Friday 13 February 2015

Evacuation from Dunkirk

Geoffrey Moulson, who appears in the previous post, served for nearly forty years as a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. During the First World War he initially worked in Mesopotamia and later in India, a place he knew well from his childhood. During the inter-war years he rose rapidly through the ranks and on the outbreak of war in 1939 he was posted to France as Commanding Officer of both No.4 Casualty Clearing Station and No.203 Field Ambulance - the 'sharp end.' Following the German invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940 his medical unit was one of many that had to take action to avoid the enemy advance, and eventually make their way back to the United Kingdom through the Channel ports.  After the evacuation was complete and all the nursing staff safely home, the Matron-in-Chief, Katharine Jones, asked some nursing sisters to write accounts of their experiences of the evacuation and two were submitted by staff of No.4 CCS of which Geoffrey Moulson was Commanding Officer. The following was written by Sister Annie Trethewey* Territorial Army Nursing Service, to Geraldine Ball** Principal Matron at the War Office.



Sisters’ Quarters,
Military Hospital,
Co. Down.
20th January, 1941.

Dear Miss Ball,
Your letter of the 11th instant just to hand and I am pleased to accede to Miss Jones’ request and give you an account of my very interesting, if not always useful experiences with the B.E.F. after the invasion of the Low Countries. How well I remember the news at midnight on the 9th May of the invasion. I was on night duty at the time and our Colonel brought me the news, after listening to the announcement, with the remark as he retired for the night “I shall probably see you again before morning”.

May 10th – 5 a.m.
Our first “alert” since the previous October. Our C.C.S. was in a Chateau with a basement for the evacuation of walking patients, but our stretcher patients had to remain in their beds which we pulled into the middle of the wards away from windows, and during the remainder of our stay there I marvelled at the calm with which the men, mostly Air Force, behaved during “alerts”.

May 11th
The “Dawn Patrol” becoming a daily habit and our C.C.S. becoming very busy with air casualties.

May 12th
We evacuated 115 patients at 1.30 a.m.

May 13th
Much confusion in the town of Epernay with constant alerts and continual streams of refugees, such pathetic sights, while convoys of French Troops were going through the town and up the line.

May 14th
The Hospital getting busier every hour – such fine men to nurse – I have remarked in my diary “Makes one proud to be British”.

May 15th
Rumours of our evacuating the Hospital, so I get my packing done before going to bed. By this time I had given up hoping for much sleep but I usually managed to stay in my bed and rest unless there was too much activity overhead. When I arrived on duty at 8 p.m. all patients were on stretchers ready for the evacuation and we were supposed to be 'closed' to admissions, notwithstanding we admitted patients all night and the Theatre was busy the whole time. There was a very anxious night ahead of us; the Red X train, which was due at 1 a.m. got delayed owing to enemy action further along the line; at 5 a.m. the Colonel decided to let the patients travel all the way to the Base by ambulance so arrangements were made accordingly and by 8 a.m. the Convoy was ready for a start when the news that a train would soon be through to take them arrived, cancelling the road transport (many of the patients were too ill for a long journey by road).

IWM H1642

May 16th
Eventually the train arrived at midday and the Sisters and half of the R.A.M.C. Personnel also went on the train for a journey of about 20 miles to the town of Chateau Thierry where we said 'Goodbye' to our patients while they went on to the Base and safety, we hoped. Here we found a curious reception, the French were rather afraid to let us stay in the town as up to then they had not had any raids, so our Officer who was in charge decided with the aid of the Interpreter to find us billets in the village of Chiery, two miles away, and how we welcomed the peace after our recent experiences; but alas, it was not for long and on...

May 17th
… the Enemy reached that spot.

May 18th
After 36 hours of fairly heavy raiding and wondering where the other half of our Unit was, it was a great relief when the Colonel arrived to take us to our new home and so we hoped Hospital. We had a long and chequered journey through convoys of refugees going in the same direction as ourselves, with convoys of French troops coming in the opposite direction, but fortunately it was peaceful from the air. We reached our destination – Ville Neuve – to find we were going to live in a cottage attached to the Chateau which was to be our Hospital and delightfully situated in the woods. Alas our Hospital did not materialize and although we all appreciated the quiet and rest at first, we soon began to wonder what was happening to our wounded and feeling rather useless. For some days we stayed there and I am afraid found it very difficult to believe 'They also serve who only stand and wait'. We were finding it most trying not to be up and doing, knowing that so many of our own men must be wanting attention.

June 2nd
Various signs that we were on the move again.

June 3rd
Up at 5 a.m., breakfast and packing done, ready for a start at 7 a.m. It was a lovely day and the Motor Ambulance Column had provided most comfortable transport for our 150 miles drive; our destination was once more a chateau with a view to making it into a hospital, in a small village near Bauge, but not only was the chateau inadequate, the grounds were unsuitable for tented extension.

June 5th
We move again, this time by ambulance and reach our new home, which is to be tented in some very nice grounds near Chateau du Loir. For a week we lived in tents at this delightful spot and our wards were being got ready for occupation, but, alas, on …

June 13th
… we packed once more and left on …

June 14th
… travelling in convoy by ambulance to Nantes, and spending the night in our ambulance, too near a munition dump for our popularity with the French Authorities.

June 15th
We were up early, waiting for orders which we received from an unexpected quarter; the French Authorities having given the order for us to move out of the field. As our Colonel is away on business, there is no alternative for the Second-in-Command but to have the convoy draw out on to the roadside and await the return of the Commanding Officer. At 1 p.m. the order came through for the Sisters from Nantes to go to La Baule to join the Staff there. It was with great regret we left our Unit and travelled the remainder of the journey in one ambulance. We were received by the Matron of No.4 General Hospital and given accommodation for the night.

HMHS 'Somersetshire' from IWM FL19182

June 16th
A long day of waiting and at 4 p.m. left La Baule on the hospital train for embarkation at St. Nazaire; a raid was in progress during the journey and for some hours while the Hospital Ship “Somersetshire” was being loaded at the port, but we got safely away at 4.30 a.m. on …

June 17th
During the homeward journey we once more had a visit from the enemy and two bombs were dropped close enough to shake the ship from end to end, but we reached Southampton safely on the evening of June 18th. Although during the whole of our journeying we had quite a fair amount of aerial activity to contend with, we travelled very comfortably and I realize only too acutely that after the invasion of the Low Countries, when we had hoped to be useful to our Unit, it was quite the reverse and we were an additional responsibility.


* Annie Mary Trethewey was born in Cornwall at the turn of the century. She trained as a nurse at the Royal Cornwall Infirmary, Truro, completing her training in 1925. 

** Geraldine Catherine Ball trained at the West London Hospital, Hammersmith between 1909 and 1912 and served with QAIMNS Reserve during FWW, later joining the permanent service.

Account taken from documents at The National Archives, WO222/2143

Monday 9 February 2015

Faith, Hope and Family

The recent release of the film ‘Testament of Youth’ has provided an opportunity to view yet another portrayal of nursing during the Great War.  Based on Vera Brittain’s book of the same name this isn’t the first time it’s been dramatized – it was a popular television series first broadcast in 1979. Vera Brittain was not a fan of trained nurses who on the whole she regarded as both socially and educationally inferior, lacking in imagination and altruism.  As readers of her work will know, one nurse she met in France and with whom she formed a lifelong friendship was the character she refers to as Hope Milroy – in real life Faith Moulson.  In common with most professional nurses Faith Moulson is not known to have been a writer nor did she come to notice for noble deeds, so Vera Brittain’s account of her as mad and eccentric is the only one available to us today. Both the television characterisation and that of the current film are rather different, so is the Sister of the 'Hun' ward, the Hope Milroy we read about or see on the screen anything like the real Faith Moulson?  Although sadly I’ll never know, I have found out a little about the Moulson family and while it won’t answer the question as to her mental state, it does shed some light on her life during the 19th and 20th centuries.

