Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hospitals with Chandeliers

Duchess of Westminster Hospital, Le Touquet, France
The young Duchess of Westminster, like so many others, was eager to do “her bit” for the war effort, so she turned her seaside villa in Le Touquet France into a hospital with the help of the Red Cross. In the early days of the war, she and her friends would dress in full evening regalia, including diamond tiaras, to greet the incoming wounded whatever time of day. "It's the least we can do to cheer up the men," the Duchess would say, her wolfhound at her side. Her villa soon became too small, and her hospital took over the local Casino, which is probably what we see in the photo above. I couldn’t resist creating the fictional Duchess of Axminster’s hospital on the French coast in Elusive Dawn.

Rothschild Villa Strassburg, Deauville, France [by Kamel 15- GNU General Public Licence]
Other private estates were offered as convalescent homes. Canadian VAD Violet Wilson accepted a position at this Rothschild villa in Deauville, France. Luxuries were provided by wealthy Canadians for officers recuperating from minor wounds and illnesses. Violet was rather disgusted that she was little more than a glorified housemaid, just serving tea and so forth. But the benefit of this resort-like place to the officers was evident in this newspaper article.

Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Bearwood Park
Bearwood Convalescent Hospital in Woking, England had been a private home with 90 bedrooms, belonging to the widow of the Times newspaper owner. It housed 900 Canadian soldiers. The Canadian Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) funded and set up a Red Cross officers’ hospital in London. The Red Cross also arranged for convalescing officers to spend up to a month as guests at country houses in England, or failing that, in hotels.

Officers and nurses were often sent to the Riviera on sick leave. Famous poet-doctor, Lieutenant-Colonial John McCrae (who wrote "In Flanders Fields"), spent 3 weeks at Cap Martin in late 1916 recovering from pleurisy. The balmy weather and absence of shellfire and air raids undoubtedly provided a relaxing and healthful retreat – a temporary reprieve from the mud and blood of war.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Volunteer Angels of Mercy

“Short of actually going to bed with [the men], there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years,” wrote Vera Brittain, one of the most renowned Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses of the First World War, in Testament of Youth. Like Vera, VADs were generally from genteel, sheltered, and chaperoned backgrounds, because only people of means could afford to pay for the courses and work for free.

Lady Diana Manners, 1916 - photo by E.O. Hoppe
Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners – reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was opposed to Diana’s becoming a VAD, and “explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them.” The Duchess gave in, but “knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand,” Diana says in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, and admits, “I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years.” Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure.

Growing up with servants, many of these girls had never had to wash a plate or boil an egg. But with only a few weeks of training by St. John Ambulance in First Aid and Home Nursing, women over 20 became qualified to work under the guidance of professional nurses, who usually resented these amateur “do-gooders”. Of course, many lied about their age!

While VADs spent much of their time changing linens, sterilizing equipment, serving meals, and so forth, they were just as readily asked to hold down the exposed intestines of a mortally wounded soldier, as was Canadian Doreen Gery on her first day in a British military hospital. Her protest to the Nursing Sister that she would rather die than do that, earned the retort, “Well, die then! You’re no good to me if you can’t do the work!” Like other VADs, Doreen valiantly got on with the job. Giving up was considered the equivalent of cowardice in a soldier.

In makeshift hospital cities of tents or wooden huts near the battlefields there was no running water, rats scurried about under the beds, and the tents sometimes collapsed in fierce gales that howled off the English Channel during two of the coldest winters in living memory. Wounded often streamed into these base hospitals filthy and crawling with lice. One VAD, after two weeks of unending work, discovered that she had “collected some of the notorious ‘grey-backs’… when I was brushing my hair, and I was so exhausted that I just collapsed in tears. It seemed the last straw.”

VADs who later became famous included American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who worked at the Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, and Agatha Christie, who dispensed drugs, thus learning about poisons, which she later used in writing her mysteries.

In ElusiveDawn, one of my intrepid characters becomes a VAD, and sees service in England and France, as did 500 other Canadian women.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From Parlour to War

The FANY in WW1,  by Janet Lee

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was a group of mostly well bred, often aristocratic, young women who drove ambulances and ran field hospitals in war-torn Belgium and France.

Plucky and stoical, they transported wounded, ill, and dying men from trains and barges to hospitals and ships, often at night and in all weathers, frequently driving through bombardments. One FANY was seriously wounded when a torpedo exploded in front of her ambulance, killing the orderly beside her, but she managed to crawl 200 yards to a hospital, refusing aid until the men in her charge had been treated. During one of 197 air raids on Calais, shrapnel so narrowly missed injuring some FANY in their nearby camp that it shredded bits of their clothing and was embedded in their bedroom walls. During a major offensive, like Passchendaele, they worked endless days without sleep or time for proper meals or even a wash, snatching naps on stretchers in their ambulances while awaiting yet another hospital train.

They maintained their cars mechanically, but also had to cleanse them of blood and other bodily effluences. Those on night duty in winter had the arduous task of hand cranking vehicles hourly to keep them from freezing up. 

Being unconventional women, they had to deal with skeptical or even hostile military personnel, and a public that dismissed them as eccentric or berated them for unfeminine behaviour. Far from being paid for their difficult and dangerous work, the “girls”, as they called themselves, had to pay a weekly stipend, which was used to run this volunteer organization.

But they also had fun when off-duty, and were renowned for their hospitality - hosting teas, dances, and entertainments for officers, many of the ladies being accomplished musicians. This juxtaposition of harrowing ordeals and genteel tea parties is surprising to many, but was how men and women snatched moments of sanity and relaxation amid the horrors they witnessed. Of course, some romances ensued.

FANY members earned 136 medals and decorations during WW1. One of them was Pat (Waddell) Beauchamp, who lost a leg in the line of duty. She recounts her experiences in her engaging memoir, Fanny Goes to War. The FANY is still in existence.

In ElusiveDawn, my heroine joins the fictional WATS (Women's Ambulance and Transport Service), heavily based on FANY history.  There was actually one Canadian among the FANY.