Sunday, 17 September 2017

Margaret Anabella Campbell Gibson, MM (1877 - 1918) - Administrator (= Officer), WAAC

Remembering today Margaret Anabella Campbell GIBSON, M.M., Unit Administrator (equivalent to the rank of Officer in the Men’s Army) – of the 1st Hostel, Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps, who died on 17th September 1918.   

Margaret Anabella Campbell Elliott was born in Mauritius on 12th July 1877. Her parents were Thomas Elliott, C.M.G. and his wife, Georgina Celia Campbell Elliott.  

Margaret married John MacDougall Gibson, a Captain in the British Army.  She was the first member of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) or, as the Corps later became known, the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, to be awarded a Military Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in charge of a QMAAC Camp during an enemy air raid’.  Mrs Gibson was buried in Mont Huon Military Cemetery in Le Treport, Seine-Maritime, France, where two other women who died serving during WW1 are buried.

I found the photograph of Margaret that is featured here on the weblog of Nick Metcalfe and contacted him at once.  Nick has kindly given my permission to use the photo, which, he tells me, is now out of copyright. Nick told me that the source of the photo is: ‘For King and Country: Officers on the Role of Honour.’ (19 October 1918). Illustrated London News. Issue 4148, Vol CLIII, p 15.  My thanks to Nick Metcalfe for his help

For a review of a recently-published book about the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, please see an earlier post on the weblog.

Further information from Nick’s website:

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Review of “The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France 1917 – 1921” by Samantha Philo-Gill, published by Pen & Sword History, Barnsley, 2017.

These days, when women serve in the British Armed forces alongside their male colleagues, it is all too easy to forget how different things were a hundred years ago.

Drawing on official documents, letters and diaries written by those involved from the WAAC’s inception in 1917, through the change of name to the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, disbandment in 1920, founding of the WAAC Old Comrades Association, up to the laying up of the Corps’ flag in Guildford Cathedral in 2012 and present day commemorations, this book gives us the story of one of the Corps in which women served during the First World War.  It is a reminder of the on-going struggle for emancipation that women in Britain had in the early years of the 20th Century.

Philo-Gill takes us on a voyage of discovery finding out about the background to the setting up of the Corps at a time when Britain was in desperate need of men to fight at the front and the women who were brought in to help.  As she points out, this was the first time in Britain’s history that women had ‘officially work(ed) alongside the British Army’.  

The book gives a clear explanation of how the various women’s suffrage societies were involved in the setting up of the WAAC – ‘no woman was to be employed unless a soldier was released for combat’ - the establishment of rules of conduct, rates of pay – deductions for board and lodging, etc. – uniforms, recruitment methods and so on. This is followed by a description of the work undertaken in France by the Corps members and the women who were in charge of them and the locations in which the women worked, such as Officers’ Clubs, base camps, records offices and Army schools of instruction.   Initial reluctance to the idea of women near the front lines eventually led to acceptance that women were needed to help win the war.  Women could undertake such tasks as clerical work, telephonists (they had to speak French), cooking, baking bread, cleaning, waiting at tables, driving, gardening and looking after graves in cemeteries – not grave digging as that was undertaken by men.

The women posted to France worked extremely long hours, sometimes 8 hours on and 8 hours off, and, when possible, had a half-day off each week, yet the healthy life with regular exercise, even with a rather Spartan diet, meant that the women who joined the WAAC were a happy band.  They were also “expected to attend church parade and service on Sundays”.

I found so much of interest that it is hard to choose just a few for the review – I was fascinated to read about the employment of French civilian women, that “In 1915, the hemline of civilian women’s dresses was raised by several inches’ and ‘Married women were allowed to apply and did not require their husband’s approval” – that must have raised some eyebrows at the time.  Descriptions of day-to-day life for the WAACs in WW1 France and how the women coped with the difficult conditions they encountered I found particularly interesting. And did you know there were three female artists who were assistant administrators in the WAAC who ran camouflage units in France?

After the Armistice in November 1918, Corps members were assigned to new duties such as Border Control.   Also interesting is the description of the change in attitude to the women who served during WW1 when they tried to find work in post-WW1 Britain.

There are some very good photographs included, many of them the author’s own, and an interesting chapter on the women who were despatched to write about the work of the Corps for the British press, as well as those who took photographs, painted official pictures or wrote books about the WAAC. 

One of the Corps’ Administrators (equivalent to the rank of Officer in the men’s army) was Margaret Gibson, who was the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal - for her bravery during an air raid.   Sadly, Mrs Gibson died on 17th September 1918.  She was buried in Mont Huon Military Cemetery, Le Treport, France, along with three women who died while serving with other organisations.

“From the time of their arrival in France in March 1917, the WAAC was subjected to air raids” and there were quite a few wounded or killed during those air raids. There were also those who died of diseases contracted while serving in France. They were buried in cemeteries in France and I often wonder how many of those graves receive visitors?  This book is a fitting memorial to all the women who served in the WAAC/QMAAC.

