Sunday 24 February 2013

Leaving France

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

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

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


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

Monday 11 February 2013

A New Year Message to the Boss

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

Dame Sidney Browne by Austin Spare IWM Art 2768

Hospital Ship Newhaven
January 1st, 1916

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

My dear Miss Sidney Brown

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

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

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

I am, Yours most faithfully,
Helen Brotherton.

[TNA WO399/10029]