Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review: "Nurses of Passchendaele Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns 1914 - 1918" by Christine Hallett

Christine Hallett puts her wealth of experience as a trained nurse, historian and professor of nursing to very good use in this fantastic book.    This is not just a book about the nurses of the First World War – it also explains the background to the conflict and, as the title infers, to the battles for the little strip of Belgian soil known as the Ypres Salient.  The aim was to reclaim the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge which were captured by the Central Powers early on in the war, and from whence their submarines inflicted terrible losses on allied ships (p. 93).   Drawing on, and quoting from, letters, accounts, diaries and books written by those who were there - American, Canadian and Australian as well as British - Christine builds us a very clear picture of what both patients and medical staff had to endure on the Western Front.

It is very difficult indeed to pick out just a few interesting references for the purposes of this review but I was particulary interested to learn about the Haldane Reforms that led to the creation of the Voluntary Aid Detachments in 1909 (p. 20) and the admission of women to Talbot House (p. 81). I was surprised to learn that American nurses were trained as anaesthetists which amazed the British and led to British nurses being instructed in the administration of anaesthetics (p. 91). The Epilogue (p. 162) reminds us that the nurses’ work was far from over when the Armistice was agreed in November 1918.

You will find in the book all the well-known women of WW1 such as Kate Luard, Helen Fairchild, Mabel St. Clair Stobart, Edith Appleton, Elsie and Mairi and Nellie Spindler and lots more British, Canadian and Australian nurses, as well as doctors, surgeons and specialists who cared for the wounded on the Western Front.  The book also covers many other aspects of tending war wounded, including Trench Foot, Gas victims, Gas Gangrene and so on, and gives detailed descriptions of the various types of hospital, Casualty Clearing Stations and hospital trains/ambulances in use on the Western Front.  Also described in detail are the challenging illnesses and infectious diseases the medical teams had to try to cure with very limited resources and in unbelievable conditions.

The weather just prior to the start of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres), which began on 31st July 1917, was very stormy and several men were struck by lightning and killed before the Battle began (p. 101).   During the Battle, Kate Luard, one of the many nurses featured in the book wrote : “…dreaming in those cornfields and woods at St. Pol in June, I used to think a lot about this offensive, but I didn’t think it would be as stiff as this” (page 120 – from “Unknown Warriors”, p. 226).

If you thought that, as one gentleman informed me, women were kept safely out of danger behind the front lines, it may surprise you to learn that: “Patients often expressed their surprise that nurses were stationed so close to the battlefield. Many were indignant that women should be put in such danger, seeing it as ‘man’s job’ to go off to war – to protect the women and children who, naturally, should remain at home.” (page 121).  And you will find horrific details of the many times Allied hospitals, though clearly marked with red crosses, were deliberately shelled and bombed, causing death and destruction.

With copious notes, a bibliography, a detailed index and some wonderful black and white photographs, this is a fantastic book and really good value at £12.99.  I recommend that you read it.   My thanks to Christine Hallett for researching and writing this book and to Pen & Sword for publishing it. 

“Nurses of Passchendaele Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns 1914 – 1918” by Christine E. Hallett, published by Pen & Sword, Barnsley, Yorkshire, 2017.  Available from good bookshops.  For further information please visit

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Margaret Ellen Evans (1877 - 1917) - British VAD

Kitty Armorel Trevelyan has been in the news lately.  Another woman of WW1 buried in the same Cemetery as Kitty – Wimereux Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France - is MARGARET ELLEN EVANS, who was a VAD.  Margaret was born in Stamford, Northampton in 1877.  Her parents were Daniel John Evans, a solicitor and banker, and his wife Emma, nee Thompson.  Margaret had seven siblings.

During WW1, Margaret joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and worked at the 83rd General Hospital in France.   Margaret died on 22nd July 1917. The Grave Reference is III. A. 1.

Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission List of Female Casualties of the First World War, Find my Past and Free BMD.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Florence Missouri Caton (1876 - 1917) - Nurse

Remembering Nursing Sister FLORENCE MISSOURI CATON, of the Scottish Women's Hospital, who was attached to the Serbian Army.  Florence was the eldest daughter of American Naval Captain John Henry Caton and his wife, Elizabeth Caton, nee Evans, from Wales.   Born aboard her Father’s ship “The Missouri” off the coast of the West Indies in 1876.  Florence had a brother, John H., b. 1874, and a sister, Linda A., b. 1878.  When in Britain, the family lived in Wrexham, Denbighshire, Wales.  

Florence trained as a nurse at Wrexham Infirmary and in 1901 was working at the Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Pendleton, Salford.  She joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital in 1914 and was posted to Salonika.  She was among the nurses taken prisoner by the Austrian Army in November 1915.   After her repatriation, Florence took American nationality and returned to Salonika to nurse where she died on 15th July 1917.

Florence was buried in Lembet Road Military Cemetery in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece) - Grave Reference: 1599.  Has anyone visited the graves of the women who died while serving during the First World War and are buried in that Cemetery in Greece?

Sources: Commonwealth War Graves Commission List of Female Casualties of the First World War, Find my Past, Free BMD and

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Dorothy Willis, nee Hart (1894 – 1916) and Sarah Frances Ruby Hart (1900 – 1919) - British women who died serving in WW1

Dorothy and Sarah Hart were sisters. Their parents were Geroge W. Hart, a florist, and his wife, Mildred Ann, nee Garnar.  The Hart children were:  Dorothy, b. 1894, Hilda, b. 1895, Arthur, b. 1896, Gladys, b. 1898, Sarah Frances Ruby, b. 1900, Albert E., b. 1901, Mildred, b. 1903, Harold, b. 1904, Thomas, b. 1907, Regina, b. 1909 and Linda, b. 1910.   The family lived in the High Street in Willingham in the county of Cambridgeshire.

Dorothy married Albert E. Willis in Edmonton in September 1913.  Their son George E. Willis, was born in May or June 1914.   Dorothy worked in a munitions factory during the First World War and she died of TNT poisoning on 7th July 1916.   Dorothy’s sister, Sarah Frances Ruby Hart, joined the Women’s Royal Air Force as a Member.  Sarah died on 20th October 1919.  The sisters were buried together in Willingham Cemetery, Cambridgeshire, UK.

Women Members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) were seconded to air bases run by the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.  When the RFC and RNAS merged to form the Royal Air Force, it was decided to form a separate Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF).

Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Sarah and Dorothy’s relative, Helen Buckland and with thanks to Debbie Cameron who posted their story on the Facebook Page Remembering Women on the Home Front in WW1.

Sources:  Find my Past, Free BMD and

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Kate Luard – a British Nurse at Passchendaele - review of "Unknown Warriors" Kate's letters home from the Western Front

Paperback edition “Unknown Warriors The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914 – 1918” (The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2017)

I was very pleased to see that Kate Luard’s First World War letters have been published in paperback form in time for the centenary commemorations of the Battle Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres, 31st July – 12th November 1917).  Chapter 5, pages 129 – 158 have Kate’s description of treating the wounded of Passchendaele. This is a timely reminder for me of Kate Luard’s work during the Battle and I have included Kate among the panels of an exhibition featuring people involved in the Battles of Messines (Mesen), Passchendaele and after – 1917 which will be on display at The Wilfred Owen Story Museum in Birkenhead, Wirral from the end of July 2017.

The paperback has exactly the same format as the hardback version published in 2014 and when I reviewed the book in 2014, I wrote the following:

‘If you think that the women who were nurses on the Western Front during the First World War were all safely tucked up well behind the lines and out of the line of fire, think again!  Many of them were awarded the Military Medal only 'earned under fire' as Kate Luard's book of her WW1 experiences tells us.

Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, who wrote the preface to the first edition, met Kate on a visit to her Casualty Clearing Station during the later stages of the Battle of Arras.  The Arras account (Chapter4) is of particular interest to me because my Great Uncle was killed there on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917.