“The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France 1917 – 1921” by Samantha Philo-Gill, published by Pen & Sword History, Barnsley, Yorkshire, UK, 2017 is available from good bookshops.  For further information please visit

Friday, 8 September 2017

Staff Nurse E.K. Cooke, Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service

Remembering Staff Nurse Ella Kate COOKE, 2/RESC/1266, of The Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, who died on 8th September 1917, following an accident. Staff Nurse Cooke was buried in Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt.  Grave Reference: B. 25.  I wonder if her grave receives any visitors?

Ella was born in Auckland in New Zealand in 1881 and was educated at Grafton School. She trained as a nurse at Cook Hospital in Gisborne and Hawera Hospital, Taranaki.   Ella and her sister travelled to Britain on a private trip in July 1914 and when war broke out, Ella volunteered for service overseas. She was posted to the French Flag Nursing Corps (FFNC) in November 1914 and was based in Bernay in Northern France.   Ella was then sent to No. 17 General Hospital in Alexandria Egypt.   She died on 8th September 1917and was buried in Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt.  Grave Reference: B. 25.  I wonder if her grave receives any visitors?

Staff Nurse Ella Kate Cooke is commemorated at York Minster, York, UK and on the Roll of Honour of Grafton School, Auckland, New Zealand.
With thanks to Callan Chevin of the Facebook Group
for finding the photograph of Staff Nurse Cooke and to Debbie Cameron of the Facebook group  for finding this link to additional information about Ella Cooke:

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Staff Nurse Ethel Saxon - Territorial Force Nursing Service (1891 - 1917)

Staff Nurse Ethel SAXON, of the Territorial Force Nursing Service died 100 years ago on 3rd September 1917. Ethel was born in 1891 in Abertillery, Monmouthshire, Wales. Her parents were Henry Adelaide, a builder and joiner, and his wife Adelaide, nee Morton. Ethel had two younger sisters - Augusta Mary and Lucy.

Ethel trained as a nurse and worked in Liverpool,. During WW1, she joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service and it is possible that she served initially in Frodsham Auxiliary Military Hospital before being posted to Karachi. Ethel died on 3rd September 1917 and was buried in Karachi Cemetery, BA. A. 15.

Nurse Ethel Saxon is commemorated on the Delhi Memorial (India Gate), India. Grave Reference: Face 23, on the Liverpool Cathedral Memorial to the nurses of WW1, in Herefordshire, at Snatchwooed Road Methodist Church, Abersychan, Wales, on the memorial in York Minster and in Lancashire.

A memorial service was held to commemorate Ethel Saxon on 3rd September 2017 at Frodsham Methodist Church, Frodsham,Cheshire.

The Photograph of Ethel Saxon has been kindly supplied by her relative Mr. A. Williams who also supplied further information about Ethel.

Initial source:  Commonwealth War Graves Commission List of Female Casualties of the First World War.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Book with a chapter on WW1 Nurses from Bedfordshire in WW1

Well in time for our Christmas Wish Lists here is news of a WW1-related book to be published on 2nd October 2017 by The History Press.  “Sand, Planes and Submarines: How Leighton Buzzard shortened the War” by Paul Brown and Delia Gleave.   To pre-order a copy please see the following link:

I am reliably informed there will be some WW1 poems written by women munitions workers (see photo from the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives) and a chapter about local nurses.  Definitely a must buy.

With thanks to Elise Ward who posted mention of the poems on Debbie Cameron's Facebook Page Remembering Women on the Home Front WW1.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Book Review: "An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp"

I have commemorated the First World War for as long as I can remember because Grandfather was an Old Contemptible, but I never realised before reading this book how awful life was for those trapped in the occupied areas of Belgium and France.   I knew about the many Belgians who took refuge in Britain during WW1 but this book is a real eye-opener about the situation of those who were unable to flee.

The diary, which spans the period September 1916 to January 1919, was left as “an anonymous woman’s diary” with the “In Flanders Fields Museum” in Ypres in Belgium in 1989.  American historians De Schaepdrijver and Proctor, who edited the diaries, managed to find valuable clues in the diary as to the identity of the writer of the clandestine diary during such a dangerous time.  Their background research is fascinating.

Mary Thorpe was born in Marylebone, London, UK, on 1st January  1864, the first child of Thomas Thorpe, a horse-drawn carriage driver, and his wife Annette, nee Townshend.   Like my own Great-Grandfather, Thomas had married his deceased wife’s sister at a time when that was forbidden by the Church, according to the Deceased Wife’s Sister Act of 1835.   The family went to live in Belgium in 1873.   Mary went to America in 1881 to visit family and in 1887 began working as a governess.

