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Women and War Work By Helen Fraser Characters: 17810

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"Come, ye blessed of my Father;

I was sick and ye visited me."

-MATT., Chap. 25.

"A lady with a lamp shall stand

In the great history of the land,

A noble type of good

Heroic womanhood."


"To Florence Nightingale."

When war broke out on August 4, 1914, probably the only women in our country who knew exactly how they could help, and would be used in the war, were our nurses in the Navy and Army nursing services.

In the Army, Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service had in it at that time about 280 members, matrons, sisters and staff nurses, Miss Becher, R.R.C., being Matron-in-Chief for Military Hospitals. The Q.A.I.M.N.S. had a large Reserve which was also immediately called out and these nurses were used at once, six parties being sent to France and Belgium by August 20th.

The Second Branch was the Territorial Force Nursing Service, which was in 1914 eight years old. It was initiated by Miss Haldane and a draft scheme of an establishment of nurses willing to serve in general hospitals in the event of the Territorial Forces being mobilized, was submitted at a meeting held in Miss Haldane's house, Sir Alfred Keogh, Medical Director General, being present. This scheme was approved and an Advisory Council appointed at the War Office.

The Matrons of the largest and most important nurse-training centres in the Kingdom were appointed as principal matrons (unpaid) and to them the success of this Force is largely due. They received the applications of matrons, sisters and nurses willing to join, looked after their references and submitted them, after approval by the Local Committee, to the Advisory Council. To their splendid work was due the ease of the vast mobilization of nurses when war broke out. There were then 3,000 nurses on their rolls. On August 5th they were called out and in ten days 23 Territorial General Hospitals in England, Wales and Scotland were ready to receive the wounded and the nurses were also ready.

Each hospital had 520 beds, but this accommodation was quite inadequate after a few months of war, and the accommodation of practically every hospital was increased to 1,000 to 3,000 beds and many Auxiliary Hospitals had to be organized. By June, 1915, the Territorial Nursing Staff was 4,000 in number and in Hospitals in France and in Belgium and in clearing stations, there were over 400 Territorial Nurses as well as Imperial Nurses.

The Naval Nurses were about 70 in number with a Reserve, and their Reserve was called up at once also, and they went to their various Hospitals. The other two great organizations, the British Red Cross and the order of St. John of Jerusalem, now working together through the joint committee set up to administer the Times Fund for the Red Cross, which has reached over $30,000,000, had their schemes also. In time of war they are controlled by the War Office and Admiralty. The Red Cross had, since 1909, organized Voluntary Aid Detachments to give voluntary aid to the sick and wounded in the event of war in home territory. There were 60,000 men and women trained in transport work, cooking, laundry, first aid and home nursing. St. John's ambulance had the same system of ambulance workers and V.A.D.'s to call on.

As the war proceeded it was quite clear that the nursing staffs, though we had secured 3,000 more trained nurses through the Red Cross in the first few weeks of the war, would be quite inadequate, and it was found necessary to use V.A.D.'s and to open V.A.D. Hospitals, most of them being established in large private houses lent for the purpose. Within nine months there were 800 of these at work in every part of England, Scotland and Wales. The V.A.D.'s suffered a little at first from confusion with the ladies who insisted on rushing off to France after taking a ten day's course in first aid. We had suffered a great deal from that kind of thing in the South African War and were determined to have no repetition of it, so they were firmly and decisively removed from France without delay.


To get more trained nurses, rules were relaxed and the age limit raised. Many nurses, retired and married, returned to work, but very quickly it was perfectly clear our trained nurses were inadequate in number for the great work before us, and in less than a year in most hospitals every ward had one V.A.D. worker assisting who had been nominated by her Commandant and County Director, and in March, 1915, the Hospitals were asked by the Director General of the Army Medical Service to train V.A.D.'s in large numbers as probationers, for three or six months, to fit them for work under trained nurses. Every possible woman, trained or partially trained, was mobilized and thousands have been trained during the three years of war, and V.A.D. members have been drafted to military and Red Cross Hospitals, abroad and at home, in addition to doing the work of the V.A.D. Hospitals. A V.A.D. Hospital with a hundred beds will have two trained nurses, and all the other work is done by V.A.D.'s. The Commandant-in-Chief now is Lady Ampthill. Dame Katharine Furse was Commandant-in-Chief until quite recently, but is now head of the new Women's Royal Navy Service.

