Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

WOMEN

World War I nurses carry wounded soldier into field hospital

Photo: Imperial War Museum

OF WORLD WAR ONE

Immobilized soldiers lie in the sun, recuperating from their wounds, while four nurses in long white dresses carry an injured man toward the operating theatre. The Scottish Women's Hospitals Service established their field hospital in the dilapidated Abbaye de Royaumont, close to the front lines, and managed to get even the fountain running.

Women defy authorities to rescue men from the battlefields

At first British authorities try to keep women off World War One battlefields, but they ignored the government and kept on coming, thousands of them, often under their own steam. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs), the Scottish Women, and over 2,5000 Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) travel to Europe. Undeterred by blasts of artillery shells and the ruined landscape of trenches, barbed wire and mud, they set about saving men.

Running a gauntlet of shellfire outside Brussels, Elsie Knocker (later Baroness T’Serclaes) and 18-year old Mari Chisholm drag wounded Brits to their automobile-turned-ambulance, give them first-aid, and drive them to a base hospital 15 miles away. Thirty-year-old nurse Kate Carruthers, stationed on the Western Front in 1917, is working in her field hospital when it comes under attack, and she is wounded. Ignoring her pain, she continues treating injured men, and displays such bravery in the face of the enemy that she is later awarded the Military Medal created by King George V.

"Twenty-five-year-old Lady Dorothie Feilding served as an ambulance driver in Belgium and France between 1914 and 1917. Although Feilding deplored the conflict's horrors, she relished the opportunity to join the select few in her generation of privileged. . .girls who were freed from the dreary confinement of the social round at home. 'It's topping being up near things & so jolly interesting', Feilding writes. She was understandably reluctant to brave German fire to recover German wounded: 'I don't mind running risks for our men or the French but I'm blithered if I'm going to have holes put in me by a bally Teuton while I pick up their men.'' The proof of her courage is that she became the first woman ever to receive Britain's Military Medal."

Turning ruins into a field hospital

Women doctors and nurses established the Abbaye de Royaumont close to the front lines. The abbey had been uninhabited for 30 years, and they faced staggering logistical problems, including food supplies and sanitation. Defying difficulties, they manage to turn it into a 600-bed field hospital, and save thousands of wounded men. Some women, such as Dr Elsie Dalyell, travel from as far away as Australia to help.

Women doctors and nurses operating on a patient during World War One

Women doctors and nurses operate at a World War One hospital.

Photo: Imperial War Museum

Scottish Service

Dr Elsie Inglis, who began the first maternity hospital in Edinburgh entirely staffed by women, is the driving force behind the Scottish Service. She leads the effort to establish the field hospital at the Abbey. She goes on to bring medical units to Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta. Known for her kindness and enthusiasm, she dies from exhaustion and illness a day after she returns to England in 1916.

Winter in Serbia

Mabel Marion (“Jane”) Ingram volunteers to go to Serbia with James Berry and his wife Frances, who is also a doctor. There they find thousands of wounded soldiers and a typhoid epidemic which has killed a third of Serbia's doctors. They manage to bring the typhoid under control. “That autumn Serbia was again invaded by the Central Powers and the Berry unit accompanied the Serbian Army’s fighting retreat to the Adriatic coast, treating casualties while trekking through the snowy passes of Albania in the depths of winter. ‘The bearing of these British women was beyond all praise,’ a Serbian medical liaison officer wrote later. ‘Equalling the soldiers in endurance, they outdid them in morale, giving to others most of the little they had, putting their last wraps on the exhausted soldiers.’”

Their next mission was to treat 1,000 wounded Serbians in Odessa. They worked ceaselessly. “It is extraordinary how these women endure hardships,” a local official told war correspondent Arthur Ransom. “They carry the wounded themselves. They work like navvies. No wonder England is a great nation if the women are like that.” As a Brit remarked matter-of-factly, “They just got on with it.” (The description of the Berrys is taken from the Telegraph’s Second Book of Obituaries, and includes a happy ending for Jane.)

Close up of Edith Cavell, a heroine of the First World War. She has beautiful, gentle, determined eyes.

Edith Cavell

"I am glad to die for my country."

 

EDITH CAVELL

When she grew up, in the 19th century, it was not expected that a girl who liked to paint flowers, play tennis and dance would die before a German firing squad.

Before World War One, Edith Cavell helped her mother, a vicar's wife, to visit the ill, and she taught children. Falling in love with a man who told her that marriage didn't suit him, she decided, after the salutary shock, to become a nurse.

During her professional training at Royal London Hospital, Edith was often in trouble for tardiness, but she was a brilliant nurse. She saved hundreds of patients in a typhoid epidemic, and was invited to Belgium to help set up nursing schools.

In Belgium she pioneered the importance of follow-up care, and through her school provided trained nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools, and 13 kindergartens. Her students thought the world of her.

Into the War Zone and risking her life

She was on vacation at home in Norfolk in August, 1914, when she learned that Germany had invaded Belgium. Without a thought for herself, she caught the train to London and a boat across the Channel, heading straight into the war zone.

Arriving she organized her nursing students. They worked in a Red Cross Hospital where every wounded soldier received attention and care no matter what his nationality. They saved German as well as British lives.

When Brussels fell and British troops retreated, Edith remained.When Brussels fell and British troops retreated, Edith remained.

Two British soldiers found their way to her, and Edith sheltered them then helped them escape to the neutral Netherlands. Other Allied soldiers came to her for help.

Philippe Baucq, an architect in his mid-30s, organized guides who led the Brits to safety. They helped two hundred soldiers to escape.

Edith knew the risk she took in harbouring them. "Had I not helped", she said later, "they would have been shot".

Arrested by the Germans

Someone betrayed them. The Germans arrested Edith and interrogated her. She remained calm, and silent.

The Germans told her that other members of the team had confessed. Believing them, she honestly told them what she had done. For her, the protection and smuggling out of hunted men was the moral equivalent of caring for the sick and wounded.

The Germans sentenced her to death by firing squad. The American and Spanish ambassadors to Belgium made frantic efforts to save her, but the Germans refused to alter their decision.

Dressed in his German uniform, Le Seur, a chaplain, visited her on October 11th, the day before she was to die. Her cell was filled with roses sent by her students.

LeSeur offered to find the Rev. Gahan, the local Anglican clergyman, and ask him to bring her Holy Communion. At eight o'clock in the evening, the Rev. Gahan, an Irishman, arrived. LeSeur explained to him that Edith was to be shot, and Gahan collapsed. Recovering, he went to the prison.

Gahan later told LeSeur that just before she received Holy Communion Edith told him, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

These were not her last words.

Her last words

On the morning of October 12th, 1915, Edith Cavell and the architect Philippe Baucq were led from their cells to the yard where the firing squads waited. Le Seur, the German chaplain, was with her. He took her hand and said, "The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the Communion of the Holy Ghost be with you for ever."

Pressing his hand in return, Edith said, "Ask Mr. Gahan to tell my loved ones that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country."

Le Seur walked with her the few steps to the pole, where she was loosely bound. A bandage was put over her eyes. Sixteen soldiers at a distance of six paces shot her. Later, the soldier who covered her eyes told Le Seur they were full of tears.

A final note

No true Christian believes that patriotism is everything.

Edith believed she was dying for a country which protected freedom and the Golden Rule.

Her last words, recorded by a German chaplain, are not those inscribed in the statue standing across from the National Portrait Gallery in London.

 

When you contribute to this website,
you support Brits at their Best.

Join the Circle of Friends

English bulldog puppy

 

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass