International Nurses Day 2018: Celebrating an Essex nurse

Lawrence Barker, Archivist

To celebrate International Nurses Day (marked each year on 12th May, Florence Nightingale’s birthday), we thought we’d take a look at the career of an eminent Essex nurse, Mary Ellen Ruck RRC, who served as the Matron of Black Notley Hospital near Braintree from 1929 to 1952.

Among the records relating to her (A14768 box 3), which were deposited with Essex Record Office alongside other records of Black Notley Hospital last year, is a book which was presented to her at the time of her leaving listing all her colleagues and associates, including the former County Medical Officer of Health, W. A. Bullough, who described her in a testimonial in 1930 after only one year in office, as ‘a splendid organiser and administrator’ who had ‘rendered me able assistance’ in connection with a scheme for recruiting secondary school girls into the County’s nursing service.

The new Essex County Council Sanatorium at Black Notley for the treatment of Tuberculosis in women and children was opened on 26th April 1930, and the photograph below was probably taken at the time showing Nurse Ruck standing with the Minister of Health, Arthur Greenwood, the Bishop of Barking, W. A. Bullough and councillors and staff associated with the hospital.

The Ambulant Children’s Pavilion at Black Notley Sanitorium

Former staff who worked with her described her supervision as “firm but fair”.  A nurse who joined the staff in 1950, described how Mary Ruck would work at night in the kitchen, how strict she was about cleanliness and in particular about the provision of good food.  Apparently, she was also a great entertainer, famous for her summer strawberry and raspberry teas.  She even concerned herself with the grounds of the hospital making certain that the gardeners looked after them properly so that they should look nice for the patients.[1]  Her attention to cleanliness possibly accounts for the nick-name ‘Mops’ given to her by a friend and associate signing his photograph ‘John’, a Christmas greeting in 1938.

She continued, however, to be involved with nursing in Essex after leaving the sanatorium and was eventually appointed County Nursing Superintendent of the Essex branch of the British Red Cross Society on 1st November 1954.

But perhaps the most impressive part of Mary’s story dates back to before her arrival in Essex.

She originally came from Lincolnshire.  According to her entry in the 1939 Register taken at Wanstead Hospital, she was born at Grantham on 22nd December 1886.  In 1891, the family were living at Louth, her father working for the railway as a ticket collector.  By 1901, he had become the Station Master of Dog Dyke on the Lincolnshire fens, memorably recalled in Flanders and Swann’s well-known song ‘The Slow Train’:

On the Main Line and the Goods Siding
The grass grows high
At Dog Dyke, Tumby Woodside
And Trouble House Halt

By 1911, she was a nurse at the Leeds General Infirmary where she completed her training in 1913. On the outbreak of the First World War, she joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service and was posted to France in January 1915.  And from then she seems to have covered herself with glory. After the Battle of Ypres in 1915, she was mentioned in a despatch by Field Marshall Sir John French on 30 November, which was reported in a local Lincolnshire newspaper.

Among her records are a collection of negatives of photographs taken at Ypres showing the bombed city and Mary Ruck at her station in what looks like a field hospital hut presumably located by the battlefield.

In 1916, after the Battle of the Somme, she was decorated on the field with the Royal Red Cross 1st Class.  The photograph below, thought to have been taken after the battle, shows her at the right-hand end of the back row of nurses.

Finally, after the war, she received a personal letter dated 1st March 1919 signed by Winston Churchill acknowledging her mention in despatches by Sir John French and conveying His Majesty the King’s ‘high appreciation’ of her gallant and distinguished service in the field.

During her long career in nursing Mary must have helped thousands and thousands of people, from soldiers wounded on the battlefields of the First World War to children suffering from tuberculosis. She lived to the age of 85, and died in 1969.


[1] Black Notley Hospital: a century of service, Black Notley Parish Council, 1998

Document of the Month, April 2018: Photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome, c.1918

100 years on from the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918, we have chosen this photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome during the First World War as our Document of the Month (T2603 Part 22).

Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, near Maldon, is considered to be the best preserved First World War airfield in Europe. Its 24 original buildings are Grade II* listed, and today a major project is working on restoring and interpreting the site for visitors.

Powered flight was still a very new phenomenon during the First World War; the Wright brothers had made the first powered flight only in 1903. Despite the fact that the aircraft of this time were flimsy, dangerous, unreliable and uncomfortable, in 1912 the British army had established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and in 1914 the Royal Navy formed the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). On 1 April 1918 these two services were combined to form the RAF, the world’s first independent air force.

Aircraft were used on the battlefields, initially for reconnaissance and then as fighter planes and bombers, but they were also used for home defence. From early 1915 the Germans began air raids on Britain, first with Zeppelins and later with Gotha planes. From late 1915, Home Defence Squadrons were formed to defend against this threat.

Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196283

One of these was No. 37 Squadron, formed in September 1916. Its HQ was at Woodham Mortimer, and it had three flights, based at Stow Maries, Rochford, and Goldhanger. The job of the Squadron was to help defend the eastern approaches to London.

The first commander of Stow Maries was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, MC, DSO. Despite being aged just 19, Ridley had already served with the RFC in France and on home defence airfields. He earned his Distinguished Service Order when a mission to drop a spy behind enemy lines went wrong, and he ended up trapped on the German side. Despite having no command of either French or German, over the course of several weeks he managed to evade capture and made his way to the Netherlands. Not only did he survive to escape, he collected information on enemy activity along the way. He was no longer allowed to fly in France as it was judged that if he had crashed behind enemy lines again he would be shot as a spy, so he was assigned to home defence duties and put in command of Stow Maries.

Stow Maries was operational as a home defence airfield between May 1917 and May 1918, with 81 sorties flown to intercept enemy aircraft. At its height there were 219 staff based there, 16 of whom were aircrew, and 20 of whom were women. During this time, 10 members of 37 Squadron were killed, 8 of them in accidents (which goes to show just how dangerous flying was at this time).

Initially the airfield was equipped with BE12s, which were too slow to keep up with the German planes. Eventually it was sent Sopwith Camels and Avro 504ks, which are the planes which can be seen in our photograph. The Sopwith Camel was the most famous British fighter aeroplane of WW1 and was first introduced on the Western Front in 1917 (the beginning of the video below shows one being started up and taking off). The Camel, so-called because of the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter plane during the First World War.

The Avro 504k is one of the greatest training aircraft ever built. It was used to equip training units first in the RFC and later the RAF. Always knows as a training aircraft, Avro 504ks were also used as an emergency home defence fighter operating against German aircraft raiders.

Stow Maries continued as an aerodrome until Spring 1919, after which the site was returned to agriculture. Many of the buildings constructed during the First World War for use by the RFC and RAF survive today, and Stow Maries is now undergoing a major conservation project and is open to visitors.

The photograph will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout April 2018.

Letters from the Western Front: A nurse’s view of the German Spring Offensive of 1918

This post is published with thanks to Caroline Stevens, Kate Luard’s great-niece, who supplied the extracts from Unknown Warriors.

