Tuesday 25 February 2014

Unknown Warriors - The Letters of Kate Luard

There are probably many people who will be delighted to hear that a new edition of 'Unknown Warriors' is due out in August this year. Kate Luard's first book was published anonymously in 1916, and because of that it's been available in the public domain for some time. The continuation and sequel, 'Unknown Warriors,' (1930) has remained out of print for decades, and although still in copyright, this new edition is the result of much hard work and devotion by members of her family. It will be published by The History Press in August, and promotion of the new edition is due to start in May. With so few copies of the original available, this will surely be a welcome addition to many bookshelves.

The letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918
ISBN 978-0-7509-5922-3

Sunday 23 February 2014

The Intelligence Officer

This is part of an account written by Sister Catherine Black while working at a Casualty Clearing Station in 1916. Born in Ireland and trained at The London Hospital, Whitechapel, she was later the private nurse to King George V until his death in 1936.

Catherine Black - 'Blackie'


     The German wounded had exactly the same treatment as our own, except that they were not allowed to speak to one another, and we were always ordered to place them in beds as far apart as possible. I can only remember one departure from this rule, and that was at a C.C.S. just behind the lines. A German prisoner, an officer of high rank, was brought in slightly wounded, and given a bed in the corner of my ward. On the day following his admission the British medical officer in charge of the station sent for me and told me that he had some instructions of the utmost importance for me. A patient, who would appear to be a German officer, would be brought to my ward later that day and I was for once to reverse all previous orders and put him in the bed next to the prisoner. He would in reality be an officer from the British Intelligence Department seeking certain valuable information, but I must be most careful to keep up the illusion. Although he would not, of course, be wounded, I must nurse him in the usual way and allow him every opportunity for getting acquainted with the German in the next bed. The Sister on night duty was to be given the same instructions as I. No one else in the station was to know anything, for the entire success of the plan depended on its secrecy.

     Late that afternoon another convoy came in and among them was a German officer.  His uniform was torn and covered with mud, and when he was carried in by two ambulance men he seemed so obviously ill and in great pain that I thought at first sight he could not possibly be the one for whose arrival I was prepared. Then he gave me the signal that I had been told to look for, and I ordered the stretcher-bearers to put him into the empty bed next to the German prisoner who had been admitted the day before.  Then began an elaborate game of make-believe. Never on any stage have I seen such an actor as that Intelligence Officer! His part was carried out to perfection. Not only did he completely deceive the German next to him as to his credentials, but he even hoodwinked the nurses and orderlies into believing him a badly wounded man. The Night Sister and I backed him up for all we were worth. At the proper times we put screens round his bed, carefully dressed and re-bandgaged his imaginary wounds to the most realistic exclamations of pain and protests in broken English. When he appeared to be suffering very much we carried out the pretence of giving him injections. Every day the whole performance of nursing him was carried out with scrupulous care, the only difference between him and the other patients being that no orderlies were allowed to attend him; Sister and I did everything for him ourselves. To avoid creating suspicion, we carried out exactly the same procedure in the case of the bona fide German officer. Very soon there were whispered conversations between the two beds, but we took good care to be out of earshot when that happened.

     On the fourth day the German officer was transferred to a prison camp, and our mysterious patient was 'evacuated.' We never knew his destination, but a week or two later I received unofficial information that the plan had been a great success. Somehow or other I linked this up with the news that our troops had taken an important German position.

King's Nurse, Beggar's Nurse, Catherine Black, published by Hurst and Blackett, London, 1939

Saturday 22 February 2014

The Nurse, the German, Spying and Sinn Fein

National Army Museum

 Attributing the labels of 'angel' and 'heroine' to nurses who served during the Great War seems increasingly common. I've always thought that although 'heroine' may on occasions be accurate, 'angel' never is. Nursing sisters were well trained and experienced over many years, and they relished the opportunity of their skills being publicly recognised. Even the untrained VAD learnt quickly, and found a position as a full member of the nursing team in hospitals at home and overseas. They were not angels, not ethereal creatures, not myth or legend; they were a normal range of earthly women, good, bad and indifferent. As one extreme, I've recently come across the story of a nurse whose behaviour definitely went against the grain and left her in a lot of trouble. The name of the nurse has been removed (for now) but I can add that she came from Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, and trained as a nurse in Belfast.  I first noticed her through a brief entry in the official war diary of the Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders on June 11th, 1918:

Received a telephone message from the A.A.G. ...  Found that he wished to let me know that a certain S/Nurse of the name of W___  Q.A.I.M.N.S.R. had been found carrying on correspondence with the enemy.  She was thought to be a Sinn Feiner, and it was probable that she would be tried by Court Martial.  He wished it to be entirely confidential until the official information came to Headquarters.  He did not wish it talked about.

This nurse has a service file at The National Archives and it gives extensive details of what led up to her arrest. Space only permits a few extracts from witness statements and letters, and some of the evidence produced seems laughable today, but it does show how even little events could start a major alert and have far-reaching consequences. The Staff Nurse was at this time working at No.11 Stationary Hospital, Rouen, and many of the witness statements were given by patients being treated in the hospital at the time who had watched, followed and taken note.


SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE in the case of Staff Nurse M. W ___, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, No.11 Stationary Hospital :

[There were several witness statements, all broadly similar]

I have seen Sister W___ drop a match-box at the back of Tent 55 and return to the ward. A few minutes afterwards I observed a German Prisoner of War come to this spot and pick up the match-box. A few days afterwards Sister W___ asked the patients in the Ward for a match-box, which was given to her. That same evening she was seen dodging between the huts and was seen to put two packets of “Commander” cigarettes behind the Sisters’ Bunk. I and two other fellow patients searched for the match-box but could not find it. We found the cigarettes and a stick with the word ‘Pudding’ written on it. A few days after, she was seen by witness and another patient hiding twelve bars of chocolate and a tin of cigarettes under tarred paper and tarpaulin sheet at the side of the hut.  I took the articles found to Major Chappel ... [Later] we noticed Sister W___ with another Sister coming across to this same spot later in the evening, about 9 p.m.  The other Sister walked between the huts and Sister W___ went to the same spot and then went up to the top of the extension and back again and went away.'

After similar evidence was given by another witness, the accused asked:

 ‘Did you suspect me of being a German spy?” to which he answered ‘I could not say.’  
‘Had you any suspicions at all?’  
‘When I saw you drop the box, I thought there was something suspicious about it.’

And from a Sergeant supervising a German Labour Company:

At 4.30 p.m. it was reported by Ptes. Roberts and Doughty, 944 Artizan Coy., that they had seen a German Prisoner of War creeping towards the Sisters’ Hut.  They then went to the place where they had seen the Prisoner of War go, and found a match-box and part of another with a letter in each. They handed these letters to me … I read the letters. I could recognise the German prisoner of war that went to the hut.  On one occasion I saw Sister W___ wave two handkerchiefs, green and white, coming down from the farther end of the Extension Hospital towards 55 Ward. She waved these two handkerchiefs in a peculiar manner, one down and one across. I saw no answering signal …

The German who had been recognised by the Sergeant was Corporal Max Ehmke:

Memo from Major Vernon Dupree, Captain and Adjutant:

I beg to report that P.W. No.15 Cpl Ehmke, Max, has been detected in writing letters to a Nurse in No.11 Stationary Hospital. The letters, which are now in my possession, were enclosed in match boxes and discovered by my Escort.  The Nurse, I believe, is under arrest.

And a subsequent memo from H. A. Lash, Captain and Adjutant, 15 Labour Group, Auxiliary Camp, Quevilly.

I understand from Major Dupree that P/W No.15 Cpl. EHMKE used to work at No.11 Stationary Hospital, but has not worked there for some weeks. He is now working at No.6 but he managed to get letters through by means of another German prisoner.  Apparently from the enclosed letters, another nurse is corresponding with a German prisoner in the 82nd P of W Company. I have instructed Major Dupree to recall the Cpl. EHMKE from work, and place him under close arrest so as to prevent him corresponding with the Nurse in question by means of his comrade.  Major Dupree has made a thorough search of Cpl. EHMKE and his belongings to see if he can find any letters written by the Nurse to the German prisoner, but has failed to do so, the German has told him that he has burnt all the letters.

