Wednesday 25 June 2014

The Blue Plaque Has Finally Arrived

Six years ago I contacted English Heritage to propose a Blue Plaque to commemorate Dame Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders during the Great War. There are so few public tributes to women who served during that period and the trained nurse has fared badly compared to her untrained VAD colleague - anonymity has become her place in history. So by remembering Dame Maud, the Plaque is also a symbol of remembrance for the thousands of nurses of all grades who served under her during her five years in wartime France.

Yesterday was the final step of the journey - the unveiling ceremony at her former home, 47 Markham Square, London, S.W.3, where she lived between 1919 and 1945. As might be expected, all the arrangements were beautifully organised by the Blue Plaques team at English Heritage, and even the weather was smiling. There were a number of speakers and the proceedings started off by Professor Ronald Hutton on behalf of English Heritage. Professor Christine Hallett talked about Dame Maud's professional life and her work during the Great War, and a great-niece, Jennie Newman, related some family memories of a purposeful and unique lady. There was a very strong military presence in Chelsea yesterday evening, with many current day members of Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps and the Territorial Army, the two sister services of which Dame Maud McCarthy was so influential in her time. The Plaque was unveiled by Colonel David Bates, ARRC, the current Director of Army Nursing Services and Matron-in-Chief. When I spoke to him afterwards, we both rolled our eyes at the thought of how Dame Maud would have regarded the prospect of a man ever doing her job - presumably inconceivable in her time.

After the ceremony we were all invited to join the residents of Markham Square at their annual summer gathering, and I must extend grateful thanks to Penelope Russell, who has allowed her home to become subject to a round of upheavals in the long and arduous Plaque process, and also for her hospitality to a raggle-taggle group of guests and visitors - except of course for members of the British Army, who were definitely not 'raggle-taggle'.

Professor Ronald Hutton starts the proceedings

Colonel David Bates before the unveiling

Colonel Bates pulls the string ...

The Photo-Sergeant - didn't look a man to mess with

Thanks from the Chairman of the Markham Square Residents Association

Me and my daughter Hannah with Colonel Bates on her head!


Thursday 19 June 2014

Memorial Stones for Nurses

The grave of Jeannie Barclay Smith at Etaples, one of those that would have had a memorial stone placed upon it

     While completing the transcription of the war diary for the nursing services in France and Flanders, I came across some rather intriguing entries in September 1919 which refer to the placing of memorial stones on the graves of nurses who had died during wartime.

Miss Wilton Smith, Q.A.I.M.N.S., went to Wimereux and Turlington Cemeteries and placed the little Memorial Stones on the Sisters’ graves there.

From there I drove home to Aubengue through La Bassee, Bethune and Lillers.  At Lillers we placed a little Memorial Stone on Sister Andrew’s Grave and took a photograph. From there we drove through St. Omer and arrived at Aubengue about 5 p.m. after having a very interesting day.

Left Aubengue about 9.30 a.m. for Havre.  Went via Etaples and called at No.24 General Hospital and saw Miss Rentzsch, Q.A.I.M.N.S., the Assistant Matron, who is doing Matron’s duties during Miss Allen’s absence on leave, and left with her eight little Stone Memorials for the Sisters' graves and she has undertaken to have same place and photographs taken.
From there went on to Havre and arrived there in time for dinner.  I had come via Etretat so as to be able to place Memorial Stones on the two American Sisters’ graves and took photographs of the graves.

     At that time the graves would have been simply marked with a wooden cross, and without the headstones that are so familiar to us today, but I've never seen any reference before to anything of this sort. It would be fascinating to know more about the stones - how big they were, what they looked like and whether they had any wording on them - and a photo would be wonderful. If anyone comes across any further information about these stones, please let me know.

The grave of Emily Cole at Wimereux would have been one of those mentioned above


Thursday 12 June 2014

The Very Last Page

     More than seven years ago I transcribed the official war diary of the Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders, which covers the years from 1914 to 1920 and is held at The National Archives under the references WO95/3988, 3989, 3990 and 3991. It comprises around 3,400 pages, and fills, to the top, four archive boxes. The first entry is written by Maud McCarthy on Wednesday, 12th August 1914, the day she reported to No.2 General Hospital at Aldershot, to prepare for embarkation for France, and the last on March 31st 1920. Dame Maud wrote each page herself, in longhand, from the first day until the 31st August 1916. From 1st September 1916, the diary was typed by her office staff from her notes, either written or dictated, and other than short leave, and a period of absence between March and August 1917, when she underwent two operations for appendicitis, the diary was ‘hers’ until the day before she finally returned to England on August 5th, 1919.

     From that date until March 1920 the diary continued in the same form, written by her replacement, Principal Matron Mildred Bond, and reported on the hundreds of demobilisations of nurses, the slow run-down of hospitals and casualty clearing stations in France and Flanders, and the rise of medical units serving the British Army of the Rhine. A transcription of the diary up to March 1919 has been on my website Scarletfinders for the past six years. However, at that time I stepped back from transcribing the final year as in the main it's a catalogue of nurses' names and details of demobilisations and lacks the interest of the wartime years.

     Eventually I felt it might be useful, both to family history researchers and also to anyone who might, in the future, feel the need to research the nursing services in the immediate post-war period. So the final year is now complete, and although it won't go on the website, I'll happily send a copy to anyone who feels the need to read it - somehow I sense there won't be a rush, but do feel it's a good job finally done and dusted.

The National Archives WO95/3991 - The Final Page!