In spring 1918, the German army launched a series of attacks along the Western Front, advancing further than either side had since 1914. Nursing Sister Kate Luard, of Birch, near Colchester, was caught up in the Allied retreat, and wrote home about her experiences as the dramatic events unfolded (you can read more about her in our previous posts).

The Germans were attempting to defeat the Allies before the arrival of troops from the United States, and were able to reinforce their lines with troops freed up after the Russian surrender in late 1917.

During 1917, Kate had nursed behind the lines at the Battles of Arras and at Passchendaele. 1918 was to prove no less eventful for her.

To help put the letters into a geographical context, the locations from which Kate wrote at this time are tracked in the map below. The letters quoted here are reproduced in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918.

Preparations

The Allies were expecting a German advance. As part of the preparations, Kate received orders on 6 February to report to Marchélepot, in the most southern sector of the Somme area, to set up a new Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).

 

Wednesday, February 6th 1918. Abbeville

Orders came the day before yesterday to report here, and I find it is for my own Unit, at a place behind St Quentin – a line of country quite new to me. None of my old staff are coming but a new brood of chickens awaits me here and I take three up with me to-morrow. In a new Camp after a move there is nothing to eat out of and nothing to sit on, and it’s the dickens starting a Mess and equipping the Wards at once. They sent me all the 60 miles in a car.

 

Thursday, February 7th.  Marchélepot,  south of Péronne. 5th Army

We left Abbeville at 9 p.m. by train to Amiens and got there to find two Ambulances waiting for us. The rest of the run was through open wide country and all the horrors and desolation of the Somme ground, to this place – Marchélepot. There is a grotesque skeleton of a village just behind us, and you fall over barbed wire and in to shell-holes at every step if you walk without light after dark. There is no civil population for miles and miles; it is open grassland – a three years’ tangle of destruction and neglect. All the C.C.S.’s are in miles of desolation behind the lines.

DESTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 61242) Ruins of the church at Marchelepot, 19 September 1917. It was abandoned by the Germans during their retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205308701

The Colonel and the Officers’ Mess gave us a cheery welcome, and the orderlies are all beaming and looking very fit. I’m thankful that only three Sisters came with me as we found no kitchen, no food, no fire and only some empty Nissen huts, but the Sisters of the C.C.S. alongside have fed and warmed us … sleeping comfortably on our camp beds in one of the Nissen huts and shall have the kitchen started to-morrow. The Hospital has only been dug in since Sunday week – shell holes had to be filled in and grass cut before tents could be pitched or huts put up.

 

Saturday, February 16th

I expect you’re having about 20 degrees of frost as we are here. Everything in your hut at night, including your own cold body, freezes stiff as iron, but there is a grand sun by day and life is possible again. The patients seem to keep warm enough in the marquees with blankets, hot bottles and hot food, but it is a cold job looking after them.

Fritz has begun his familiar old games. Yesterday he bombed all round, but nothing on us. We are wondering how long our record of no casualties will stand: we are a tempting target, and have no large Red Cross on the ground, and no dug-outs, elephants [small dug-outs reinforced with corrugated iron] or sand bags.

This afternoon I went to Péronne. It was once a beautiful town with a particularly lovely Cathedral Church, white and spacious; only some walls and one row of pillars are left now.  It is much more striking seeing a biggish town with its tall houses stripped open from the top floor downwards and the skeleton of the town empty, than even these poor villages, in rubbly heaps.

 

DESTRUCTION ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917-1918 (Q 81469) The Cathedral at Peronne in ruins, 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205325839

Sunday, February 17th

Terrific frost still. Drumfire blazing merrily East. I have been trying to draw these ruins. Nothing else of this 15th Century white stone church was visible from where I stood on a heap of bricks. It is quite like it [her sketch], especially the thin tottery bit on the right.

On the other side of my heap of bricks I then found an Official War Office artist [Sir William Rothenstein] drawing it too, and we made friends over the ruins and the War.

LMG209078 The West Front, Marchelepot Church (gouache on paper) by Rothenstein, Sir William (1872-1945); 26.8×53.3 cm; Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery) U.K.; English, in copyright
PLEASE NOTE: The Bridgeman Art Library represents the copyright holder of this image and can arrange clearance.

 

Monday, February 25th

There is a cold rough gale on to-day, which is a test of our newly pitched Wards and of our tempers. Work is in full swing …. The Colonel knowing my passion for solitude has got me an Armstrong Hut as at Brandhoek and Warlencourt, instead of a quarter Nissen like the rest. It is lined with green canvas and has a wee coal stove and odds and ends of brown linoleum on the floor – all three luxuries I’ve never had before. It looks across the barbed wire and shell-holes straight on to the ruins and the Church.

A terrific bombardment began at 9.30 this evening. We have seen a good deal of Professor Rothenstein. He brought his drawings over to our mess to see.

 

February 28th

I suppose the newspaper men have long ago got the opening lines of their leaders ready with, “the long expected Battle Wave has rolled up and broken at last, and the Clash of two mighty Armies has begun”  etc. etc. It may not be long until they can let it go. Yesterday the C.O.’s of C.C.S.’s of this Army were summoned to a Conference at the D.M.S.’s [Director of Medical Services] Office and given their parts to play. We have arranged accordingly and proceeded in all Departments to indent for Chloroform, Pyjamas, Blankets, Stretchers, Stoves, Hot Water Bottles and what not. The R.E. [Royal Engineers] are working rapidly; Nissen Huts springing up like mushrooms, electric light and water laid on, bath houses concreted, boilers going, duckboards down, and Reinforcements of all ranks arriving. A train is coming to clear the sick to-morrow.

 

Saturday, March 2nd

Nothing doing so far. Everyone is posted to his right station for Zero and meanwhile the usual routine carries on. To-day there is the most poisonous blizzard. The thin canvas walls of my wee hut are like brown paper in this weather, this violent icy wind blows the roof and walls apart and layers of North Pole and snow come knifing in …

 

Monday, March 4th

A mighty blizzard snowstorm has covered us and the Boche and there is nothing doing here. Later. the DMS has just been around again with more warnings; and consequently renewed preparations for Zero.

I’ve got some primroses growing in a blue pot, grubbed up out of a ruined garden before the snow. The only way of getting in to my Armstrong Hut at first was across a plank over a shell-hole. The R.E. are  fortifying our quarters against bombs. We take in every other day and evacuate about every four days – almost entirely medical cases.

 

The attack

The German offensive began on 21 March 1918. An artillery bombardment began at 4.40am, covering a target area of 150 square miles. Over 1,100,000 shells were launched in five hours. On the first day, the Germans broke through the Allied lines in several places, and the British sustained over 7,500 deaths and 10,000 wounded. Within two days the British were in full retreat, including the Casualty Clearing Stations.

