored by the National Aid Society between 1881 and 1885, vanished without trace; so have many of those for whom no pension was awarded. Those War Office registers which exist for the pre-1902 service do not list father's occupation, place of education, or nurse training school. Some nurses appear in the nursing directories that were published in the 1890s, and some can be traced through the larger metropolitan training schools, though the information contained in their registers is often disappointingly meagre.

At present I'm putting together a database of military nurses as a long term project, which should take me into retirement, and eventually accomapany me to the residential care home (!) and I've come to realise how lucky we are today, twenty years on, to have such a wealth of information so easily available, much of it accessible without even leaving home. I can remember only too well when census returns were only available with great difficulty, and when you did find them, the thought of any sort of index or search aids was unheard of. A look at parish registers meant a long trip to some far-flung county record office, and the expense of an overnight stay, and unless you could make a very accurate guess as to where your 'target' was born or residing, it was pretty pointless leaving home in the first place.

Now I sit trying to track nurses through their lives - birth, family, school, nurse training - anything I can find. Although I'm happy to travel to archives, so much can be done sitting here at home, and it's a delight to find women appearing on my screen, at work, at home, and with their families. Recently I decided to do a search for Jane Deeble, Superintendent of Nurses at Netley from 1869. Within an hour I had found details of her birth, her marriage, and of her four children. I could follow her future husband William to Bermuda with his regiment, before meeting her there and marrying; her three sons at school, one later in the Army, and two who became doctors; her daughter Ellen growing up at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, while her mother worked, and later marrying an army officer very much her senior; and then on to Jane's retirement at her daughter's home in Looe, Cornwall, and finally her death on the Isle of Wight.

Of course these tiny snapshots only form a tiny part of the whole, but what a joy to feel a connection to these women based on rather more than just a name. Are we at the peak of available information yet? I doubt it. But I have a sinking feeling that I might run out of time before all the information is gathered!

Sunday 31 May 2009

13 Stationary Hospital Boulogne

The two previous entries mention a lot about No.13 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne, and how it was opened in the autumn of 1914 in some very unpromising sugar sheds on the quay. By the greatest good fortune I've recently been sent copies of some photographs of the hospital taken soon after it opened, and one of which I attach here. The images were sent by Sheila Brownlee, whose grandmother Ruby Cockburn worked as a trained nurse with the British Red Cross Society throughout the war, and was employed at the sugar sheds from October to December 1914 while the staff was still a mixed one of QAIMNS and BRCS staff. The photo gives a wonderful view of the size and nature of the sheds, and highlights some of the difficulties that must have been encountered there - I can imagine the cold being all-consuming during the winter of 1914-15. Many thanks to Sheila for this, and the many other images she has shared with me, and also to Ruby for the prolific and varied photographs that she brought back from France.

Sunday 24 May 2009

A Hospital in France - the early days

Part Two

On November 11, 1914, Lord Roberts paid the hospital a visit: he spoke to every stretcher case in hospital. The beds were very low and the men’s voices weak, but he leant over and spoke to them all; it upset him terribly to see so much suffering. Lady Aline Roberts, Lady Gordon-Lennox, and the Matron-in-Chief were with him. On November 13, we heard that Lord Roberts had been taken ill; his aide-de-camp, thinking it was only a chill, motored to the hospital for warm things. Warm clothing was sent to him with one of Queen Mary’s red flannel jackets containing a handkerchief in the pocket and with a card pinned on, “Good luck from Queen Mary.” The next day we received the sad news that he was dead. He passed away so peacefully. On the 17th a stand on the platform was draped to receive the coffin, and at the request of the patients, I placed a large cross of scarlet geraniums as their offering on top of the coffin. Men straight from the trenches were his escort – they looked so white and worn – Indian soldiers lined the platform and received the coffin on the boat which conveyed it to England.

On November 18, 1914, a number of German prisoners were brought in, some of the Prussian Guard. Great excitement prevailed the French people as the prisoners were brought from the Gare Centrale to the Gare Maritime. Some of the prisoners were slightly wounded and all were for evacuation to England by the first boat. Such great tall men they were, it quite cheered us to think they had been captured. Soon after their arrival a great scuffle was heard; a Tommy had an Iron Cross which he was showing round when one of the Prussian Guard made a grab for it and there was a rough and tumble for a moment. Fortunately, there were plenty of officers near, so that order was soon restored. Most of the prisoners who came through were quite inclined to be friendly, and there was so much exchange of buttons and badges that the authorities had to take action to stop it.

On Christmas Day, 1914, a service was held at 6 a.m. in one of the wards. A beautiful crucifix which had been presented by Queen Alexandra was used at this service. Later in the morning a present was given to each man by Lady Gordon-Lennox, she and her daughter – now Lady Titchfield – taking them round. It had been intended to give them out from a Christmas tree in the evening, but word came that there was to be an evacuation. During the afternoon a convoy of patients was received who came in time for evening and Christmas dinner. It was wonderful how happy they were – wounds and hardships all forgotten in the joy and thought of getting to “Blighty.”

