Nurses treating soldiers at a clearing station in France[MARYEVANS]
Some came from high-society, others from Sebastapol Terrace but all were devoted to saving British soldiers’ lives. Some died in the line of duty and one was even executed by a German firing squad for aiding Allied troops.
Lovingly immortalised in the 1916 trench song The Rose Of No-Man’s Land, as “the one red rose the soldier knows”, they are the British nurses of the Great War, although time has been less careful in cherishing their memory.
Ever since Florence Nightingale led a delegation of nurses to the Crimea, the British Army prided itself on its medical service. By 1881 the military even had a professionally trained “Regular” female nursing unit, the Army Nursing Service, later renamed, less than snappily, the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS).
In 1914 it had 297 personnel. This relatively small number was because nurses had to be over 25, single and from an upmarket social background. These were similar age and class strictures, which were intended to give the profession respectability, applied to such other nursing units, as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and the Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD).
The latter was a non-military “amateur” establishment trained by St John Ambulance and the Red Cross. VAD was generally held by the troops to stand for Very Artful Darlings. For the first year or so of the Great War the class-prejudice in the recruitment of nurses continued. Promoted Story
When Julian Fellowes put a Red Cross armband on Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey he was bang on the historical mark. One of Lady Sybil’s real-life counterparts was Dorothie Feilding, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. Before abandoning her life of privilege to become an ambulance driver in Belgium, she had been presented at court as a debutante.
King George V and Queen Mary with others, visiting a hospital during the First World War [MARYEVANS]
Other posh “gels” who strode out of the elegant drawing room and into the war included Agatha Christie, the explorer Freya Stark, and Vera Brittain, whose autobiography The Testament Of Youth is wonderfully moving about her service as a ministering angel.
The formidable Duchess of Sutherland, annoyed by the Army’s failure to welcome women nurses wholesale, bypassed officialdom and set up her own hospital in France, complete with doctors, nurses and equipment.
She could run a country estate, so why not a hospital? By 1915 there were so many casualties among the Tommies that the nursing profession and the Army could not continue with their daft class prejudices and girls were recruited who before the war would not have got a sniff of a nurse’s starched apron.
More than 12,000 qualified nurses served with the Reserve of QAIMNS and 90,000 women were at some time or another a VAD. Some of the new nurses, Heaven forfend, were even married. Their common bond was a wish to serve their country, throw off the shackles of convention, and show mankind (literally) that nursing was a suitable job for a woman, even in wartime; especially in wartime.
Mairi Chisholm was a Scottish motorbiker who joined the Flying Ambulance Corps in Belgium where she, along with biker pal Elsie Knocker, ferried wounded soldiers to the field hospital in Furnes. Disheartened by the number of men perishing en route, Chisholm and Knocker left the Ambulance Corps, found an abandoned cellar in Pervyse near Ypres and set up an unauthorised, dressing station just 100 yards from the trenches.
Later, the “Madonnas of Pervyse” were seconded to the Belgian Army. Both were awarded the Belgian Order of Leopold and the British Military medal for their good works at the front. Similarly, the bravery of the aforementioned Dorothie Feilding earned her a chestful of distinguished awards: the French Croix de Guerre (bronze star), a Belgian Order of Leopold II Knights Cross and the English Military Medal for Bravery.
Agatha Christie as a new recruit [THEAGATHACHRISTIEARCHIVE]
In early gas attacks nurses would, in the absence of respirators, drench their sanitary towels in eau de cologne and hold them over their faces and those of the soldiers
This last honour was presented to Feilding at Windsor Castle by George whom she had last met at her coming out ball. Girls serving as FANYs, meanwhile, managed to accumulate between them 17 Military Medals, 27 Croix de Guerre, one Legion d’Honneur and 11 Mentions in Despatches.
No British nurse outdid Edith Cavell for courage, however. Born in 1865, Cavell decided on a career in nursing after tending her seriously ill father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell. At the outbreak of war she was the director of a nursing college in Brussels but diversified into helping wounded escape.
In August 1915 Cavell was betrayed by the collaborator Gaston Quien and subjected to a German court-martial. She bravely admitted harbouring about 175 men in her home; as a strict Evangelical Christian she did not feel able to lie under interrogation.
Despite an international outcry, Cavell was sentenced to death and executed by a 16-man German firing squad at dawn on October 12, 1915. Her remains were brought back to Britain after the war and a memorial service held in Westminster Abbey on May 15, 1919.
Conditions on the Western Front, even without German “frightfulness”, were arduous. In early gas attacks nurses would, in the absence of respirators, drench their sanitary towels in eau de cologne and hold them over their faces and those of the soldiers.
Shifts in hospitals and dressing stations during “Big Shows” lasted for days, with amputations proceeding at a rate of one every 10 minutes. Kit Dodsworth, a VAD, did a fortnight stint with no off-duty time at Rouen hospital during the Somme battle.
Mairi Chisholm and the Baroness de T’Serclaes driving their motor ambulance [GETTY]
She and just one other nurse cared for six tents of wounded men. On attending her first amputation, Druscilla Boycott, another VAD, was ordered to hold the man’s stump as peroxide was poured over it.
Boycott became so queasy she developed double vision and almost fainted. This was the only time she “disgraced” herself. “It is amazing what you can get used to,” she recalled.
By common consent laying out the dead was the worst job but minor irritants were lice and men who were louses. Nurses galore found themselves fending off marriage proposals.
Ambulances broke down or developed punctures with tiresome frequency, meaning they added mechanical engineering to their manifold skills and chores. Nurses set up motor kitchens, served up food and cleaned the dishes.
If nurses on duty back in Blighty were safe from shell fire, they had their share of problems. Gwenydd Lloyd tended shell-shocked and insane patients at the University War Hospital at Southampton.
One chased her with a knife. Poor Claire Tisdall, who escorted the wounded in ambulances as they were transferred from Charing Cross rail station to London hospitals, became so progressively hungry she was reduced to begging for food at a hotel. The manager made her an omelette.
NURSES served on all fronts, as well as at home and in France and Flanders. During the Gallipoli landings of 1915, sickness was a bigger enemy than the Turks. Mary Fitzgibbon, a nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Reserve, worked on the hospital ship Essequibo, where her patients “poured with dysentery”.
Heartbreakingly, in an age of primitive medicine, there was little she could do but dispense water and kind words. With a white cap on their head and a Red Cross on their uniform dress, nurses standing beside beds were as much a part of the Great War as the Tommy trudging up to the line with his Lee-Enfield.
Kitty Kenyon, a young nurse, attended a dying soldier at Camiers, comforting him with sips of port and sugar warmed with water. There were no painkillers for his dreadful stomach wounds. “You’ve been an angel to me,” he told Kitty Kenyon before he died. He spoke for an Army of soldiers.