 

Friday, March 22nd

A ghastly uproar began yesterday, Thursday morning, March 21st. The guns bellowed and the earth shook. Fritz brought off his Zero like clockwork at 4.20 a.m. and in one second plunged our front line in a deluge of High Explosive, gas and smoke, assisted by a thick fog of white mist. Our gunners were temporarily knocked out by gas but soon recovered and gave them hell, which caught their first infantry rush, but they came on and advanced a mile. We suddenly became a front line C.C. S. and the arrival of the wreckage began, continued and has not ended. We began about 9.30 with our usual 14 Sisters and by midnight we numbered 40 as at Brandhoek. Only two Ambulance Trains have come to evacuate the wounded, and the filling up continues. The C.O. and I stayed up all night and to-day, and we have now got people into the 16-hours-on-and-8-off routine in the Theatre etc. We had 102 gassed men in one ward, but only 4 died. Ten girl chauffeurs drove up in the middle of the night with five Operating teams from the Base.

THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE, MARCH-JULY 1918 (Q 11586) Battle of Estaires. A line of British troops blinded by tear gas at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune, 10 April 1918. Each man has his hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193875

Friday night, 11 p.m.

Just off to bed after 40 hours full steam ahead. Everything and everybody is working at very high pressure and yet it makes little impression on the general ghastliness. This is very near the battle, and gets nearer; there are fires on the skyline and to-night bombs are dropping like apples on the country around. The artillery roar has been terrific to-day. Good-night.

 

Palm Sunday, March 24th, 9 a.m. Amiens

The night before last after writing to you, things looked a bit hot … and the map was altering every hour for the worse …  ours was the place where they broke through and came on with their guns at a great pace. All the hot busy morning wind-up increased, and faces looked graver every hour. The guns came nearer, and soon Field Ambulances were behind us and Archies [anti-aircraft   guns] cracking the sky with their noise. We stopped taking in because there were no Field Ambulances, and we stopped operating because it was obvious we must evacuate everybody living or dying, or all be made prisoners if anybody survived the shelling that was approaching. Telephone communication with the D.M.S. was more off than on, and roads were getting blocked for many miles, and the railway also. We had a 1000 patients until a train came in at 9 a.m. and took 300. Every ward was full and there were two lines of stretchers down the central duck-walk; we dressed them, fed them, propped them up, picked out the dying at intervals as the day went on, and waited for orders, trains, cars or lorries or anything that might turn up. At 10 a.m. the Colonel wanted me to get all my 40 Sisters away on the Ambulance Train, but as we had these hundreds of badly wounded, we decided to stay …

At mid-day the Matron-in-Chief turned up in her car from Abbeville and came to look out for her 80 Sisters – 40 with me and 40 at the other C.C.S.  A made-up temporary train for wounded was expected, and we were to go on whichever Transport turned up first and scrap all our kit except hand-baggage. … the Resuscitation Ward was of course indescribable and the ward of penetrating chests was packed and dreadful. Some of the others died peacefully in the sun and were taken away and buried immediately.

At about 5 p.m. the Railway Transport Officer of the ruined village produced a train with 50 trucks of the 8 chevaux or 40 hommes pattern, and ran alongside the Camp; not enough of course for the wounded of both Hospitals but enough to make some impression. Never was a dirty old empty truck-train given a more eager welcome or greeted with more profound relief. The 150 walking cases were got into open trucks, and the stretchers quickly handed into the others, with an Orderly, a pail of water, feeders and other necessaries in each. One truck was for us, so I got a supply of morphia and hypodermics to use at the stoppages all down the train.  Then orders came from the D.M.S. that Ambulance Cars were coming for us, so the Medical Officers took the morphia and most of our kit. There were 300 stretcher cases left but another train was coming for them. The Sister in charge of the other C.C.S. told me Rothenstein [Official War artist William Rothenstein whom Kate met when they were both sketching at Marchelepot was helping in the Wards like an orderly.

The Boche was 4 miles this side of Ham, just in to Péronne, and 3 miles from us – 13 miles nearer in 2½ days. I am glad I have seen Péronne. The 8th Warwicks marched in on March 19th 1917. The Germans will take down our notice board on March 23rd 1918 and put up theirs.

We got off in 4 Ambulance Cars escorted by three Motor Ambulance Convoy Officers. They had to take us some way round over battlefields and ghastly wrecked woods and villages, as he was shelling the usual road heavily between us and our destination (Amiens).  We rook five hours getting there owing  to the blocked state of the roads, with Divisions retreating and Divisions reinforcing, French refugees, and big guns being trundled into safety. He chose that evening to bomb Amiens for four hours.

 

Sunday, March 24th

The Stationary Hospital people here (Amiens) were extraordinarily kind and gave us each a stretcher, a blanket and a stretcher-pillow in an empty hut. They had not the remotest idea they would be on the run themselves in a day or two.

 

Monday, March 25th. 10.30 p.m. Abbeville.

It is in Orders that no one may write any details of these few days home yet, so I am keeping this to send home later, but writing it up when I can.

Yesterday afternoon I dug out Colonel Thurston, A.D.M.S. Lines of Communication, and asked him for transport from Amiens to Abbeville. On the Station was a seething mass of British soldiers and French refugees. The Colonel had brought the last 300 stretcher cases down the evening before in open trucks with all the M.O.s [Medical Officers] and personnel. Our wounded were lying in rows along the platform with our Orderlies; they had been in the trucks all night and all day. Some had died; the Padre was burying the others in a field with a sort of running funeral, up to the time they left. They were taken straight to their graves as they died.  Now our C.C.S. has no equipment, we shall all, C.O.s, M.O.s, Sisters and men, be used elsewhere.

 

Wednesday night, 27th

Yesterday I was sent up to No.2 Stationary Hospital [in Abbeville] to do Assistant Matron by Miss McCarthy [Matron in Chief] and we’ve had a busy day, admitting and evacuating.

 

Saturday, Easter Eve, March 30th 1918.

Yesterday evening Miss McCarthy turned me into a Railway Transport Officer at the Railway Station, and it is the most absolutely godless job you could have. You must have command of a) the French language, b) your temper, c) any number of Sisters and V.A.D.s, d) every French porter you can threaten or bribe, e) the distracted R.T.O. and his clerks.

No mail has reached me since we cleared out this day week; do write soon to No.2 Stationary Hospital. I am quite fit.

 

Easter Monday, April 1st

It has been a dazzling spring day after the heavy rain – spent as usual at the Station – not as R.T.O. this time but as A.M.F.O. (Army Military Forwarding Officer). The day after I last wrote to you, I had a 24 hours’ shift of R.T.O. … puddling about the platforms in the cold and wet. There are no waiting rooms, and the place was a seething mass of refugee families, and French soldiers and my herds of Sisters and kits. But they all got safely landed in their right trains and no kit lost.

 

Easter Tuesday

Had a very busy day at Triage as A.M.F.O. with my fatigue party fetching and loading kit. And a message came through from Miss McCarthy this evening – was I ready and fit for another C.C.S.? The answer was in the Affirmative.