     Faith Moulson was born in 1885 in India, either Ferezepore or Abbottabad according to source, where her father John Moulson was a chaplain.  In ‘Testament of Youth’ Faith is described as coming from a long line of Bishops on her mother’s side and actors and writers on her father’s.  While the former is undoubtedly correct, her paternal grandfather was a commercial traveller and if there were actors in Faith’s past there is no obvious or immediate link to be found.  Her parents John Moulson and Lydia French were married in Amritsar, India, in November 1881. Lydia was born in Agra, the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Valpy French, first Bishop of Lahore, and to whom John Moulson was Chaplain.  Over the next ten years they had five daughters, Ruth, Muriel, Faith, Dorothy and Irene, all born in various parts of Northern India and then in 1892, back in England, their sixth and final child, a son, Geoffrey.

     During the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century the family travelled frequently to India but with Lydia Moulson and her children spending more time in England while her husband continued his ministry in India. There is some evidence to show that John Moulson was an abusive and violent man in private life. The following newspaper report is one of many similar accounts of an incident which occurred when the family were spending time in Devon in 1888, the case having been brought to court by the newly formed London Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children:

On July 17 there was disclosed at Axminster Petty Sessions a tale of cruelty to a child so revolting, and in some of its circumstances so unprecedented, as to be almost incredible. The Rev. John Moulson was charged with having, on May 15 last, committed an aggravated assault upon his child Dorothy, aged 16 months. The reverend gentleman is an army chaplain in India, at present on furlough, and residing with his family in lodgings at Seaton. He happens to be the son-in-law of the Bishop of Lahore. The prosecution was instituted by the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. On the morning in question the nurse had been out with the child, and brought it in about noon to prepare its food. Before the food was ready the child appears to have begun to cry. The nurse distinctly says that it was not naturally a fretful child, but not only was it waiting for its food, but the little thing was teething. It had cut about six teeth at this time. The defendant met the nurse coming out of her room with the baby, and ordered her to go back, lay the child on the bed, and leave the room, which she did. The scene which followed may be best told in the nurse's own evidence :—

" When I got halfway out he pushed the door against me, forced me out, and then locked himself in, ... I remained out- side the door listening. My mistress was not at home. I heard the defendant slap the child very violently. I heard the baby shriek at each slap which was given her, and I think this continued for five minutes. I did not count the number of slaps, but I should think there were a dozen at least. I went downstairs for about ten minutes. When I went up again the defendant came out, locked the door, and kept the key in his possession. ... It was two hours before I obtained admission. For the whole of those two hours, with the exception of the short time the defendant was in the room himself, the baby was in the room alone. I asked Mr. Moulson to let me have the key, and he told me to go to my work. . . . I was afraid the child would die, but I was not able to get access to the baby until after 2 o'clock, when I found her quiet. . . . Her little hands were terribly swollen and very red. When I took her in my arms she shrank from me as if in pain. I was horrified at the finger marks on the baby's hips and on the lower part of the body. . . . I kept the child in my arms for the remainder of the day. The baby was fretful, as if in pain, and she looked very pale, and did not like to be touched. She did not take her food properly. During the night the child suffered and could not sleep. Next day I showed the marks to Mrs. Still. There were then marks of congested blood under the skin where the finger-marks were to be found."

This evidence remained substantially unshaken on cross-examination,     although the defendant had the good fortune to be represented by the Hon. Bernard Coleridge. It was strongly corroborated. Mrs. Still, a lady lodging in the same house, saw the child next morning, and says: —

"I saw marks on her as if she had been struck with a stick. In one or two places the skin was almost broken — on the edge of the blows. The blows were half an inch or an inch in width. . . . The baby looked very pale and very languid. I considered it had been beaten, and it would have been cruelty to have beaten a 10 year-old child in the same manner. I should think it endangered   the child's life."

