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.