 

Wednesday, April 3rd

Letters at last, joy of joys. The Times man is right … and it is all the things he has to leave out of his accounts, the little things officers and men from the Line tell us, that would show you why. And there are weeks of strain ahead …

 

Saturday night, April 6th

All your letters of the first day of the Battle are coming in. I didn’t quite realise you’d be really worrying. It came so suddenly, and running the wounded and the Sisters gave one no time at all to think – I couldn’t have let you know any sooner. We are plunged in work just now. Every available man has had to be put into the Wards – all the Clerks, Assistant Matron – everyone but the Cook and mess V.A.D.s. I am running two ramping Wards and everyone else is at full stretch. R.T.O. and A.M.F.O. are finished for the time being. All these three Hospitals are understaffed just now and are doing C.C.S. work. We get the men practically straight out of action …

 

Friday, April 12th. Namps

Orders came for me on Wednesday to take over this C.C.S. [No.41] at Namps. It is an absolutely divine spot, south of Amiens. The village is on a winding road, with a heavenly view of hills and woods, which are carpeted with blue violets and periwinkles and cowslips, and starry with anemones. The blue of the French troops in fields and roads adds to the dazzling picture but inside the tents are rows of ‘multiples’ and abdominals, and heads and moribunds, and teams working day and night in the Theatre, to the sound of frequent terrific bombardments. It has never been so incongruously lovely all round.

THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE, MARCH-JULY 1918 (Q 10932) Actions of Villers-Bretonneux. Wounded German prisoners at a Casualty Clearing Station at Namps, 26 April 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205246573

This is the place where four derelict Casualty Clearing Stations amalgamated and got to work during the Retreat, without Sisters. Now it is run as one with a huge collection of Medical Officers and Orderlies and Chaplains from Units out of action, and with odds and ends of saved equipment. It is still very primitive with no huts and no duckboards and only stretchers, with not many actual beds, but it is quite workable.

The patients are evacuated as quickly as possible, and the worst ones remain to be nursed here. Of course, the rows of wooden crosses are growing rather appalling, but some lives are being saved.

We live four in a marquee in a field below the road and have daisies growing under our beds, no tarpaulins or boards. I’ve acquired a tin basin and a foot of board on two petrol tins for a wash-stand and am quite comfortable. Our compound has five marquees. French Gunners stray in and sleep on the grass all round us, and a constant stream of Poilus [French WW1 infantrymen] passes up and down the road. It is very noisy at night. The Cathedral has had two shells in it.

We live on boiled mutton every day twice a day: tea, bacon, bread and margarine in ample quantities does the rest. Our Mess Cookhouse is four props and some strips of canvas; three dixies, boiling over a heap of slack between empty petrol tins, is the Kitchen Range, in the open. We get a grand supply of hot water from two Sawyer boilers under the tree. The French village does our laundry.

 

Sunday, April 14th

He [the Germans] is at Merville, and what next I wonder? Here we are holding him all right, but each night of uproar one wonders when we’ll next be on the road again. The weather has changed and the dry, sunny valley has become a chilly, windy quagmire. There are no fires anywhere and very little oil for the lamps; it is very difficult to keep the men warm, and the crop of wooden crosses grows daily.

 

April 22nd

We are on the move again. The patients left to-day and the tents are down this evening. I expect we shall go to Abbeville, while they dig themselves in at the new site North of Amiens. Everything is very quiet here, except occasional violent artillery duels and bomb dropping at night.

 

Tuesday, 23rd

A month since we up and ran away from Jerry. It is Abbeville, and we are sitting on our kit waiting for transport. I wonder how black it looked in England on Saturday week, when Haig said “We have our backs to the wall” – worse than close to, probably.

______________________________________________________________________

Kate remained on the Western Front to the end all the way through to the end of the War. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 

‘And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised’: Christmas on an Ambulance Train

With thanks to Tim Luard

We all hope to spend Christmas having an enjoyable time with family and friends but, of course, that is not always to be.

100 years ago, millions of people were away from home, swept up in the First World War. Perhaps the best-known Christmas story of the Western Front is the Christmas Truce of 1914, when peace briefly invaded some parts of the battlefields of the Western Front. Any let up was, however, only very temporary, as is shown through the letters sent home over Christmas 1914 by Sister Kate Luard.

Kate served as a nurse throughout the First World War, and was at this time working on Ambulance Trains in Northern France. These special trains were kitted out with bunk beds to transport sick and wounded troops from the front to base hospitals, or to ports from which they would be evacuated back to England.

The letters below are all included in Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, which was published anonymously during the war. A copy is available in the ERO library.

Wednesday 23rd December, 1914

We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we’ve ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British.

You will see by Tuesday’s French communiqués that some of our trenches had been lost, and these had been retaken by the H.L.I. [Highlight Light Infantry], Manchesters, and 7th D.G.’s [Dragoon Guards].

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn’t finish loading till 2 a.m., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c., till we got them off the train at 11 yesterday morning; the J.J.’s [lice] were swarming, but a large khaki pinny tying over my collar, and with elastic wristbands, saved me this time. One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Interior of Ambulance Train at Boulogne. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205249852

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train.

Another one I found dead about 5.30 a.m. We were to have been sent on to Rouen, but the O.C. Train reported too many serious cases, and so they were taken off at B. It was a particularly bad engine-driver too.

I got some bath water from a friendly engine, and went to bed at 12 next day.

We were off again the same evening, and got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by. One of the C.S.’s was on leave, but has come back now. All the trains just then had bad loads: the Clearing Hospitals were overflowing.

The Xmas Cards have come, and I’m going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. [Honourable Artillery Company] on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, “We ‘ad a ‘appy Xmas last year.”

“Where?” I said.

“At ‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,” he said, beaming.

 

Christmas Eve, 1914

And no fire and no chauffage, and cotton frocks; funny life, isn’t it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of “‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,”—British, Germans, French, and Russians. We are just up at Chocques going to load up with Indians again. Had more journeys this week than for a long time; you just get time to get what sleep the engine-driver and the cold will allow you on the way up.

8 p.m.—Just nearing Boulogne with another bad load, half Indian, half British; had it in daylight for the most part, thank goodness! Railhead to-day was one station further back than last time, as the —— Headquarters had to be evacuated after the Germans got through on Sunday. The two regiments, Coldstream Guards and Camerons, who drove them back, lost heavily and tell a tragic story. There are two men (only one is a boy) on the train who got wounded on Monday night (both compound fracture of the thigh) and were only taken out of the trench this morning, Thursday, to a Dressing Station and then straight on to our train. (We heard the guns this morning.) Why they are alive I don’t know, but I’m afraid they won’t live long: they are sunken and grey-faced and just strong enough to say, “Anyway, I’m out of the trench now.” They had drinks of water now and then in the field but no dressings, and lay in the slush. Stretcher-bearers are shot down immediately, with or without the wounded, by the German snipers.

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night (Art.IWM ART 3089) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19897

And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. By this evening they were most of them revived enough to enjoy Xmas cards; there were such a nice lot that they were able to choose them to send to Mother and My Young Lady and the Missis and the Children, and have one for themselves.

The Indians each had one, and salaamed and said, “God save you,” and “I will pray to God for you,” and “God win your enemies,” and “God kill many Germans,” and “The Indian men too cold, kill more Germans if not too cold.” One with a S.A. [South Africa] ribbon spotted mine and said, “Africa same like you.” [Kate also served as a military nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.]

Midnight.—Just unloaded, going to turn in; we are to go off again at 5 a.m. to-morrow, so there’ll be no going to church. Mail in, but not parcels; there’s a big block of parcels down at the base, and we may get them by Easter.

With superhuman self-control I have not opened my mail to-night so as to have it to-morrow morning.

 

Christmas Day, 1914

11 a.m.—On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I’ve always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn’t nearly enough.

Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—

With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Mary R. George R.I.”

That is something to keep, isn’t it?

A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box. These tins containing small gifts were distributed to all troops as a Christmas present from the royal family. Image from the Imperial War Museum.

An officer has just told us that those men haven’t had a cigarette since they left S’hampton, hard luck. I wish we’d had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they’ve each one got that the Germans have got to be “done in” in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. [Coldstream Guards] told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months’ service in this week’s business. “Talk of old soldiers,” he said, “you’d have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them.”

After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.

This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.

The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.

Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say “For King and Country” at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we’ll all do and avoid doing After the War.

7 p.m.— Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.

This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.—Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [injured] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.

We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.

4 a.m.—Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.

Letters from the Western Front: Sister Kate Luard’s 1917

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager, with thanks to Caroline Stevens for sharing extracts from Kate’s letters relating to the Battle of Passchendaele

As 2017 draws to a close we may well reflect on what the year has brought, to ourselves, our families and friends, and the wider world.

Doubtless our ancestors did the same thing 100 years ago, as the First World War dragged on into the new year.

Sister Kate Luard, an Essex nurse who volunteered for military service, had by this time been serving as a nurse on the Western Front for three years and three months. She must have seen countless soldiers suffering from all sorts of unthinkable wounds pass through her wards, and still there was no end in sight.

1917 brought some of the biggest challenges and most dangerous situations that Kate would face during the war, and these are detailed in the letters she sent home to her family. To help put the letters into a geographical context, please see the map at the end of this post which tracks some of the locations where Kate wrote from during 1917. Many of the letters quoted here are reproduced in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918 – these are referenced here as UW.

Some of Kate Luard’s letters sent to her family during her First World War service

From early March until early June 1917 Kate was with No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) in Warlencourt, in between Bapaume and Beaumont-Hamel. Her early letters from there describe the business of getting the CCS ready to go, in preparation for what would become the Battle of Arras. The construction of huts and tents took place in the snow and within range of the German guns. On Sunday 4th March she wrote of her first night there:

We had a lively night last night. We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars. (Sunday 4th March 1917, UW)

In her role as sister in charge, Kate was not only responsible for organising the nursing staff and orderlies, but also for running the Mess and keeping everyone fed:

Feeding them is going to weigh heavily no my chest. It is one person’s job to run a Mess at the Back of Beyond, and I have this Hospital (700 beds) to run for night and day, with the peculiar difficulties of a new-born unfinished Camp, and emergency work. For the Mess you settle a rice putting, but there is no rice, and the cows have anthrax, so there’s no fresh milk, and the Canteen has run out of Ideal milk. Well, have a jam tart; lots of jam in the British Army, but no flour, no suet, no tinned fruits, no eggs, no beans or dried peas, not one potato each. But there is bacon, ration bread and tinned butter (when you can get it), jam, marmalade sometimes, cheese, stew, Army biscuits, tea, some sugar, and sometimes mustard, and sometimes oatmeal and cornflour. Also we have only 1½ lbs of coal per person per day, so when that is used up you have to go and look for wood, to cook your dinner and boil your water. Everyone is ravenous in this high air and outdoor life, and so long as there’s enough of it, you can eat anything. None of them I hope will grumble if we can work up the true Active Service spirit, but it is an anxiety. (Monday 12 March 1917, UW).

Once the hospital was ready to go but the fighting not yet begun, Kate and two other nurses took the opportunity to explore the surrounding areas:

Then you come to what was Gommécourt. It must have been, when it existed, full of orchards, and half in and half out of a wood. Now there is one wall of one house left. The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom. Some are dry and clean and have the beds still in them. You step over unexploded shells, bombs and grenades of every description – and we saw one aerial torpedo – an ugly brute. I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ and snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me… Here you get to see the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad? (Friday 23 March 1917, UW)

(Q 4915) Branchless trees and shattered house. Gommecourt, March 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205237124

The Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. The following day Kate wrote:

The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday… all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night… All are doing 16 hours on and 8 off and some of us 18 on and 6 off… Stretchers on the floor are back-breaking work, and one’s feet give out after a certain time, but as long as one’s head and nerves hold out, nothing else matters and we are all very fit… The wards are like battlefields, with battered wrecks in every bed and on stretchers between the beds and down the middles… The Theatre teams have done 70 operations in the 24 hours. (Tuesday 10 April, UW)

By 25th July 1917 Kate and No. 32 CCS had moved on to Brandhoek, to specialise in treating severe abdominal wounds. They were stationed close behind the lines at what would become the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Kate was in charge of 40 nurses and almost 100 nursing orderlies.

This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back. We are entirely under Canvas, with huge marquees for Wards, except the Theatre which is a long hut. The Wards are both sides of a long, wide central walk of duckboards. (Friday 27 July, UW)

The Interior of a Hospital Tent (Art.IWM ART 1611) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23728

Everything has been going at full pitch – with the 12 Teams in Theatre only breaking off for hasty meals – the Dressing Hut, the Preparation Ward and Resuscitation and the four huge Acute Wards, which fill up from the Theatre; the Officers’ Ward, the Moribund and German Ward. Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he [Fritz] began putting over high explosives. Everyone had to put on tin hats and carry on. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of hot shrapnel.  …. they came over everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again. Of course, a good many die, but a great many seem to be going to do. We get them one hour after injury, which is our ‘raison d’être’ for being here. It is pouring rain, alas, and they are brought in sopping. (July 31st, 11pm)

Stretcher bearers at Passchendaele (Imperial War Museums)

It has been a pretty frightful day – 44 funerals yesterday and about as many  to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is terrific. (Wednesday, August 1st, UW)

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. [War Office] and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466. (Monday, September 3rd, UW)

On 5 September Kate was allowed a spell of leave and she returned to England for a couple of weeks, returning to France at the end of September. She spent the remainder of the year with two other Casualty Clearing Stations – No. 37 at Godeswaersvelde and then No.54 CCS at Merville before rejoining No.32 CCS at Marchelepot in early 1918. At Christmas, she wrote home to her father:

My darling father,

This is timed I hope to bring you my very dear love on Xmas Morning – I do hope you will all have a happy day…

This 4th Christmas in France looks like being a comparatively peaceful one so far, but the peacefulness is only on the surface. Both sides are stiffening up like two dogs showing their teeth…

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own Troupe, and the rivalry is keen.  Some are excellent. We Three Sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers.  We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3 DG’ s and 2nd Black Watch & others, now commanding Welsh Battalions.  Each concert party has its star “Girl” marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall.  Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely silk stockings & high heels!

