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.