The battle of Neuve Chappelle was one of our most terrible times, gas gangrene and tetanus were rampant, and the wounded streaming in all day and night. One advantage of the sheds was that the wounded were received by one door and were passed to the boats by the door opposite. How wonderful was the service of boats and trains, and with what rapidity they were despatched! I have known three different lots of men occupying the beds during the twenty-four hours. In the casualty ward, where the patients walked in, so many as three thousand were dressed and fed in a day and passed on to the boats. The hospital was well fitted-up by this time; non-commissioned officers met the patients as they arrived and drafted the walking cases to different benches, according to their degree of wound. The patients were seen immediately by the doctors, who prescribed for them, the treatment being written down by a sister; a band of nurses followed, carrying out the treatment. Then the patients were sent to long comfortable tables, where a hot meal was served, with a mug of tea. They were then passed out at the far side of the ward, decorated with “Blighty tickets,” and so on to the waiting boats.

One of the men told a thrilling story. He had been lying out for three days within range of the German guns. Our men could not get to the wounded, whose groans could be distinctly heard in the front-line trenches. At last, one Sergeant, who could not stand it any longer, got out of his trench, and boldly going to the German trench, thereby risking instant death, called out “We let you take your wounded away yesterday, will you let us take ours today” The German officer answered, “Yes.” The Sergeant then went back and called for volunteers, who carried the wounded men over to the British lines. No shots were fired, but as they were on their way a German officer halted them; they called out, “British wounded.” The officer replied, “Pass on, good night.” It was quite a cheery little story in the midst of the horrors.

In September, 1915, the sheds were taken over by the Army Post Office and the hospital moved to huts on the road leading to Wimereux. For a great many reasons we were sorry to move; it had been a wonderful year on the docks, where we were in the very heart of things. In spite of all the sad memory of great battles – Ypres, Messines, Vimy Ridge – with the thousands of casualties and the endless stream of wounded, there had been much that was beautiful in the heroism displayed in suffering; in the devotion of nurses and willing volunteer helpers. Very wonderful and soul-stirring had been the sight of thousands of troops coming from England daily to be drafted to the front; not to speak of the thousands daily going on leave. It made on proud to be British.

Thursday 21 May 2009

A Hospital in France - the early days

This extract is another from 'Reminiscent Sketches' (John Bale, Sons and Danielsson, 1922), and is an account of a British military hospital in the early days of the war, when the future was uncertain, and medical staff were facing challenges they had never met before. Adelaide Walker was one of the most experienced members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service serving in France at the time. She was born in 1872, the daughter of a doctor, and trained as a nurse at Meath Hospital, Dublin. She served in South Africa during the Boer War, first as a member of the Army Nursing Service Reserve, and from April 1901 as a member of the Army Nursing Service proper, later transferring to QAIMNS after its formation in 1902.


Part One

My first experience at a Base hospital was at Versailles in August, 1914. The hotel “Trianon Palace” had been converted into a hospital. The rooms (which in 1919 were used for the compiling of the peace terms) were full of terribly wounded men, dying of gas gangrene and tetanus.
I was one of a party of nurses returning from St. Nazaire, where we had been sent during the retreat from Mons. We were awaiting orders at the “Reservoir Hotel,” and preparing to go to bed, when a message came from the matron of a hospital, asking us to go and help. A large convoy of wounded were coming in, and every bed was full. The ambulances were streaming along as we made our way to the “Trianon Palace” hotel. It was a curious sight – almost unbelievable – the brightly lighted hall, scarlet carpeted stairs (there had been no time to remove the carpets), stretcher after stretcher being carried in with wounded men caked in mud and blood, some of whom had lain out for days before they could be got at. Beautiful bedrooms were filled with hospital beds, all occupied, and in the spaces between the beds were men lying on stretchers, even in the corridors, and everywhere where there was room. What a night it was! Had we only stopped to think, the work would have seemed hopeless. It was no easy matter to get their dried, caked clothes cut off, and the men washed and fed – a drink being all that the majority were able to take. Poor things! How splendid and amazing they were! Not a grumble from one of them: but when a nurse would be going for a drink for some of them, all the hands would be stretched out, “Bring me one, too, nurse.” Not a word as long as they saw that you were busy. Their wonderful patience and unselfishness never ceased to amaze one. At 4 a.m. matron sent us to bed; orders for us to proceed to Boulogne the next day had been received.

