On Wednesday I took a road trip to the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh. As part of NMNI’s Live & Learn project for over 50’s there was an afternoon of talks in conjunction with Libraries NI and the Living Legacies 1914-18 project. The theme was West Ulster and Word War 1, exploring stories of local doctors, nurses and volunteers during the First World War. I was really excited to be able to attend as diaries and personal accounts are my favourite type of history, and relations of the people featured in the stories were attending, which always makes an event more memorable. The library had lots of 1st World War books out on display, and there was a great turnout for the event, with all the seats being filled. The first presentation was ‘The scrapbook as source: a consideration of that created by Nurse Drought’ by Elizabeth Crooke. It was based on a scrapbook belonging to Ethel Drought, the grandmother of Peter Archdale, a local man. Ethel had joined the Red Cross in 1914, aged 24 and had kept a scrapbook of her memories during her service.
Elizabeth spoke of how many middle class women trained as nurses during the First World War, as it gave them the opportunity to make a contribution to the war effort. The menial tasks that they carried out were quite different from their position in society in peace time. Ethel’s scrapbook contains a wide variety of letters, photos, and postcards, revealing a great deal about the daily lives of nurses. Yet there is virtually no mention of the suffering of the soldiers or the front line. The nurses were photographed and reported on in the local paper in Bray, and Ethel has proudly included this cutting in her scrapbook. There are also lots of formal photographs of patients neatly bandaged in clean uniforms, copies of these photos were given to soldiers to send home to relatives and loved ones. Soldiers had signed these and given them to the nurses who tended them as gifts. It shows how much these small tokens of gratitude meant to Ethel that she kept as displayed them in the scrapbook. The nurses themselves also had formal portraits taken in a studio setting, several of which feature in the book. Elizabeth commented on how personal items such as letters, diaries and scrapbooks differ in the way they present a perspective. A diary is written without the intention of anyone else reading it so is usually very honest, letters are written with the recipient in mind and are usually carefully worded. Scrapbooks offer a visual record of what is important to the creator, and are designed to create a longer term memory of a period. My favourite item in the scrapbook was a letter from a friend to Ethel recalling a meeting attended by potential nursing students, where they were told to bring a chair and some sugar. There is a wonderful illustration of a procession of young ladies carrying chairs, for me this shows how important it was to maintain a sense of humour during this difficult period. The second talk was from Alan Clarke, about ‘Bella Dixon’s Serbian journey’, based on the diary she kept while serving in Serbia from March to August 1915. The diary covers her journey from London to Serbia by boat across the channel, then train to Marseilles, and then again by boat across the Mediterranean Sea and around Greece, with stops in Malta and Athens. She finally reached Kragujevatz field hospital a month later, expecting to find the tents in place and the hospital fully functioning. However, it was not quite as expected, and Bella spent several days putting up the medical tents before she could even start work. The diary relates visits of the Crown Prince and the first few weeks of her service spent dancing and attending concerts. As time went on this lively social life stopped and Bella writes more about the patients and the amputation of limbs, as the enemy troops got closer and Kragujevatz became nearer to the front line. On 9th June Bella comments that bombs were dropped on the nearby armaments factory in the town and several people were killed and 40 people injured. When it finally becomes too dangerous for the medical team to remain and Bella is leaving a party is thrown in her honour, with the Italian consul and two French aviators attending.
Next Brenda Winter-Palmer from Queen’s University drama department spoke of the way that drama can be used to communicate different opinions in a way that is respectful to everyone’s beliefs and opinions. Brenda’s uncle William served in the 36th Ulster Division, even though he was Catholic, she discussed how this was not discussed in her family while she was growing up during the Troubles era. As a response to this she wrote a play called ‘Medals in the Drawer’ and some of her drama students from Queen’s acted out a scene from the play for us. The play can be used to assist learning and understanding about the time period in an outreach or educational setting, and Brenda demonstrated how this worked. Two of the actors answered the audience’s questions in character, and it was really interesting to see the level of research that goes into the character by the actors.
The final speaker was Claire McElhinney, who spoke about her grandmother Edith Harkness on ‘From Plumbridge to Pau: Tyrone UVF nurses in France’. Claire’s research began after she came across a programme for a fundraising concert in 1914, a photograph of the concert and a newspaper article. Edith had joined the UVF Medical and Nursing Corps in March 1914 and carried out her training locally with mock battles and training camps. After the outbreak of the First World War the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council offered the UVF Nurses assistance to the British War Office, but they declined the offer. The French accepted gladly, and fundraising started in earnest for Pau hospital. In October a group of 20 people from the local Tyrone area left for Pau. Edith was chosen as one of the select few as she could speak and understand French.
Pau is in the Pyrenees, close to the border with Spain so was a long way from the Western Front. When wounded soldiers arrived by train from the front to Pau, the nurses would collect them from the station and bring them back to the hospital. The nursing staff were billeted in the luxurious Palais d’Hiver and had to walk back and forth between the two sites. In the early twentieth century Pau was a popular winter holiday destination for affluent British and Russians, and as well as being a safe distance from the front, it also had dry mountain air that helped soldiers to recover in ‘a haven of rest’. One of the UVF nurses who arrived in 1915, Daphne Stronge, wrote a letter to the press back home describing how most of the wounded were former labourers and farmers. She wrote of how soldiers spent their recovery time knitting and crocheting, attending the local cinema, and making decorative items in metalwork. Most of the wounded had the opportunity to visit nearby Lourdes before returning to the front.
After the huge losses at Verdun in 1916, when the majority of the wounded died before reaching Pau the hospital was closed, many of the injured were instead sent to Britain. In late 1916 Edith took a position at Ripon Military Hospital in Yorkshire, on a 1,000 acre sited that housed 17,000 men with a purpose built rail and road system. There are lots of photographs of patients and staff, and various social activities showing that Edith’s working life was not as busy as in France. Many of the nurses Edith worked alongside were Queen Alexandra nurses, who were part-time and worked on 6 month contracts, with no opportunity to remain in their positions after the war ended. Edith stayed in Ripon nursing beyond the end of the war until late 1920. I found all of the personal accounts very interesting and revealing, showing what daily life was like for nurses serving in the First World War. Whilst we have all read or heard about the political events of the War and the great battles, it is also important that we learn more about ordinary people’s lives. It is a lot easier to understand and empathise with someone if you share similarities with them. It was lovely to be amongst locals at this event, who knew the families and locations from the stories. To me that demonstrated clearly the importance of the Living Legacies project, making the connection with local people, and why it fitted so nicely into the Live & Learn project’s ‘Making Connections’ afternoon.