Many have gone to France and done distinguished work and there is no body of women in our country who have done more faithful and useful work than our V.A.D.'s, who nurse, cook and wash dishes, serve meals, scrub the floors, look after the linen and do everything for the comfort and welfare of our men, with a capacity, zeal and endurance beyond praise. About 60,000 women have helped in this way. Our nurses and V.A.D.'s have distinguished themselves at home and abroad. They have been in casualty lists on all our fronts. They have been decorated for bravery and for heroic work. The full value of all they have done cannot yet be appraised. They have spent themselves unceasingly in caring for our men. They have nursed them with shells falling around. Hospitals have frequently been shelled and in one case two nurses worked in a theatre, wearing steel helmets during the bombardment, with patients who were under anaesthetics and could not be moved. They have waited out beside men who could not be got in from under shell fire of the enemy until darkness fell. Two V.A.D. nurses in another raid saw to the removal of all their patients to cellars and, while they themselves were entering the cellars after everyone was safe, bombs fell upon the building they had just left and completely demolished it. Some of our nurses have died of typhus. They have been wounded in Hospitals and on Hospital Trains, and they have done all their work as cheerfully and with the same high courage as our men have. We have had helping us in our nursing numbers of Canadian nurses, not only for the beautiful Canadian Hospital at Beechborough Park, but for many other Hospitals in England and France, and nurses from Australia and New Zealand.

We have had American nurses, also, but these will now be absorbed, as needed, by the American Army in France.

The records of our Medical women in the war are among the very best. The belief that nursing was woman's work but that medicine and surgery were not, was dying before the war, but it existed, and it was the war that gave it the final death blow. Immediately war broke out Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, a daughter of our pioneer woman doctor, Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Dr. Flora Murray formed the Women's Hospital Corps, a complete small unit and offered it to the British Government. It was refused but accepted by the French Government, and was established by them at Claridge's Hotel in Paris, where it did admirable work. Its work aroused the interest and admiration of the British Royal Army Medical Corps, and they were asked to form a Hospital at Wimereux, which afterwards amalgamated with the R.A.M.C. Later Sir Alfred Keogh established them in Endell Street, London, where they have a Hospital of over 700 beds. The women surgeons and doctors and staff are graded for purposes of pay in the same way as men members of R.A.M.C.

In July, 1916, the War Office asked for the services of 80 medical women for work at home and abroad, and later for 50 more.

The Women's Service League sent a unit to Antwerp which did some excellent work, though it was there only a very short time. The members of the unit were among the last to leave the city, escaping in the last car to cross the bridge before it was blown up.

The work of the Scottish Women's Hospitals, organized by the Scottish Federation of the Nation Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and initiated by Dr. Elsie Inglis, of Edinburgh, would require a volume to themselves, and American women, who have given so generously and so freely to them, know a great deal about

their work. The first unit went to Royaumont in France, and established itself at the old Abbaye there. It stood from the beginning in the very first rank for efficiency. A leading French expert, Chief of the Pasteur Laboratory in Paris, speaking of this Hospital, said he had inspected hundreds of military Hospitals, but not one which commanded his admiration so completely as this. Another unit was sent to Troyes and was maintained by the students of Newnham and Girton Colleges. Dr. Elsie Inglis's greatest work began in April, 1915, when her third unit went to Serbia, where she may he truly said to have saved the Serbian nation from despair. The typhus epidemic had at the time of her arrival carried off one-third of the Serbian Army Medical Corps, and the epidemic threatened the very existence of the Serbian Army. She organized four great Hospital Units, initiated every kind of needful sanitary precaution, looked into every detail, regardless of her own safety and comfort, hesitating at no task, however loathsome and terrible. Her constant message to the Serbian Medical Headquarters Staff was "Tell me where your need is greatest without respect to difficulties, and we will do our best to help Serbia and her brave soldiers."

Two nurses and one of the doctors died of typhus. Miss Margaret Neil Fraser, the famous golfer, was one of those who died there, and many beds were endowed in the Second Unit in her memory.

The Third Serbian Unit when on its way out was commandeered by Lord Methuen at Malta for service among our own wounded troops, a service they were glad to render. Later when the Germans and Austrians overran Serbia, one of the Units retreated with the Serbian Army, but the one in which Dr. Inglis was, remained at Kralijevo where she refused to leave her Serbian wounded, knowing they would die without her care. She was captured with her staff and, after difficulties and indignities and discomforts, were released by the Austrians and returned through Switzerland to England. On her return she urged the War Office to send her, and her Unit, to Mesopotamia. Rumors had already reached England of the terrible state of things there from the medical point of view, which was fully revealed later by the Mesopotamian Commission. She was refused permission to go, though it is perfectly clear their assistance would have been invaluable and ought to have been used. Once more she returned to help the Serbians and established Units in the Balkans and South Russia. The Serbian people have shown every token of gratitude and of honor which it was in their power to bestow upon her. The people in 1916 put up a fountain in her honor at Mladenovatz, and the Serbian Crown Prince conferred on her the highest honor Serbia has to give, the First Order of the White Eagle. Dr. Inglis died, on November 26th, three days after bringing her Unit safely home from South Russia. Memorial services were held in her honor at St. Margaret's, Westminster, and in St. Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh. Those who were there speak of it not as a funeral but as a triumph. The streets were thronged; all Edinburgh turned out to do her homage as she went to her last resting place. The Scottish Command was represented and lent the gun-carriage on which the coffin was borne and the Union Jack which covered it.