We’ve had a bitter North Wind & frost today & all have chilblains but not badly. Still only our 3 heroes in the Ward.

Best love to all

Your loving daughter

KEL [Kate Evelyn Luard]

(ERO ref. D/DLu 55/13/1, included in postscript of new edition of Unknown Warriors)

There were 11 more months of the war in store, and Kate remained on the Western Front to the end. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 

 

 

 

 

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Locations mentioned in this blog post where Kate’s letters were sent from (click each marker for more information):

Discovering stories of the First World War

Archives are packed with people’s stories. From the everyday to the extraordinary, the records carefully looked after in our archives give us insights into the life experiences of individuals, families, and whole communities over the last several centuries.

Some of the most powerful stories in the records we look after at ERO are of people’s experiences of the First World War. From the official to the personal, First World War records are full of stories that deserve to be discovered and shared.

Both official and personal records can give us fascinating insights into people’s experiences during the First World War

One of the privileges of working at ERO has been being able to explore the First World War stories within our collections, and to share them on this blog.

Alf Webb, for example, joined up in 1914 at the age of 17, and served throughout the whole of the war. In 1992 he talked to a class of primary school students about his recollections of both the mundane details and the harsh realities of the war, from the lice which infested his uniform to the deaths of his friends. Fortunately, the teacher who organised his talk to her class made a recording of Alf’s talk, and deposited a copy with ERO. It has been said that listening to an oral history interview is the closest we can get to time travel, since we hear real people telling us about real events that they experienced.

Listen to extracts of Alf Webb’s recollections of his First World War experiences here.

Sister Kate Luard, meanwhile, was on the first boat she could get on to France after the outbreak of the war. She served on the Western Front throughout the war, working in some of the most dangerous conditions nurses faced. Somehow she found time to write home frequently, and her letters provide highly personal insights into her experiences as a nurse. One little bundle of letters she kept were written by relatives of men who she had nursed while they died. These letters often thank her for her care of sons, brothers and nephews, and ask about the men’s last days.

Read more about Kate Luard in our previous posts about her.

Richard Udney wrote to Sister Kate Luard in June 1915 to ask her about the death of his 18-year-old nephew, 2nd Lieut. George Udney. Click for a larger version.  (D/DLu 61)

Other records tell us about how those at home managed through the tough years of the war, facing a very real prospect of invasion and potentially severe food shortages, while having to cope with the departure and often loss of loved ones.

In the decades running up to the First World War, Britain had imported more and more of its food. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last just 125 days. Farmers at home were faced with the huge challenge of growing enough to feed the nation, with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

Read about some of the efforts that went into producing enough food to keep the nation from starving.

The home front also faced aerial bombardment for the first time. On the night of 23 September 1916 two Zeppelins crash landed in Essex, one in Little Wigborough, where the crew walked away largely unharmed, and one in Great Burstead, where all men on board were killed.

Read eyewitness accounts of the Zeppelin crashes here.

The Zeppelin which crashed at Little Wigborough, 23 September 1916

There is some light relief amongst the darkness of so many war stories. In February 1917 the Chelmsford Chronicle reported on a ‘Romantic Essex War Wedding’, in which Miss Clara Elizabeth Potter and Driver Charles T. Kidd had married, having never met but only communicated by letter.

Read the Chronicle’s account of Clara and Charles’s romance here.

What stories are still waiting to be discovered?

If you have an idea for a project that would highlight a forgotten or unknown piece of your local First World War history, join us on Friday 8 December 2017 for a day of inspiration and practical advice on how to make your ideas into a reality.

The day will include an introduction to Heritage Lottery funding streams for First World War projects, and showcase existing community First World War research projects taking place in Essex. There will also be a presentation by the Everyday Lives in War First World War Engagement Centre on how they can support independent researchers and community groups researching the First World War, and an insight into the resources and support available from the Essex Record Office.

Find out more about the day and book your place here.

The Forgotten Essex Man: Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood

Throughout the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. One of the aims of the project is to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO collections to preserve them for current and future generations. One such document acquired recently is a scrapbook kept during the First World War by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place, now catalogued as Acc. A14491 (you can read some more background on it here). Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, has been researching the contents of the scrapbook, to see what it can tell us about the lives of Minna and her family during the First World War.

Ask most people to name a famous or influential person from Essex and they would most likely reel off a list including Jamie Oliver, Olly Murs, Ronnie O’Sullivan, possibly Dame Maggie Smith or even Boudicca (if you’re lucky!). It is possible that no one will mention Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, veteran of Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu and Boer Wars and commander of the Egyptian Army.

Photograph of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the many cuttings about him in Minna Evangeline Bradhurst’s scrapbook

I first learned about him through the photographs, letters and newspaper cuttings about him in the scrapbook of his niece, Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, held at the Essex Record Office. It appears that Minna was incredibly proud of her Uncle, even keeping newspaper cartoons in which he was ridiculed.

Cartoon from the Westminster Gazette of 31 May 1900 regarding clothing being sent to British troops in South Africa. Christine thought she recognised her uncle Sir Evelyn Wood, a senior army figure, depicted sewing army underwear.

Sir Evelyn was a man of his time; patriotic, loyal to the British Empire, and elaborately moustachioed. He was involved in many of the key British military campaigns throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century, and more than once was recommended for the Victoria Cross. He was also known for vanity and hypochondria, and was subject to frequent illnesses and accidents.

Born in Cressing near Braintree in 1838, Evelyn was one of 12 children of Revd Sir John and Emma Caroline Page Wood. He attended Marlborough College until the age of 14 in 1852, when he left to join the navy as a midshipman. By 1854 he was serving in the Crimea, where he was badly wounded and almost lost his left arm. Undeterred from military life, he joined the army, and was sent back to the Crimea, where almost straight away he contracted typhoid and pneumonia. His mother travelled to Scutari to bring him back to England, and nursed him back to health.

A teenage Evelyn Wood in his naval uniform, published on the flyleaf of his autobiographical ‘From Midshipman to Field Marshal’, published in 1906. The original painting was by Lady Wood.

Sir Evelyn photographed in his later years by Fred Spalding

His next major trip abroad with the army was to India, where the British army was handling the Indian Rebellion. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions in this campaign. It was during his time in India that he decided to ride a giraffe for a bet, when trying to dismount he fell, the giraffe kneed him in the chest and stood on his face causing some quite severe injuries.

For the next 20 years Wood held a succession of army posts; in Ireland during the Fenian disturbances, in West Africa as part of the Ashanti Expedition, during the Zulu War he commanded troops as Brigadier-General, was mentioned 14 times in dispatches during 1878-79, and took command of operations against the Boers in South Africa in 1881. He was largely responsible for brokering the peace deal with the Boers, and was much criticised in the British press for doing so. In 1882, he led a division of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to deal with the Arabi Revolt, and was made Sirdar of the Egyptian Army for his efforts.