In 1910, Mary started work as a governess for a wealthy family who lived in Brussels – Paul Wittouck, a sugar refinery owner, and his wife Catherine de Medem, a Russian aristocrat.  The Wittoucks had three sons who needed “… the firm guidance that only an English governess with a command of the French language could give”.  The Wittouck family also owned a house called ‘La Fougeraie’ in the Brussels suburb of Uccle, where they spent the holiday period, taking Mary with them.

With the threat of war, Mary elected to remain with the family in Belgium and in September 1916, she began keeping a diary of her war-time experiences.  In spite of the privations of food, coal, clothes, etc. – tea was particularly hard to come by and expensive - and the restrictions in communication with the outside world, Mary remained positive and never gave up hope that Britain would win through.   Mary had a nephew – Dick Dodson – who was interned in the camp at Ruhleben in Germany and occasionally managed to get parcels of food sent to him and to receive letters from him.

But the diary does not only contain information about the day-to-day problems of those living under German occupation, the Wittouck family were important members of Brussels society and entertained VIPs such as American diplomats who remained in Brussels until just prior to America’s entry into the conflict in April 1917.  You will also find interesting information gleaned during the entertainment of such visitors. I did not realise that the British had “mounted a “coup d’Etat” to dethrone the Czar” (p. 184) prior to the Russian Revolution.

Among the photographs reproduced in the book is a map that clearly marks the German occupied area of Belgium and shows the line of the Western Front.   I was interested to read that Mary referred not to tanks but ‘cistern Land dreadnoughts’  and to discover that Belgian men who were out of work were sent to Germany for forced labour and many died as a result of harsh treatment.    As the war progressed, so did the rationing and the requisitioning of all metal such as cooking utensils which were sent to German to make guns.   At one point even people’s mattresses, which at that time were filled with wool, were taken away and sent to Germany (p. 185). 

With frequent house searches by German soldiers, it was difficult to hide anything and the danger involved in trying to smuggle messages or letters to other parts of Belgium is highlighted on page 47 where we learn that Madame Wittouck “spent a night in prison in Liège for her intent to carry two personal letters from Vielsalm (a small town south-east of Liège) to Brussels.”

The diary contains fascinating insights as to the progress of the war – the guns could be heard in Brussels and planes and Zeppelins were frequently overhead – as well as everyday details of life at that time.   The German authorities at one point closed down schools.  The only newspapers permitted were the neutral Dutch ones and those published under the direction of the Germans.   The Belgian authorities banned skating on frozen ponds in public places because the Germans would take photographs and films to demonstrate to the world that they were on friendly terms with the Belgians.   I was also interested to read that the Germans, with a ‘divide and rule’ tactic, encouraged the differences between the French and Flemish Belgians.

After the Armistice in November 1918, Mary was able to visit some English soldiers in a local hospital and was shocked to find the awful conditions they had to endure – “no care, no nursing, next to no food, dirt & squalor…”.   In the Epilogue is mention of a letter sent to Mary by one of the soldiers she visited.   Mary remained in Belgium, where she died on 2nd December 1945.     

This book is definitely required reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of the First World War.

“An English Governess in the Great War:  The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp” Edited by Sophie De Schaepdrijver and Tammy M. Proctor (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017) £25.00 available from Amazon or the Oxford University Press Website

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Gladys Corfield Hughes (1888 - 1918) - British Nurse

Gladys was born in Shropshire, UK in 1888. Her parents were Thomas Hughes, a grocer and farmer and his wife Martha Titley Hughes, nee Corfield.   Gladys had the following siblings:  Martha A., b. 1885, Ethel T., b. 1891, George H., b. 1893, Gertrude S., b. 1894, the twins Dorothy N. and Stella M. b. 1897 and James H., b. 1898.  The family lived in Trefonen, Shropshire.

Chris Woods of the commemorative Group Lights out Trefonen (see website below) has researched Gladys’ First World War nursing career and has given me permission to share the information with you.

Gladys was educated at Grove Park County Grammar School, a Boarding School in Wrexham, and trained as a nurse at Mill Road Infirmary in Liverpool, which was a general hospital at that time.  In June 1915, Gladys joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and served in hospitals on the Western Front.  She was posted to the Woolwick Military Hospital in Britain, became ill with influenza and died on 6th November 1918.   Gladys’s body was taken back to Shropshire and she was buried with full military honours in Nantmawr Chapel Graveyard which is near her home.  She is remembered on the War Memorial in Trefonen, along with two of her cousins who also served and died during WW1  – George Hughes, who was a Second Lieutenant with the King’s Shorpshire Regiment, killed on 12th August 1917 and buried in Anneux British Military Cemetery, and Charles Henry Hughes, a Second Lieutenant with the Welsh Regiment, killed on 30th August 1918, and buried in the Morval British Cemetery.

and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission List of Female Casualties of the First World War

Photo by kind permission of Chris Woods.