We arrived at Boulogne on October 30, 1914. The place gave us the impression of being a seething mass of ambulances, wounded men, doctors and nurses: there seemed to be an unending stream of each of them. All the hotels were hospitals, which gave one a horrid feeling of disaster. No one of whom we inquired could direct us to where No.14 Stationary hospital (to which we had to report) was situated; eventually we met a matron who was able to direct us. It was a pouring wet night, and we drove up the hill from Boulogne to Wimereux in funny little “Victorias” with a kind of leather apron over our heads. An endless stream of ambulances was slowly making its way in the same direction.
Number 14 Stationary hospital was found to be in a large hotel on the sea-front at Wimereux. The Officer Commanding was in the hall receiving patients: he directed us to the top floor, where the nurses had their quarters. Every place was packed with sick and wounded lying on the floor; you stepped between them, and over them, to get along. As soon as we could get into our indoor uniform we went straight into the wards. I relieved the matron in the theatre, where she was busily working. Operations went on unceasingly. As fast as one patient could be taken off the operating table, another was placed on – and so on all through the night: the surgeons had been at it the whole day. As I went to bed in the morning I met the orderlies carrying patients down the stairs for evacuation by boat to England, while the doctors were helping to carry in another convoy which had just arrived. We rested until midday, then went to relieve other nurses who had not yet had a rest. Reveille was being sounded the following morning as I got into bed. At 7 a.m. I was awakened by the secretary of the matron-in-chief, who had to shake me pretty hard. She calmly informed me that the matron-in-chief’s car was at the door, and that I was to proceed at once to a hospital in the town. She made a cup of tea while I dressed, then I drove down to the docks.

The sugar sheds on the Gare Maritime were to be converted into a hospital, No.13 Stationary hospital. What an indescribably scene! In the first huge shed there were hundreds of wounded walking cases (as long as a man could crawl he had to be a walking case). All were caked with mud, in torn clothes, hardly any caps, and with blood-stained bandages arms, hands, and legs; many were lying asleep on the straw that had been left in the hastily cleaned sheds, looking weary to death; others sitting on empty boxes or barrels, eating the contents of a tin of “Maconochie” with the help of a clasp knife. Dressings were being carried out on improvised tables; blood-stained clothes, caked in mud, which had been cut off, were stacked in heaps with rifles and ammunition. Further on, the sheds were being converted into wards; wooden partitions were being run up, bedsteads carried in, the wounded meanwhile lying about on straw or stretchers. The beds were for stretcher cases, and were soon filled with terribly wounded men, who had just to be put into the beds as they were, clothes and all. As fast as one could get to them the clothes were cut off, the patient washed and his wounds dressed. Some had both legs off, some their side blown away – all were wounded in several places. Doctors and nurses were hopelessly outnumbered, distractedly endeavouring to meet the demands made upon them. Here too we found the Matron-in-Chief with the Expeditionary Force in France (Dame Maud McCarthy) helping and directing. Under her supervision a miraculous change soon took place; reinforcements of nurses began to arrive, and the sheds took on the appearance of a well ordered hospital.

We were greatly assisted by Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox, who placed unlimited funds at our disposal, thereby making it possible for everything to be done. Soon red quilts on the beds, and red screens and large bowls of flowers, took away all the gruesomeness. The flowers were the gift of Lord Lonsdale, who sent them to this hospital throughout the war. He was in the wards one day and saw what pleasure it gave a patient – who was a gardener in peace time – to receive a bunch of flowers; and how tears came into the patient’s eyes when he saw the flowers; and although he was dying how eagerly he grasped them. Lord Lonsdale was greatly touched, and promised that if he could manage it, the hospital should always have flowers. Two days later a large box of exquisite flowers arrived from Bond Street, and flowers never failed to come twice a week afterwards.

Monday 4 May 2009

Camiers revisited (but not by me)

Some time ago now I wrote about a visit I made to Camiers, south of Boulogne, to the site of some Great War Hospitals, now long gone. I added photos of the area today; bare and unexciting, and surely waiting for some future development - the old post from September 2007 is here:

Etaples and Camiers

Recently I came across some contemporary images of 20 General Hospital, Camiers on Flickr, and I thought it might be useful to see what the hospital was like during the Great War. Hospital photos of the time are rare, and these give a great idea of what the buildings, and site in general were like. Follow the link below - the Camiers photos are with other modern images, but easy to browse and tell what's what.

Maud Kealey's photos of 20 General Hospital, Camiers

It's so hard to look at the site today and believe what was going on there ninety years ago.

Sunday 3 May 2009

One of the Intrepid Band

I'm not sure what people imagine a 'military nurse' was like. At present I'm starting a database of nurses, and trying to find out more about the lives and families of some of those who served at any time after 1870. Already I've come across some very ordinary women, and also a number of rather remarkable ones, often with family histories that I would love to be part of myself, rather than my own long line of agricultrual labourers and gypsies. On my list of members of the Army Nursing Service [pre-1903] was the name 'Fellowes, M. A.', and a note next to her entry in the Royal Red Cross Register led me on to her obituary in The Times, and to some further family information. She was born Margaret Augusta Kirkland, in Rothesay, Bute, in 1845, the daughter of General John Vesey Kirkland and Susan (née Paterson). She died on the 29th September 1931, and the following obituary appeared in The Times on Monday 5th October 1931. Just to add that her second husband Sir George Makins was consulting surgeon to the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders between 1914-17, and held the honorary title of Surgeon-General - he survived his wife by two years, dying on 2nd November 1933.


Lady Makins, whose death was announced in The Times last week, was a link with Florence Nightingale, under whose supervision she received her training as a nurse. Endowed with much natural ability and great energy combined with exceeding grace of manner and sweetness of temperament, she had every opportunity, by wide travel, of enlarging her sympathies, increasing her knowledge of life and social conditions, and acquiring that poise and self-confidence that make for leadership. From early years she accompanied her father, General Vesey Kirkland, wherever he was engaged in military service, and was with him in Canada and South Africa. Later on, as the wife of General Fellowes, she resided in South Africa, the West Indies, and Ireland, and was a prominent figure in the social life which surrounds the holders of high military appointments. She was a bold cross-country rider to hounds, a fearless climber of great peaks, and enjoyed all the activities of country life.

After the death of General Fellowes in 1879, her desire turned to sick nursing, and in January 1880, she entered the Nightingale Training School, founded in 1860 by Miss Florence Nightingale at St. Thomas's Hospital, where Mrs. Wardroper, in her position of matron, had already instituted many nursing reforms. Miss Nightingale speedily recognized Mrs. Fellowes's outstanding nursing qualities and powers of leadership, and followed her training with close interest. Thus it was that after the intensive course of one year's training, Miss Nightingale deemed her fit to nurse at the seat of war, and selected her to accompany Sir Frederick Roberts's force to the Transvaal in February 1881, herself arranging all the details of travel and equipment with the utmost solicitude, even commending her to the personal care of General Roberts. In her parting letter, Miss Nightingale called her “My dear Cape of Good Hope,” a term she constantly repeated in subsequent letters.

On Mrs. Fellowes's return to England in June, 1881, she was appointed Sister-in-Charge of Leopold ward at St. Thomas's Hospital, but again her services were required for the troops, and in August, 1882, she was seconded to serve in the Egyptian War. Her offer of service was accepted by Sir Garnet Wolseley himself in a personal letter. Daily correspondence passed between Miss Nightingale and Mrs. Fellowes during the brief period of preparation, and frequent letters of counsel and encouragement reached her at the seat of war. In more than one letter Miss Nightingale wrote of her cherished hope that Mrs. Fellowes would devote her life to Army Nursing and to its reform, deeming her particularly suited for such a task. In March, 1883, Mrs. Fellowes was again back at her post in St. Thomas's Hospital. In 1884 she was among the first to receive from Queen Victoria the decoration of the Royal Red Cross, which had been instituted the year before.

In December, 1884, Mrs. Fellowes left St. Thomas's Hospital on her marriage to Sir George (then Mr.) Makins, the eminent surgeon, and her nursing career seemed ended. But she went again on active service in the South African War which broke out in 1899, and in which her ripe experience proved of much value. Though somewhat advanced in years at the outbreak of the Great War, Lady Makins devoted herself once more to hospital work, and was in charge of the Hospital for Facial Injuries in Park-lane, while she also did valuable service for the Soldiers' and Sailors' Family Fund and for the Red Cross. During peace time Lady Makins was constantly occupied in social work. She was actively interested in the Banstead Children's Home; she was almoner for the Charity Organization Society at Hoxton even as late as two years ago; and in her own parish she was district visitor and school manager. She retained to the last a lively interest in her training school, and no celebration there was complete without her presence. Her widespread sympathies and varied fields of activity made her known and loved by people of all classes, and those who had the privilege of her friendship will preserve an abiding memory of a gracious lady, who shared in her husband's interests and career to the very last.


And here is Margaret Fellowes' service record sheet from The National Archives:

Friday 1 May 2009


It seems to be impossible to blink at present without someone, somewhere, mentioning 'Swine 'Flu', and that often leads on to talk of the pandemic of 1918, and the millions of deaths which followed. One recent report put forward the idea that it attacked fit young people because having a strong immune system actually puts you at more risk of complications and death - presumably on the 'stronger they come, the harder they fall' principle. I don't subscribe to this view myself, but it did get me looking at casualty figures for nurses during 1917 and 1918.

In relation to the nurses working with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, I have daily figures for the total number of nurses officially off work due to illness or injury for the entire period from March 1917 onwards. A War Office paper of the time suggests that a 'normal' sick rate for nursing staff on active service should fall somewhere between a low of 2% of establishment during quiet summer months, and a high of 5% during times of outbreaks of severe illness or epidemic. Although I have chosen not to spend too much time with my calculator for fear of insanity, the sick rate during the two years from March 1917 to March 1919 for all nurses working with the BEF in France and Flanders fits into the pattern exactly, from a low of 2.01% in July 1917 to a high of 4.18% in November 1918. Although the daily sickness rate for the winter of 1918 and spring of 1919 [when the influenza epidemic was at its height] are slightly increased from the same period the previous year, there seems to be no sign that the nursing staff were unduly affected by the epidemic in the same way as were the soldiers and the general population. Certainly there were some deaths, but again, in France and Flanders these formed a very small number relative to the size of the nursing establishment. Considering that the women were caring for thousands of men suffering from 'Spanish 'flu', giving the most personal care day and night and having the closest possible contact with them, it almost seems that most of them were invincible! During November 1918, out of a total nursing staff of 8,072, five women died from pneumonia or 'flu related illness, giving a death rate for the month of 0.06%, and in February 1919, the second worse month for deaths, the rate was 0.03%.