He was made Deputy Lieutenant of Essex in 1897 and awarded a Knighthood in 1901. He was the author of several books on military tactics, the Battle of Waterloo and the cavalry. During the First World War, he maintained a national presence by writing regular newspaper articles praising the war effort and supporting British troops across Europe – most of which appear to be included in his niece’s scrapbook. In honour of his outstanding contribution to the cause, a road was named after him in Cressing and a public house in Chelmsford, both of which remain today.

Upon his death in 1919, his obituary appeared in newspapers around the globe (again, many of them are in the scrapbook) and he is remembered with plaques in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Brecon Cathedral in Wales, and in Marlborough College Chapel. He is buried in the Military Cemetery in Aldershot.

The Sir Evelyn Wood public house in Chelmsford. Reproduced with the kind permission of Grays & Sons.

 

Document of the Month, November 2017: Minna Bradhurst’s First World War scrapbook

Our Document of the Month for November 2017 is a scrapbook created during the First World War, which was recently purchased for the ERO by the Friends of Historic Essex. Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, is currently undertaking a project to investigate its contents, and what it can tell us about life in Essex during the First World War.

Throughout the years which mark the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex, the charity which supports the Essex Record Office, are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. The project aims to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO archive so they can be preserved for current and future generations, and to conserve and highlight documents already within the collection.

The project has included purchasing relevant documents which have come up for sale, which otherwise would have remained within private collections. One such document is a scrapbook dating from 1915-1918 which was kept by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place (now catalogued as Acc. A14491).

The book contains material from 1820 onwards, but primarily covers the First World War period from 1915 to 1918. This scrapbook is part of a set of four , the other three  all being in private hands, although the Essex Record Office does hold microfilm copies of them.

Minna was born in 1865 to an old Essex society family, the Woods. She married Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst, an American, in 1893, and the following year the couple had their only child, a daughter, Christine (sometimes known as Heaven). In later life, one of Minna’s contemporaries described her as ‘a most amusing and delightful lady, of great character, and always dressed as through for a Buckingham Palace garden party’.

The scrapbook includes much of Minna’s life which was not war-related; for example, several pages are dedicated to press cuttings about her own wedding, detailing the outfits of the bridal party, the gifts given, and the names of those who attended.

The majority of the book, however, dates from the war years. During the time that she was compiling this scrapbook, Minna witnessed the impact of the First World War on her family, society and the country. As a lady of independent means, and with time on her hands, Minna’s scrapbooks cover every aspect of her life. They hold a detailed, and personal, account of what she held to be important; the society people she took an interest in, any mention of her family in the local and national newspapers (numerous pages are dedicated to such press cuttings), photographs of loved ones and of interesting places, invitations, tickets, concert programmes, and letters that delivered both good and bad news.

Minna was the niece of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the highest  ranking, most experienced and well-known military men of the age. Minna took a great interest in her uncle’s career and achievements, and included a huge number of press cuttings about him in her scrapbook. Another cutting describes Minna winning a silver cup at a fete in Ilford for being the Essex resident with the largest number of relatives involved in the war – 64 uncles, cousins and nephews were with the armed forces in one way or another, and several female relatives were engaged in various kinds of war work.

Large amounts of the volume are dedicated to the war work of Minna’s daughter, Christine, who was in her early 20s during the war years. Christine volunteered as a general service Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) worker at Earls Colne Auxiliary Hospital and put her considerable artistic talents to use putting together fundraising concerts and events to raise money for the Essex branch of the Red Cross Society. Not only did she organise these, but she also wrote many of the plays and songs, and performed them on stage. Included in the scrapbook are many of the concert programmes from these events.

Minna’s husband, Augustus Bradhurst, volunteered as a Special Constable, and later in the war became a naturalised Briton and joined the Essex Volunteer Regiment. The scrapbook includes several pictures of him in uniform and on maneuvers in the county, along with letters about his appointments.

The material in the scrapbook has suggested several avenues for further research, some of which will be published on this blog in the coming months.

The scrapbook will be on display in the Searchroom throughout November 2017.

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If you would like to find out more about life in Essex during the First World War, join us on Saturday 25 November 2017 for the Friends of Historic Essex Autumn Lecture, which will include two talks on the Essex coast during the First World War; find out more here.

If you have a First World War project of your own that you would like to get up and running, join us for a First World War project Discovery Day on Friday 8 November 2017; full details here.

 

Document of the Month September 2017: Farming and national survival in the First World War

This month’s Document of the Month is a small part of the story of how Britain was saved from starvation during the First World War.

100 years ago our ancestors were facing a food crisis. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last for just 125 days. In the decades preceding the First World War Britain had increasingly relied on imports of food, and by 1914 60% of its food supply was imported. Between 1914 and 1917 these imports were increasingly under attack by German U-boats; by 1914 the Germans were sinking one in four merchant ships in the Atlantic.[1]

Farmers at home faced the huge challenge of growing enough food to feed the nation. Not only did this mean bringing more land under arable cultivation than ever before, it meant doing so with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

In an effort to make sure the nation had enough to eat, in late 1915 the Board of Agriculture called for counties to set up War Agricultural Committees. The records of the Essex War Agricultural Committee, today looked after at ERO, can give us valuable insights into the efforts that went in to producing enough food to keep the nation alive.

The War Agricultural Committees were intended to ensure greater productivity of agricultural land and to increase the amount of land under cultivation. Despite their work, by December 1916, the Board of Agriculture was extremely concerned at the decrease in acreages of particular crops, when compared with the previous decades.  A meeting that month noted that the combined acreage for the production of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas and carrots in Essex had fallen from 428,904 in 1874 to 324,352 in 1914. Most of this decrease was due to a drop in wheat production, which was increasingly imported from the USA.

In January 1917, a new committee was formed from members of the existing Essex War Agriculture Committee. The Executive Food Production Committee, later renamed the Agricultural Executive Committee, were required to oversee improvements on an almost full time basis. In their meetings, members discussed the loans of equipment and horses; requests for petrol, the housing of prisoners of war (often in workhouses and camps) and the employment of women on the land.  In extreme cases, they could also arrange for the removal of tenants where the land was not being farmed to their approval.

It is clear from an early stage that there were tensions between the agricultural committees and local military tribunals concerning agricultural workers. The minutes often include decisions regarding applications for exemption from call up on the grounds of work of national importance, requesting a transfer to army reserves or release from military service and for temporary leave.

At one such meeting 100 years ago this month, the Agricultural Executive Committee approved a number of applications on these grounds.  An H. J. Willett was granted a voucher to remain in employment as a tractor supervisor in Chelmsford and a Private G. Cole was allowed to join the army reserves in order to continue as a wheelwright at Pitsea. This reminds us that farmers and agricultural labourers relied on other skilled workers to maintain and improve production. It would be interesting to see whether the number of applications for exemptions increased as the war progressed and the need for greater production and for more men in the armed forces intensified.

Extract from the Essex Agricultural Executive Committee in September 1917, where applications for transfer to the army reserve or for leave and for petrol licences were discussed (D/Z 47/17)

It is thanks to the efforts of all of those men and women who worked against enormous odds to keep the nation fed during the First World War that Britain never faced famine.

