Sunday 28 October 2012

The 'Unremembered'

Before I had an interest in military nurses, I researched some local war memorials in considerable depth. During the course of that work I learnt a lot about the course of the Great War, and began to visit the Western Front, paying my respects to local men who lie in cemeteries there and taking many photos along the way.  It was a good grounding for what came later.  However, one important lesson I learnt was that not all those who died did so in battle, with many never meeting the enemy or even leaving the UK. I also realised that many who had been casualties of war, who had met the enemy, fought, suffered and died young are not commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission because they made the mistake of dying after the end of the 'qualifying' period which fell on 31st August 1921. So a man who joined the Army one day and got run over by a bus twenty-four hours later will be remembered by the CWGC for evermore.  A man who fought his way through four years, was gassed, wounded and mentally scarred, but died after 31/8/21 - even one day after - will not.  People try hard to justify that rule and point out that there has to be a cut-off date somewhere.  I call it rubbish.

Women have fared particularly poorly at the hands of the War Office, and later the Ministry of Defence by falling foul of their 'rules' for commemoration. Many nurses, both trained and untrained, have been 'forgotten' because despite caring for military personnel throughout the war they were considered 'civilians,' and therefore unworthy of recognition, even if they died within the qualifying dates. Included among these groups are most VADs, trained nurses of the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross and Order of St. John, and a host of nurses who worked in primitive and dangerous conditions caring for soldiers of other nations overseas. I must also mention here munition workers, doing the most dangerous of work in the United Kingdom, with many of them losing their lives - they are also forgotten by the authorities. Complete and utter rubbish.

Our nation spends so much time honouring and revering its war dead, but seems happy to continue to turn a blind eye to the war dead who just happened to die at the wrong time, despite their cause of death being directly attributable to their war service - they remain invisible and anonymous.  I hope in the future that these men and women might receive the respect to which they are entitled. Breath-holding not recommended.

Matron Volta Billing who returned from overseas service with the Territorial Force Nursing Service, her health undermined, and died on 16 December 1922. Remembered here, if nowhere else


Friday 19 October 2012

The Silver War Badge

I've just finished transcribing the nurses' silver war badge roll, which gives details of awards to women who were unable to continue their employment with the military nursing services on account of illness or disability caused by their war service. It's searchable on Ancestry, but it's only when put into a database or spreadsheet of some kind that it's possible to have a good look at the number of awards to the separate nursing services and the wider view. And some interesting facts emerge which I admit to not understanding at all.

There were a total of 735 awards of silver war badges on the roll (TNA WO329/3253).  These awards were spread among Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, QAIMNS Reserve, the Territorial Force Nursing Service, and members of Voluntary Aid Detachments, most of whom, as far as I can make out, were working in Territorial general hospitals. There are also a handful of civilian women who don't seem to have a place there, but never mind.

Out of roughly 22,000 trained nurses who served with QAIMNS (plus Reserve) and the TFNS, QAIMNS had a slightly higher proportion of members - let's say it was about a 12,000 to 10,000 split.  So it seems odd that a breakdown of awards to the separate services shows:

QAIMNS and Reserve     ---     131
Territorial Force Nursing Service     ---    438
Voluntary Aid Detachment members   ---   162

As many, if not all, of the VAD awards were to nurses serving in Territorial hospitals, that means that in total the Territorial Force received well over three-quarters of all SWB awards to nurses. So what was the reasons for this?

Territorial Force Nursing Service members were physically weaker to start with, or worked under more challenging conditions?

The TFNS chiefs at the War Office pushed harder to get some sort of award for their members on leaving the service, especially if they hadn't served overseas?

There was some special TFNS pathway through medical boards to ensure their members' illness or disability was made attributable to war service?

Being awarded a SWB made it easier for them to claim a pension at a later date - their 'proof' that they were disabled by the war?

QAIMNS chiefs felt that silver war badges for their nurses was nonsense and put obstacles in the way of them applying, or being recommended for such awards?

Were these SWB awards nonsense?  What actually was the point of them for nurses? As there was no conscription for women they didn't need to prove to anyone that they had 'done their bit.'  And why did they continue to be awarded to women right up until January 1922, more than three years after the end of the war? The SWB roll shows that a good proportion of awardees were gainfully employed by the time they received their badges, both in military and civil hospitals.  Certainly the uneven division between QAIMNS and the TFNS suggests that it was not simply a case of a woman's health affecting her work, but that there must have been some administrative minefield that worked in favour of members of one service and against members of the other.