In the Cathedral the Rev. Dr. Wallace Williamson, Dean of the Order of The Thistle, said: "We are assembled this day with sad but proud and grateful hearts to remember before God a very dear and noble lady, our beloved sister, Elsie Inglis, who has been called to her rest. We mourn only for ourselves, not for her. She has died as she lived, in the clear light of faith and self-forgetfulness, and now her name is linked forever with the great souls who have led the van of womanly service for God and man. A wondrous union of strength and tenderness, of courage and sweetness, she remains for us a bright and noble memory of high devotion and stainless honor.... Especially today, in the presence of representatives of the land for which she died, we think of her as an immortal link between Serbia and Scotland, and as a symbol of that high courage which will sustain us, please God, till that stricken land is once again restored, and till the tragedy of war is eradicated and crowned with God's great gifts of peace and of righteousness."

The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies also sent the Millicent Fawcett Unit, named after its honoured President, to Russia in 1916 to work among the Polish refugees, especially to do maternity nursing, and work among the children.

In February a Maternity Unit started work in Petrograd. With an excellent staff of women doctors, nurses and orderlies, the little hospital proved a veritable haven of helpfulness to the distressed refugee mothers. It soon established so good a reputation for its thorough and disinterested work that the help of the workers was asked for by the Moscow Union of Zemstovos (Town and Rural Councils) for Middle Russia and Galicia.

In May the Millicent Fawcett Hospital Units were sent out and at Kazan on the Volga a badly needed Children's Hospital for infectious diseases was opened. The only other hospital in the place was so full that it had two patients in each bed. They had a fierce fight against diphtheria and scarlet fever, which in many cases was very bad, and they succeeded in saving most of the children, who would certainly have died in their miserable homes.

In the summer, the Units took over a small hospital at Stara Chilnoe, a district without a doctor, and they treated not only refugees, but the peasants who came in daily in crowds from the surrounding districts. Other Units of the same kind were started in remote districts and in summer a Holiday Home at Suida was run to which the women and children could come from the Petrograd Maternity Hospital for a rest. They also took charge of two hospitals, temporarily without any medical staff, in a remote part of the Kazan district, where they were objects of the most intense curiosity.

The interpreters were kept busy answering questions about the ages, salaries and husbands of the staff, and the nurses' wrist watches roused great excitement.

That their gratitude and kindness was very real, though their notions of suitability of place and time were primitive, was shown by the gift of three live hens being dumped, at 4 a.m., on the bed of a sister sound asleep.

The final piece of work was the establishing of an infectious Hospital for peasants and soldiers in Volhynia, sixty miles behind the firing line in Galicia. This was done at the urgent request of the Zemstovos Union.

There they had to deal with a great deal of smallpox and in another case with scabies which they stamped out in one small village. These Units left Russia before the recent changes, but their work was valuable and appreciated, and again American women helped us in raising the necessary funds, having subscribed $7,500 towards the Units.

One of the workers, Ruth Holden, of Radcliffe College, Boston, died in one of the epidemics. We have had American women, as we have had men, helping us from the beginning of the war. The American Women's War Relief Fund most generously offered to fully equip and maintain a surgical hospital of 250 beds at Oldway House, Paignton, South Devon, at the beginning of the war, and this offer was gratefully accepted by the War Office through the Red Cross Society.

They also gifted six motor ambulances for use at the front-and these and the hospital have been of the very greatest service to our wounded men.

Others of our medical women are with mixed Units, such as The Wounded Allies' Relief Committee. Dr. Dickinson Berry went out with others in a Unit from the Royal Free Hospital to help the Serbian Government, and Dr. Alice Clark is in the Friends' Unit.

Our medical women have won rich laurels and have established themselves in their own profession permanently and thoroughly. Behind the Hospitals, we have the thousands of women who every day are working at the Hospital Supply Depots of our country. These are everywhere and nothing is more wonderful than the way in which our voluntary workers have gone on faithfully working, conforming to discipline and hours and steady service as conscientiously as any paid worker.

The organizing ability displayed by our women in this amounts to genius. The buying of material, cutting and making up, parcelling, storing, and packing of gigantic supplies, all the secretarial and clerical work involved has been the work of women and mostly of women of the leisured classes, many of them without any previous training. From the organization of the big schemes of supply down to such work as the collecting of sphagnum moss, everything that was needed has been done, and done well.

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