One or two witnesses to character endeavoured to show that the reverend defendant was a model   of everything that is good and noble in a father. Two young ladies, friends of the parents, saw the child at a second-floor   window on the afternoon of the assault, when, according to one, "she waved her hand and laughed," and " looked as happy and well as usual." They also alleged that on the next day the baby's hands were as smooth and white as they should be — the one conflict of evidence in the case. There was also an attempt to show that the child had an abnormally delicate skin. A doctor was called for the defendant — one Evans, a surgeon practising at Seaton — who said— " When children are teething they are naturally very irritable. A child with a hasty temper is liable to have its health seriously injured by giving way to that temper. You must use some discipline to correct it." The five Axminster Justices retired for five- and-twenty minutes. They then dismissed the summons, on the ground that "the evidence did not support the very serious charge made against the defendant;" they next proceeded to stultify themselves by ordering that as "Mr. Moulson showed a want of judgment in administering corporal punishment of that kind to a child of such tender years" he should pay the Court fees, amounting to £1 11s.


     Following this incident the family moved, perhaps the result of gossip and unpleasantness from neighbours in Devon and when in England they lived first in Chislehurst, Kent, where Geoffrey was born and later in Winchester. The return to South Devon finally happened during the First World War when the family went to live at Redlands, Sidmouth.

     In 1906 Muriel Moulson moved to London and began a three year nurse training at University College Hospital qualifying in 1909, the same year that Faith decided to follow her elder sister’s path when she became a nurse probationer at the East Sussex Hospital, Hastings.  London was home to the United Kingdom’s most prestigious teaching hospitals; young women aspired to be accepted at one or other of them and records show that the hospitals themselves favoured the daughters of clergy as probationers, so Muriel fitted perfectly into an accepted pattern.  The hospital at Hastings was small and provincial with just 86 beds and it’s not clear what factors were instrumental in Faith preferring that to somewhere more exclusive, or whether she had perhaps been refused a place elsewhere.  After qualifying in 1912 she took midwifery training in London before returning once more to Hastings. Accounts of the life of ‘Hope Milroy’ suggest that she turned to nursing to move away from university and an academic life, but there remains the possibility that Faith and Muriel Moulson saw nursing as a safe and immediate way to gain independence and escape family life and whatever problems it had produced for them.

     None of the five sisters ever married and Faith and Muriel both served as military nurses throughout the First World War until 1919. Faith initially offered her services to the British Red Cross Society [BRCS] and worked in France at Sir Henry Norman’s Hospital, transferring to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve in April 1915. Muriel was a member of the Territorial Force Nursing Service attached to No.2 London General Hospital and later also worked in France although the sisters’ paths never crossed professionally while there. By the end of the war Muriel was suffering from symptoms of mitral valve disease of the heart contracted following rheumatic fever nine years earlier and that could have been a contributing factor to her relatively early death in 1945.

     At the start of the war Geoffrey Moulson was a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital, but he set aside his training and went to France in 1914 with the BRCS as a ‘dresser,’ returning to his studies in London in 1915 and qualifying as a doctor the following year.  From 1917 he had a very long and distinguished career as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in two world wars and finally retiring in 1954 with the rank of Colonel. In 1919 he was married in Bombay to Irish nurse Eileen Rynd, also a wartime nursing sister in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and who served on hospital ships, at Mudros, and in India where it seems likely she and Geoffrey met.

     Following the Great War Faith went back to India, first on a temporary posting with Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service for India, and later as Lady Superintendent at the Sassoon Hospital, Poona, where she worked until her return to England in 1935 following the death of her father and her sister Ruth.  India runs as a thread through the lives of the whole family as do houses in Bournemouth and South Devon where most members of the family lived over the decades, and eventually died.  Faith died in Devon in 1964, immortalised as Hope Milroy in ‘Testament of Youth.’ I wonder how she regarded her other life as Hope?


Main Sources:
The National Archives WO399 for service files of Faith and Muriel Moulson and Eileen Rynd.

Drew’s Medical Officers in the British Army 1660-1960, Volume 2, for details of Geoffrey’s career

The Great War at Fairlynch - Hunting Geoffrey Moulson

Testament of Youth - An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-25; Vera Brittain Various publishers over many editions

Testament of Youth, 1979: available on YouTube

Findmypast  For almost everything else!

Then on the other hand ...

... I've discovered that there are always going to be some things that I find so interesting they will draw me back ...