So why were the nurses so unaffected? All I can suggest is that the trained nurses among them [the majority] had spent many years nursing infectious cases in an age where there were no antibiotics, and had developed massive immunity from meeting other similar viruses in the past. If they had succumbed previously, most would either be dead, disabled or immune, and their presence in France suggests the latter - they had received immunity from meeting a variety of viruses previously which either prevented or ameliorated this latest illness. In view of today's problems it makes me grateful to have spent a lifetime as a nurse!

[The figures above are taken entirely from statistics for France and Flanders, and do not necessarily reflect a simliar situation in the UK at the same time]

Friday 24 April 2009

A Portrait of a Nursing Sister

While looking through nurses' files at The National Archives, I came across a member of the regular QAIMNS who died in service between the wars. Born in 1891, she had worked as a VAD for most of the Great War, eventually training as a nurse at King's College Hospital from 1918 to 1921 before joining Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service as a Staff Nurse in 1923. While working in Egypt in 1933, by then a Sister, she contracted influenza from a patient and died of pneumonia. In her file is a list of effects returned to her family after her death. I've come across these sad lists before, but this one was probably the longest I've seen, running over four closely-typed pages, and amounting to several hundred items. What strikes me is how vivid a picture these things paint of the life of a member of the nursing service overseas at that time - her clothes, her hobbies, her off-duty time and a little of her personality - a woman who was the owner of a riding habit, a toasting fork, a Yo-Yo, and even one pair of red knickers! So here are just of a few of the personal belongings of a Nursing Sister of the time - a trip back to the past.

Riding habit
Riding boots
Tennis racket and press
Tennis eye shade
Badminton racket
Tennis dresses (5)
Fishing net
Thermos flask
Gramophone and 30 records
Contract Bridge and Auction Bridge scorers
Bridge pencils (4)
Bridge pencils, ornamental
Books, novels (8)
Golf clubs and bag
Ticket for the Irish Grand National Sweepstake
Parasols (3)
Coats (5)
Silk dresses (4)
Short silk coats (2)
Dresses, fancy (2)
Black lace dress
Black evening dress
Shoes (12 pairs)
Necklaces, bracelets - a dozen or so, assorted
Underwear - dozens of items; night-dresses, bodices, vests, camisoles, stockings, corsets, knickers, dressing-gowns
Purse bags (6)
Cigarette cases (3)
Cigarette lighters (2)
Green and yellow cigarette holders in cases
Brass cigarette box
9ct. gold wrist watch
Ingersoll watch
Sketch book and pencils
Sewing materials
Knitting needles, assorted
Evening dress, half-finished (Blue Crepe-de-Chine)
Pink wool bed-jacket, half made
Ivory napkin ring
Toasting fork
Hair Waver
Electric heater with transformer and flex
Dolls (2)
Dolls' seat
Chinese box

Sunday 5 April 2009

North Russia 1918-19

This is a further extract from the book 'Reminiscent Sketches,' a series of first-hand accounts written by members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and published in 1922. The events that took British troops to North Russia just as the Armistice was approaching are relatively unknown, but this descriptive account by Matron Helena Hartigan gives a real flavour of life in Archangel at the time, and in places puts a rather attractive slant on what was surely a difficult and unpleasant experience for the soldiers. Helena Hartigan, born in 1878, trained as a nurse at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, before joining QAIMNS in 1905. Prior to leaving for North Russia she had spent four years on the Western Front in charge of British General Hospitals.


During 1917 and 1918 the Hospital ship “Kalyan” – P. and O. intermediate – ran between England, Egypt and Salonika. She had accommodation for about nine hundred patients. In October, 1918, the “Kalyan” was detailed for duty in North Russia. A ship equipped for the near East run does not easily adapt itself to an arctic winter. Extensive alterations were necessary. Inner wooden walls about three inches from the ship's side were built, the intervening space being filled with sawdust; glass roofs were covered with asbestos mats; radiators were installed, the midships was roofed in and the water pipes wrapped in asbestos.

The ship was still in the hands of the painters when the nursing staff, a total of fourteen, joined the ship at Cardiff. All were delighted at the prospect of this new adventure. Neither the ship's officers nor the medical officers were equally sanguine. The blue Mediterranean was to them more alluring than the cold north. When the Lascars had been replaced by a white crew and the ship provisioned, we were ready to start. The Marchioness of Bute visited the ship just before sailing, and was most interested in the hospital wards, operating theatre and X-ray room. The wards were extremely well equipped, and, thanks to the courtesy of the captain of the ship, the bullion room was lined with shelves and made a Red Cross store, which defied rats. A special arctic kit was issued to troops bound for North Russia, and, with the exception of the boots, the sisters' kit was similar to that of the men. Leather jerkins, windproof linen coats lined with sheepskin, cloth caps with fur peaks and earpieces, and serge gloves. The boots supplied later to the sisters were high felt boots to the knee, like those worn by the Russian peasants; they looked extremely clumsy, but were beautifully warm and quite proof against frost bite, even with a temperature 35° below zero.