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[1] Figures from World War One: The Few that Fed the Many, published by the National Farmers’ Union, accessed 5 September 2017 https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/33538

Wartime in spring: letters from Sister Kate Luard

One of the stories we have been following over the course of the First World War centenary commemorations is that of Sister Kate Luard (read all of our Kate Luard posts here). Kate was born in Aveley in 1872 and grew up in Birch near Colchester. On the outbreak of the war she volunteered to nurse on the Western Front, and remained there for the duration of the war. During this time she wrote numerous letters, the majority of which are cared for at ERO. As we welcome warmer and longer spring days, Kate’s great niece Caroline Stevens has put together the following extracts from her letters written during wartime springs.

Amidst the horrors of the Great War and the often insurmountable pressure of nursing the wounded soldiers Kate Luard found time to note not only the extremes of weather but the landscape, flora and fauna. This love of nature must have lifted her spirits during these stressful times.

This first collection of extracts were written while Kate was working on ambulance trains in the spring of 1915:

Wednesday, February 3rd, [1915]. Moved on last night, and woke up at Bailleul. Some badly wounded on the train. Beyond Rouen, the honeysuckle is in leaf, the catkins are out, and the woods are full of buds. What a difference it will make when spring comes.

Friday, February 5th [1915], Boulogne. Today has been a record day of brilliant sun, blue sky and warm air, and it has transformed the muddy, sloppy, dingy Boulogne of the last two months into something more like Cornwall. We went in the town in the morning and on the long stone pier in the afternoon. On the pier there were gulls, and a sunny sort of salt wind and big waves breaking, and a glorious view of the steep little town piled up in layers above the harbour, which is packed with shipping.

Sunday, February 7th, Blendecque. We went for a splendid walk this morning uphill to a pine wood bordered by a moor with whins [gorse]. I’ve now got in my bunky hole on the train (it is not quite six feet square) a polypod fern, a plate of moss, a pot of white hyacinths, and also catkins, violets and mimosa!

Bright yellow gorse flowers

Bright yellow gorse flowers (photo: Caroline Stevens)

Wednesday, March 10th [1915]. We got to Étretat  at about 3 p.m. yesterday after a two days and one night load. The sea was a thundery blue, and the cliffs lit up yellow by the sun, and with the grey shingle it made a glorious picture to take back to the train. It had been a heavy journey with badly wounded.

We are now full of convalescents for Havre to go straight on the boat. There are crowds of primroses out on the banks. Our infant R.A.M.C. cook has just jumped off the train while it was going, grabbed a handful of primroses, and leapt on the train again some coaches back. He came back panting and rosy, and, said, “I’ve got something for you, Sister!” I got some Lent lilies in Rouen, and have some celandines growing in moss, so it looks like spring in my bunk.

Thursday, March 11th [1915]. We are being rushed up again without being stopped at Rouen. The birds are singing like anything now, and all the buds are coming out, and the banks and woods are a mass of primroses.

Delicate spring primroses (photo: Caroline Stevens}

Delicate spring primroses (photo: Caroline Stevens}

Thursday, March 18th [1915]. We had a heavenly ramble this morning, and found blue periwinkles and anemones in the wood, but no primroses. Lots of palm and gorse. Robins, willow-wrens, and yellow hammers were singing—much prettier music than guns, and it is good to get away from the sound of motors and trains and whistles.

These letters from 1916 and 1917 were written by Kate while she was working in Casualty Clearing Stations:

Tuesday, April 11th, Lillers. 1916.  We had all the acute surgicals out in their beds in the sun to-day in the school yard, round the one precious flower-bed, where are wallflowers and pansies.

We went for a walk after tea in the woods, found violets, cowslips and anemones.

Tuesday, May 16th [1916], Barlin. Sister S. and I had another ten-mile ramble to-day. It was again a blue day and the forest was lovely beyond words, full of purple orchids and delicate green and the songs of little birds, and ferns. We tracked up through it over the ridge and down the other side looking over Vimy with a spreading view of a peaceful kind.. We had our tea under some pines …

Saturday, March 17th, 1917…no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin.

Celandine

Celandine, whose presence was noted by Kate in March 1917

Saturday, April 21st [1917].  No rain for once, and the swamp drying up. Went for a walk and found periwinkles, paigles, anemones and a few violets – not a leaf to be seen anywhere.

Monday, April 30th [1917]. We have had a whole week without snow or rain – lots of sun and blue sky. I went for a  ramble after tea yesterday to a darling narrow wood with a stream. Two sets of shy, polite boys thrust their bunches of cowslips and daffodils into my hand. Also banks of small periwinkles like ours, and flowering palm; absolutely no leaves anywhere and it’s May Day to-morrow.

Wednesday, May 9th [1917]. And what do you think we have been busy over this morning? A large and festive Picnic in the woods, far removed from gas gangrene and amputations. We had an ambulance and two batmen to bring the tea in urns to my chosen spot – on the slope of the wood, above the babbling brook, literally carpeted with periwinkles, oxlips and anemones. We had a bowl of brilliant blue periwinkles in the middle of the table.

Periwinkle

Lesser Periwinkle – a bowl of which graced a picnic Kate described on 9th May 1917

Monday, May 14th [1917]. … it was Gommécourt over again but in newly sprung green this time. I think it made the hilly, curly orchards and wooded villages look sadder than ever, to see the blossom among the ruins, and the mangled woods struggling to put their green clothes on to their distorted spikes.

Saturday, August 18th [1917]. We’ve had two dazzling days, but as there is not a blade of grass or a leaf in the Camp, only duckboards, trenches and tents, you can only feel it’s summer by the sky and air.

Friday, April 12th [1918], Nampes. Orders came for me on Wednesday to take over the C.C.S. in Nampes. Two other sisters came too, and we took the road by car after tea, arriving here at 11 p.m., after losing the way in the dark and attempting lanes deep in unfathomable sloughs of mud. It is an absolutely divine spot, on the side of a lovely wooded valley, south of Amiens. The village is on a winding road, with a heavenly view of hills and woods, which are carpeted with blue violets and periwinkles and cowslips, and starry with anemones. Birds are carolling and leaves are greening, and there is the sun and sky of summer. The blue of the French troops in the fields and roads adds to the dazzling picture, and inside the tents are rows of ‘multiples’ and abdominals, and heads and moribunds, and teams working all night in the Theatre, to the sound of frequent terrific bombardments.

Sunday, June 16th [1918]. We emerge about 7.30 from our dug-outs, to a loud continuous chorus of larks, and also to the hum and buzz of whole squadrons of aeroplanes, keeping marvellous V formations against a dazzling blue and white of the sky. The hills are covered with waving corn, like watered silk in the wind, with deep crimson clover, and fields of huge oxeye daisies, like moving sheets. To-day there is no sound of guns and it is all Peace and loveliness.

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Unknown Warriors coverMany of Kate’s letters are published in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918, a copy of which is available in the ERO library. The original letters can be found in amongst the Luard collection, catalogued as D/DLu.