In the introduction to the new edition of the book written specially by Christine Hallett and Tim Luard, we learn that Kate, who attended Croydon High School, was already a decorated war nurse by 1914, having trained in the 1890s at The East London Hospital for Children and King's College Hospital in London, joined the Army Nursing Service in 1900 and served for two years in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902). Kate was in her 40s and Matron of the Berks and Bucks County Sanatorium when she joined the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service on 6th August 1914.  She was mobilised and sent to France.

The book begins with a letter dated 17th October 1915, when Kate was with the British 1st Army commanded by Sir Douglas Haig. The first letter in the book was sent from a Casualty Clearing Station Lillers of which Kate was placed in charge after four months at a Base Hospital.  All of Kate's letters contain a great deal of information about what it was like for the soldiers and the nurses of the Western Front.  There is not one word of complaint and one cannot help but admire those nurses and the wonderful job they did saving lives under terrible conditions, without many resources.  It is interesting to contrast today's NHS with all our modern equipment, medication, hygiene and safety laws with what Kate and her fellow nurses had to put up with during WW1.

During moments of relative calm and occasional well-earned breaks from nursing, Kate describes picnics, tea parties and trips to visit the surrounding countryside and mentions the variety of flora and fauna (snowdrops, fly orchis, ferns, ox-eye daisies, birds, mosquitos) that provide welcome relief to the "waste of life and suffering" and "the mud that out-muds itself everywhere" that Kate dealt with daily.

Wherever they went "les Dames Anglaises" (the English women) in their nurses' uniform caused a stir - whether among the local population - the children following them about - or with the soldiers serving at the front who invited them to tea, showed them round, filled them in about the progress of the war and took them flowers.

Caroline and John Stevens have done a wonderful job putting together the letters Kate Luard wrote to her family while she was on the Western Front and preparing them to be read in the 21st Century.  This book is fantastic - it is as though Kate is with us today as we commemorate the centenary of the first global conflict ('insane and immoral' as Kate calls it) t that changed the world for ever.  I cannot help but agree with Kate's feeling on the war - she was after all called upon to try to help repair the damage done to many of the humans involved.’

Dipping into the book again, on page 39 you will find a description of the problems of Gas Gangrene in wounds (not to be confused with ‘Poison Gas’ as Kate explains).   The Canadian poet, doctor and artilleryman Colonel John McCrae suggested that the microbes that caused the problem were probably caused by the generous use of manure for agricultural purposes in the fields of northern France and Belgium. (GRAVES, Diane. “A Crown of Life The World of John McCrae” (Spellmount Ltd., Staplehurst, Kent, 1997).

And a snippet for my friend Elena Branca of the Italian Red Cross is in the Postscript Chapter at the end of the book on page 205, dated 8th February 1918: “…There is a large Labour Battalion of Italian soldiers working here, also Chinese and Indians…The Italian officer was horrified because I go about in a Trench Coat & Sou’Wester instead of white robes with large Croix Rouges (Red Crosses) on them as ladies of the Red Cross do in Italy…”

If you haven’t yet read “Unknown Warriors” I urge you to do so - it has a map of the Western Front drawn by Kate and lots of notes to help the reader to greater understanding.   It is outstanding and answered many of my own questions regarding conditions on the Western Front.   Her family must be very proud of Kate.

"Unknown Warriors The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914 - 1918", edited by Caroline and John Stevens, including the Preface to the1930 edition written by Field Marshall Viscount Allenby and an introduction to the modern version by Christine Hallett and Tim Luard, published by The History Press, Stroud, Glos, 2014 in hardback and in 2017 in paperback form.

British Women's Cricket Teams WW1

I know there were many women's football teams, such as The Dick Kerr's Ladies, who played charity matches and raised large sums of money for the wounded and the war effort during WW1, but I hadn't been able to find any cricket teams.

The MCC archivist tells me that there were no cricket matches played by women's teams during WW1.

However, historian Debbie Cameron found these photographs of some of the members of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps during the First World War.  The suggestion was that they could play cricket with convalescing wounded.

Source:  Debbie Cameron's Facebook page Remembering Women on the Home Front in WW1 and the National Library of Scotland.  No name of photographer.