The voyage to Archangel took about twelve days, and as we went North, each day grew shorter. After passing the North Cape a whale was sighted and about the same time we had our first view of the “Northern Lights.” That moving celestial curtain, varying from deep purple to pink, yellow, or green, was a beautiful sight. As the ship approached Archangel I was struck by the flatness of the Russian coastline. On either side of the narrow channel which leads to the port, were many sawmills bearing the name of British firms. The town appeared to have numerous churches, easily distinguishable by their domes – of which each Greek church has five – and the Cathedral with its gilded spire was a landmark. The “Kalyan” was moored to the quay where she was to remain for eight months, under the protecting guns of the French cruiser which was anchored in the middle of the Dwina. My first impression of Archangel was chiefly one of fur-clothed Russians and ill-smelling streets, wonderful churches with still more wonderful choirs.

A British Stationary hospital was fully occupied ashore when we arrived and a new Russian building was being adapted for a General hospital, while a casualty clearing station was busy on the other side of the river Dwina. There were several medical units up the line on both the river front and the railway front. It was not considered advisable that British sisters should work in the hospitals ashore, so a certain number of ladies of the Russian Red Cross were employed at each of these units. Some of these ladies, a large number of whom spoke French, (at a later date) were most kind in showing us round the fur stores, etc., in the town. Sick and wounded were brought to the “Kalyan” by barge. After weeks in billets and blockhouses the sick found the ship luxurious. Hot water, electric light and clean linen was a joy after the evil-smelling and dark billets with no mails, no literature, and no cigarettes. It was a hard campaign for the men. Old newspapers dated the day the “Kalyan” left England were eagerly read. Beside British officers and men of the Navy and Army we had Americans, French, Italians, Chinese and a few Russians. The small cots on board were not ideal for surgical cases, there was not sufficient room for the splints, etc. A surgeon specialist from the Stationary hospital ashore carried out the operations.

Archangel was a couple of hundred miles from the fighting line. Transport difficulties were many, particularly the transport of sick, the different seasons requiring different methods of transport. With the severe frost the whole scene changed; the Dwina became frozen in a night. Snow fell; very fine dry snow; and the whole country wore its winter mantle of of white; it was a charming sight. The silver birches along the river banks – which like the ground were covered with snow – made a wonderful picture. Within a week trains and railway lines were laid on the now solid river, and sleighs drawn by shaggy ponies brought the merchandise across the river, where previously the boats had been busy. Patients arrived by sleigh in what they themselves called “coffins.” Many hundred versts had often to be traversed by the sick and wounded before reaching the base. Wrapped in fur-lined sleeping bags, and halting for food and change of horses at medical aid posts, the men found the open sleigh, well padded with hay, fairly comfortable. A certain number of orderlies from the sore hospitals came on board in relays for practical instruction in nursing. This was found more satisfactory than theoretical instruction given by the sisters from the ship at the hospitals weekly. Ventilation of wards on board was a great difficulty. With hot water circulating in pipes, should a port hole be opened only for even a few minutes it meant a burst radiator, and dire distress of the chief engineer. With the thermometer outside registering anything between freezing point and 35° below – on two occasions even lower still if I remember rightly – the wards were often exhaustingly warm, the cabins still worse. Some of the medical cases found the heat very trying, but in spite of this discomfort they did well.

No fresh fruit or vegetables were procurable; germinated peas and beans were served to all on board each alternate day. A further precaution against scurvy was the daily issue of 2oz. of lime juice per head. The roubles being valueless, the purchasing power of money was practically nil. A limited number of eggs were obtained for patients in exchange for rice, etc. “Rahchick,” a small Russian bird, and ptarmigan were procured in a like manner. Although scurvy was prevalent among the Russian peasants and troops, there were but few cases among our troops, and those cases quickly responded to treatment in hospital. The cases of frost-bite were chiefly due to negligence on the part of the men themselves. Ears were most easily touched if the fur ear-pieces of the caps were not always worn down. Some very bad cases of frost-bite were among the French. A party lost themselves in a wood after a Bolshevik attack; the snow got above their boots, with the result in many cases of amputation of both feet. During the dark winter months – only a few hours' daylight – it was difficult for convalescent patients and the staff to take exercise. Decks were too slippery to walk on and were of course covered in. Skis were supplied, but the flatness of the country make ski-ing impossible. Walking either on or by the river was popular and skating was favoured by some. Unfortunately the one rink within easy distance was small and reserved on two or three days a week for hockey. The local market with its fish frozen into grotesque shapes was always interesting. Bridge, sewing and knitting filled up our spare time; there was also a library. A sewing machine, thoughtfully procured from the Red Cross by the Matron-in-Chief was invaluable for personal and hospital use.

In addition to the Commodore and General Officer Commanding, the ship had many distinguished visitors of various nationalities, including the French Ambassador, the Russian General Officer Commanding and the late Sir Ernest Shackleton. The arrival of a mail was a great event – were were sometimes six weeks without one – the mail came by dog sleigh across the White Sea, and wireless gave us what news we had, including the news of the Armistice. As our troops were still fighting and saw no hope of cessation, there was little enthusiasm on the news of the Armistice reaching us. Archangel was icebound and would remain so until May or June. The French were particularly restive; what wonder when some had had no news from their homes since 1914! The shops in Archangel were interesting to look at. On the outside walls were painted the goods on sale within; probably for the benefit of the many unable to read. The reindeer, as they trotted along the river four abreast, drawing tiny sleighs driven by fur-clothed Laplanders, were most picturesque.