Monday 8 October 2012

French Red Cross Casualties

Thousands of women served with the French Red Cross during the Great War as doctors, nurses, orderlies, drivers, canteen workers, laundry maids and in many other roles.  Because their work didn't involve the care of British service personnel they rarely qualify for commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and curious to see if any of them were named on the CWGC database, I recently sent asked them for details of all members of the French Red Cross that they commemorate.  The list they sent contains just seven names and has only one woman included, but out of general interest I've included all the names here. There were, of course, many more who died during war service, and it seems sad that they may pass by unremembered by their families and unrecognised by the nation.


DAVIS, Driver, MILDRED CONSTANCE. French Red Cross Society. Died from pneumonia, while working with the French Croix Rouge as Ambulance Driver, 8 October 1918. Age 25. Daughter of the Rev. Edward Smith, Rector of Hazelbury-Bryan, Sturminster Newton, Dorset; wife of the late Capt. R. N. Davis. Grave Reference: III. A. 58.


GREEN, Driver, B V. No.20 Section Sanitaire Anglaise, French Red Cross Society. 6 March 1917. Grave Reference: 424.


LEE, Commander, WILLIAM, 10349. French Red Cross Society, attd. British Committee. 29 May 1918. Age 31. Croix de Guerre with Palm (France). Son of William and Marion Lee, of Uddingston, Glasgow. Grave Reference: V. E. 9.

ROOPER, Conductor, RALPH BONFOY. French Red Cross Society, attd. British Committee. 29 May 1918. Age 23. Croix de Guerre with Palm (France). Son of Mr. P. L. and Mrs. A. N. Rooper, of Little Court, Speldhurst, Kent. Born at Chester. Grave Reference: VI. E. 6.


NANCY SOUTHERN CEMETERY, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France
STUBLEY, Worker, JOHN REGINALD. Section Sanitaire Anglaise No. 1, French Red Cross Society. Died of pneumonia, 27 December 1915. Age 30. Son of John and Adeline Stubley, of Batley, Yorks. Grave Reference: J. 226.


MALCOLMSON, Driver, H F. Section Sanitaire, British Ambulance Committee., French Red Cross Society. 14 April 1918. Grave Reference: 1. C. 33.


CARLISLE (DALSTON ROAD) CEMETERY, Cumberland, United Kingdom
BUCK, Conductor, GEORGE HERBERT. Section Sanitaire Anglais, 2nd British Amb. Convoy, French Red Cross Society. 25 February 1919. Age 44. Croix de Guerre with Star (France).  Son of Robert Robinson Buck and Mary Buck, of Carlisle; husband of Clara Buck, of 8, Melcombe Court, Dorset Square, London. Grave Reference: 11. O1. 59.

Sunday 7 October 2012

France and 'Flu

When I'm doing talks I often get asked about the impact that the influenza outbreak of 1918 had on the nursing staff in France and Flanders. I've always felt that while soldiers were so badly affected the nurses got off pretty lightly, but thought I might try and put some proof into the supposition.

From the spring of 1917, the Matron-in-Chief's war diary contained a daily count of the nurses, both trained and untrained, who were sick in France, and accommodated in Sick Sisters' hospitals. It also gives a monthly summing-up of the total number of nursing staff employed in France and Flanders, both British and from the Dominions. So I took the highest daily figure for each month, and worked out the number of sick nurses as a percentage of the total monthly establishment.  There are some flaws in the process, as it doesn't take into account the women who were returned sick to the UK each day, but all these women must have been included in the daily figures at some time or another before their evacuation.  There are also one or two months where the figures are not clear enough in the diary to make an accurate calculation.  The results are interesting (even though a bit lightweight!) - there are expected increases during winter-time, but 1917 was worse than 1918 and early 1919, and the figures seem to support my initial thoughts that nurses were not affected by 'Spanish 'Flu' in France during 1918/1919 any more than they would have been in any other year.

April          5.10%
May           5.16%
June           4.53%
July            2.86%
August        2.91%
September  3.38%
October      3.68%
November   2.86%
December   3.39%

January       3.68%
February     3.15%
March         3.30%
April            2.66%
May            2.52%
June            2.56%
August        2.22%
September  2.18%
November  4.18%
December   3.63%

January       3.73%
February     3.85%
March         4.11%
April           3.43%

By the end of April 1919, although figures are still given in the diary, rapid demobilization makes accuracy difficult.  While the nursing staff were constantly exposed to infections while nursing large numbers of sick soldiers with influenza, it does seem that they may well have developed some natural immunity over many years of exposure during their hospital and community work.