Some short extracts from the German prisoner's letters are below. The originals are quite long and rather touching, though if one believes that there might have been spying involved, they could be looked on perhaps as a means of using extreme flattery and amorous advances to soften up a lamb for the slaughter! They are written from 'Jim' to 'Una' which both appear to be pseudonyms.

Dearest Una
When I was marching here tonight I was full of hope to get a letter from you dear, but I arrived at our Camp, I learned that the men had not found one. This news struck me as a blow and you can imagine how great my disappointment was.  I feel really uneasy about you and am wondering what has happened to you. … I risk to send you this note … Oh dearest, I could never bear, when you had been discovered, I feel responsible for it …  Perhaps I happen to see you tomorrow morning and then I shall be comforted seeing that you are still well
All my love dearest, Yours, Jim

Dearest Una
I too, cannot express my feelings, especially after having read your dear letters of 10th and 11th. When I saw you passing this afternoon I got absolutely shocked at you. I realised how much you are suffering. And the same I noticed from your letters. Oh Dearest, my heart is bleeding. I cannot bear seeing you suffer. I know a great deal of your sufferings are caused by the circumstances. I have experienced myself how one feels when one is suspected and watched by everyone. I can quite realise what it means for you to go and fetch the letters night for night, and always the fear of being discovered. Oh dearest, only a heroine can do that, but also a heroine has no superhuman strength. Therefore in order to prevent you having an absolute breakdown, we have to stop hour correspondence, Thus, this will be my last letter ... 

And this is part of one of the newspaper cuttings found with the match-boxes, and which raised suspicions of a connection to Sinn Fein:

A strange scene was witnessed in Dublin on Sunday, when 450 aliens, German and Austrian civilians, who had been interned in Oldcastle Camp, County Meath, were deported. They arrived in the City by a special train, and a special steamer took them from the Liffey.  They carried a great quantity of luggage, which included musical instruments of different kinds.  A large number of female relatives gathered outside the railway station and cheered the deportees, and waved Sinn Fein and green flags

On the 13th August 1918 Staff Nurse W___ was recalled to England, the Director-General of Medical Services stating in a memo to the Adjutant General:

There would not appear to be sufficient evidence to warrant a trial by Court Martial, but I think we are justified in dismissing her from the Service. Do you concur?

And his reply:

I notice that this nurse’s contract apparently expires today. I am therefore of opinion that the contract should not be renewed. I do not think it would be desirable to dismiss this Staff Nurse because political capital without a doubt would be made out of it. I should imagine from the newspaper cuttings she was sending to the German prisoner that she is a Sinn Feiner and after you have taken the necessary action I think you should pass the papers to the D.M.I. [Directorate of Military Intelligence] as it may be desirable to keep an eye on this lady’s movements in the future. I may be wrong but it seems quite possible that Miss W___ may be a dangerous person and I do not quite like the combination of Sinn Fein sentiments and love for a German, the natural corollary of which appears to me to be hatred of England etc. etc.

She was transferred to Boulogne and at first refused to leave - her Matron was given firm instructions to supervise her embarkation for England:

On informing Miss W___ of the orders she was very angry – said she was being blamed for the recent bombing near here, and that was why she was being moved, and that such blame was because she was Irish. She at first refused to go, stated she wished to resign at once, and go straight back to Ireland, and that she would not report at the War Office or do any duty in Home Hospitals.  Also that when she arrived in Ireland she intended to place the matter in the hands of those in Authority she knew, and, to use her expression, ‘have the whole matter thrashed out.’ On my pointing out the uselessness of not obeying orders she consented to go...

Her later life is not detailed in her file. She worked first in Glasgow, and the following year is believed to have returned to Ireland. Was this all a storm in a teacup, or spying; a love affair; a nurse being kind to prisoners, or being taken advantage of by the enemy? At least it's not the story of a nurse pretending to be an angel.