About March the days commenced to lengthen – unfortunately I have no diary to which I can refer – and by May there was practically no night; the skies were beautiful just then and the snow reflected the same wonderful colouring. By degrees perpetual sun melted the snow and very quickly forced the silver birches into full leaf. Unfortunately it also liberated the odours which the snow had mercifully corked! Icebreakers cut a way through the ice for the troopships bringing reliefs to enter Archangel. Within a week, part of the original North Russian “Elope” Force sailed for England. The “Kalyan” well laden returned at the same time and arrived at Leith early in June, 1919.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Great Military Hospitals 1902

Regular inspections of military hospitals had always been carried out, but at the time of the formation of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1902, both the Surgeon-General and the Matron-in-Chief QAIMNS made visits to all large military hospitals to check how the new nursing scheme was working, and to report on any improvements that needed to be made. An increased number of nursing sisters meant that they could be deployed in more hospitals, and take a larger part in the administration of the hospital and in the training of orderlies of the Royal Army Nursing Corps, which was not a universally popular 'improvement'. These reports, all from 1902-3, survive at The National Archives, and I've recently added those for the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, and The Herbert Hospital, Woolwich, and the Cambridge Hospital Aldershot to the Scarletfinders website, and they can be found via these links:

Royal Victoria Hospital Netley

The Herbert Hospital Woolwich

Cambridge Hospital Aldershot

I've already transcribed many of these hospital reports, which total almost one hundred, but the majority are for smaller barrack hospitals which never employed female nursing staff. Some of these small military 'hospitals' were truly awful, but a prize for one of the worst must go to Burnley:

This hospital had been closed about a week before our visit. It was in a most deplorable condition of filth and neglect, and was quite unfit for habitation. The non-commissioned officer in charge was, at the time of our visit, under arrest, and the equipment was removed. If this hospital is ever to be reopened, much will require to be done to make it suitable for sick soldiers. In fact the whole barracks presented a picture of the most abject squalor, and the sight of them must have a strongly deterrent effect upon any man in Burnley who might think of enlisting. They were really disgraceful.

There have been a lot of complaints recently about the treatment of soldiers in hospital today, but thank goodness things have got a bit better in the last hundred years!

Friday 13 March 2009

Nurses and War - some books

I have a booklist on my main Scarletfinders website, but the intricacies of the web somehow result in this blog getting far more search engine hits than my main website. So for anyone searching for some reading material I've repeated some of my favourites from that list here, with additional comments on some of the books.

Military Nursing

Angels and Citizens - British Women as Military Nurses 1854-1914; Anne Summers; Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1988. One of the foundation pieces of writing about military nurses, and essential to the understanding of all that came after

One Hundred Years of Army Nursing; Ian Hay [Sir John Hay Beith] Cassell and Co., 1953. A broad history of the service, the 'hundred years' covering 1853-1953, which is a different hundred to the next book:

Sub Cruce Candida - A Celebration of One Hundred Years of Army Nursing 1902-2002; QARANC Association 2002. This more modern history is based on a photographic archive, showing nurses of QAIMNS, QARANC and the Territorial Army throughout the world, though with particular emphasis on two world wars. It was never published in great numbers and difficult to get hold of now.

Working for Victory? - Images of Women of the First World War 1914-1918; Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. A wonderful collection of captioned images, many from the Imperial War Museum photographic archive, which show women at work during the Great War, civilians, nurses, munition workers, women's army - a bit of everything and excellent for uniform identification.

The Roses of No Man's Land; Lyn Macdonald; Michael Joseph Ltd., 1980. Over many years this book had become the most frequently read [and quoted] account of nursing during the Great War, although perhaps because of the track record of the author and the absence of competitors. My own feeling is that it says much about the Great War, and little about the actual lives and working conditions of the nurses, relying heavily on a few primary sources and concentrating on the untrained VAD rather than the professional nurse. Definitely a book written by a non-nurse for non-nurses to read!

Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps; Juliet Piggott; Famous Regiments Series, Leo Cooper Ltd, 1975. This book covers army nursing from 1642 to 1973 in 103 pages, so a very brief flip-through, but very useful if that's what you're looking for!

More to come.

Sunday 8 February 2009


There was a good deal of dissatisfaction during the Great War, particularly by Canadian and American nurses working in France, that dancing was forbidden to members of the nursing services, either in their own, or in Officers' Messes. There seemed to be little lack of understanding as to why this rule was in place, and what its advantages were, but it was frequently held up as an example of the petty bureaucratic practices which were seen to be in place only to restrict nurses' enjoyment while on active service overseas. Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force in France, often pointed out that this was not her rule, but had been in force for many years after discussions between the War Office and the Nursing Board. She firmly believed that nurses should not lose sight of their purpose in France - that of caring for the wounded - and it would not help the morale of the soldiers to hear talk of dances and gaiety while they lay wounded and in pain.
So to put the record straight, I've found the source of the rule, and the action that followed. It started with a question in the House of Commons, put by Mr Athelstan Rendall, MP for Thornbury, Gloucestershire, to Richard Haldane on November 1st, 1906:

Mr. Rendall: I beg to ask the Secretary of State for War whether he will explain why nurses at Netley Hospital, and in the Army's service generally, are not permitted when off duty, except when on furlough, to take part in public or private dances, seeing that the prohibition does not apply to medical men in the same hospitals; whether a highly trained professional class, such as nurses, are to be placed in a different position on the ground of sex to officers in the Army, who, provided they are on duty at the appointed time have no restrictions placed on their use of time when off duty; and whether he will at once free the nurses from this interference with their liberty.

Mr. Haldane: I have consulted the Nursing Board which contains among its members many ladies of great experience in these matters, and they have advised to the following effect: 'The Nursing Board requires for Her Majesty's Nursing Service gentlewomen who are devoted first and foremost to their work for its own sake and the sake of their patients, and who will, therefore, desire to live quietly and unostentatiously without looking for much gaiety. Occasional attendance at operas, theatres, concerts, and other places of amusement is not incompatible with the due performance of their duties, and is allowed at discretion of the matron; but the late hours involved by attendance at balls and dances, in the opinion of the Board, incapacitates them from giving proper attention to their patients on the following day.

At a meeting a few days later, the Nursing Board discussed the rule and Sydney Holland moved that the Board should adhere to it, saying:

The main reason for the decision was that the late hours involved by attendance at balls and dances incapacitate Nurses for the due performance of their duties on the following day. If further reason is required it may be stated that the Nursing Board requires for Her Majesty's Nursing Service gentlewomen who are devoted first and foremost to their work for its owon sake and the sake of their patients, and who are content to live quietly and unostentatiously without craving for gaiety and excitement.

'It was therefore proposed by Mr Holland, seconded by Lady Roberts, that the Board adhere to the opinion expressed in the above quoted minute. Miss Stewart moved as an amendment that nurses in Military Hospitals should, in special cases, be permitted to attend dances under the strict supervision of the Matron, and provided that they return to their quarters by 12 o'clock midnight. The amendment was not seconded, but was put to the vote and rejected. Mr. Holland's proposal was then put to the vote and carried as a resolution of the Board.'

Sunday 25 January 2009

In All Those Lines

Some months ago I was sent a copy of this book to read. It is based on the diaries of Elsie Tranter, a member of the Australian Army Nursing Service, who worked in a variety of hospitals in France during the Great War. The original of the diary is held at the State Library of Victoria, and it's been dusted off, edited and published by Jennifer Gillings and Julieanne Richards. And what a worthwhile job they've made of it.
Unlike some similar memoirs, it's not simply a catalogue of wounded, dead and dying; of hardship and despair. Elsie Tranter makes her wartime journey very much more interesting than that, giving accounts of the places she visits on her travels, and a great deal of information about her life in general and her leisure time, well-balanced with stories of the soldiers she cares for and her life as a professional woman in wartime. There are many tiny incidents included which give insights into a nurse's life in France not normally found elsewhere, and which make this a unique account of that time. It also demonstrates that nurses with an adventurous spirit could find all sorts of ways to bypass certain rules, regulations and restrictions which were rife in France. She spends a good deal of time catching midnight trains and hitching lifts on lorries to visit places she should not really have been in. It's definitely the story of an Australian!

'In All Those Lines - the diary of Sister Elsie Tranter 1916-1919'
Edited by J. M. Gillings and J. Richards and published by the editors, 2008: ISBN:9780646495590

Sunday 11 January 2009

Honours and Mentions

Several times recently people have contacted me to say that I've failed to include their relative in a list of awards of the Royal Red Cross that I have on the Scarletfinders web site. Initially I found this a bit puzzling as I don't have any details of RRCs on there, but eventually the penny dropped. I recently put up a couple of pages on awards of the Military Medal to members of QAIMNS and the Territorial Force Nursing Service, and that seems to have caused some confusion in people's minds between the two. I wrote a fair bit about Military Medals here in October last year, but just to clarify the vast differences in the numbers of awards I've been checking some of the figures.

During the course of the Great War, there were only 135 Military Medals awarded to women - all nationalities, all theatres of war. Of these, 87 were to nurses working with either QAIMNS or the TFNS in France and Flanders. As for the Royal Red Cross (1st Class) and Associate Royal Red Cross (2nd Class) there were simply thousands in total, not only to nursing staff, but to any woman who had done good work in any capacity concerned with the care of the British soldier. The number awarded to nurses working in France and Flanders under the auspices of the War Office alone was 264 for the RRC and 919 for the ARRC, with another 1755 mentioned in dispatches. When you start adding those women working in the UK and other areas of war, the list starts to look endless. So sheer numbers have excluded the inclusion of a list of RRC awardees on the website, although I do have a complete digital copy of the relevant volumes of the RRC Register, and should be able to find any individual entry if needed. Perhaps at some time in the future I will settle down and organise an online index of the RRC Registers, but I really hope that The National Archives do it first!