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More Family History: Red Cross Volunteers in World War 1

I'd always thought that none of my relatives served in World War 1. But that's because I was thinking about young men, and the sacrifices they made. But I've started to read "Daughters of Mars" by Thomas Kenneally, which tells the story of two sisters - Naomi and Sally Durrance - who were brought up on a remote dairy farm in New South Wales and, when they were in their early twenties, joined the war effort as nurses; first of all at Gallipoli and then at the Battle of the Somme.

Reading this book made me remember that I had a relative who played some role in the health services during the war. I'll tell you Great Aunt Ethel's story a bit later.

Now, I'm less than half way through Kenneally's long, epic and gripping book. It's 1915, and so far Naomi and Sally have sailed on a hospital ship -the Archimedes - from Melbourne to Alexandria. The early days of their war are easy. All they have to do is to treat young Australian men who've caught venereal diseases in the brothels of Cairo, and their leisure time is taken up with tea dances and visits to Greek, Roman and Egyptian remains, in the company of Australian and British Officers, many of whom have studied classical civilizations at Oxford or Cambridge, and wanted impress these naive young women with their knowledge. The girls' experience of the world is already far broader than it would have been had they stayed on the farm.

Then the Archimedes makes its first voyage to Gallipoli. They've taken what was thought to be three months worth of morphine and bandages with them but supplies begin to run out after twenty four hours. Aboard the ship, country doctors are asked to perform major surgery of the kind they've only read about in journals in inadequate conditions. Kenneally's highly detailed and sometimes quite technical description of some of the injuries turns the stomach.

On the Archimedes' second voyage to Gallipoli the ship is torpedoed and the main protagonists have to take to the lifeboats - if there is room - or cling alongside while treading water if there isn't. This scene is depicted over forty highly turbulent, descriptive and emotional pages. The main characters are eventually rescued by the French navy and taken to a British Hospital on the Island of Lemnos to recuperate.

And that's as far as I've got - 167 out of 519 pages. But I know from the reviews and the cover blurb that the two sisters will eventually serve at the Battle of Somme, and they may or may not find love, and that some relationships will probably be terminated by sudden death. This book has prompted me to find out more about my mother's aunt Ethel - her mother's sister. So I googled "Ethel Bridgeman World War 1" and immediately got the result I was looking for.

Ethel was sixty-two in the year of my birth and she died when I was thirteen. A Londoner by birth, she lived in Edinburgh with her husband Sandy Stevenson and they had no children. I've always known that they had met during the Great War, and I think that Sandy may have been quite a lot younger than Ethel, who was twenty-nine when she became a Red Cross Volunteer. Family folklore says that they met when she was nursing him, and that she had continued to nurse him - whether he needed it or not - throughout their long marriage. I recall my Mother telling me that she had visited them at home in Edinburgh when she was a young woman, and had seen Ethel waiting hand and foot on her husband. "She used to blow on his soup to cool it" she said.

There's nobody around to ask any more, but could it be that Sandy's experiences in France had damaged him to such an extent that he couldn't function without this sort of attention? He came to our house only once after Ethel died, and was clearly totally disorientated and incapable of looking after himself without her. He died only a few months after Ethel.

Ethel and Sandy always made an annual trip by train to London, and they would stay with Ethel's sister-in-law Ada in Clapham. And during that trip the three of them would always come to afternoon tea with our family in North London. Ada was very old and very deaf and used an ear trumpet which both fascinated and horrified me as a small boy. It didn't seem to do very much for her hearing, as when she was in the house everybody had to shout very loudly to make her understand. She was , by far, the dominant personality of the three of them.

Ada was also very wealthy, unlike most members of my extended family. My Dad knew Ada years before he met my Mum because in the 1930s she used to knock on doors on the street where he lived to collect debts. She was a Great War widow who had, after her husband was killed, taken over the running of his family's business, which was that of a "Tally Man" - a firm that sold cheap clothes and household goods on credit to working class people on the 'never never', or hire purchase; and visited each household at the same time each week to collect the payments of just a few pennies or shillings. At some time after World War 2 she'd sold the business to Freemans of London, a public company that operated a mail-order catalogue business, and she was a substantial shareholder in Freemans. My mother bought from the Freemans Catalogue and so did many of our neighbours. Ada had no children , and when she died she left my parents a small legacy - £250. When they received this cheque they opened their first bank account. They were by then in their sixties.

But back to Ethel. I only dimly remember her from these childhood visits because of Ada's dominant personality - when Ada was in the room it was difficult for anybody else to get a word in edgeways and everything had to be repeated loudly several times before Ada got the gist. Ethel was one of over 90,000 people who volunteered for the British Red Cross during the conflict. She joined one of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which were attached either to the Red Cross, the St Johns' or the Territorial Forces. The Detachments were intended to be used for home defence only, but in the event they served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Each women's detachment consisted of a Commandant (either male or female), a Lady Superintendent (preferably a trained nurse) and 20 women (four of whom had to be trained cooks).

Twenty-nine year old Ethel joined her VAD in May 1916, and her first position was that of a lift attendant at the King George Military Hospital in Stamford Street, Waterloo. Reputedly the largest hospital in the United Kingdom, the King George Hospital was a converted warehouse that had 1650 beds. The convoys of wounded men were brought by boat train to Waterloo Station, and then taken to the hospital through tunnels which were built as an integral part of the warehouse. The tunnels enabled badly wounded men to be conveyed to the Hospital out of sight of the public, so as not to damage civilian morale. Perhaps that's when Ethel and Sandy first saw each other; maybe she brought this wounded man up from the tunnels in her lift?

The Red Cross and the St Johns' equipped the wards, operating theatres, dispensaries, the chapel, day rooms for the patients and sleeping quarters for the staff, all paid for by public donation. The British Farmers' Red Cross Fund donated £4,000 to purchase equipment for the operating theatres and the X-ray Department. There were 149 doctors, a Matron, 3 Principal Sisters, 10 Senior Sisters, 37 Sisters, 228 Staff Nurses and 80 female orderlies, including of course my Aunt Ethel.

On the 29th August 1919, just over eight months after the War had technically ended, Ethel was transferred to a "Casualty Clearing Station" in France. Her service record doesn't say where in France this was. There were over thirty such stations, which were generally located on or near railway lines, to facilitate movement of casualties from the battlefield and on to the hospitals. The job of the station was to treat a man sufficiently for his return to duty or to enable him to be evacuated to another hospital. The Wikipedia entry for this topic says that the station "was not a place for a long-term stay", but this cannot actually have been the case if Ethel was still working at such a centre so long after the end of hostilities.

Ethel was finally discharged on 16th March 1920, Her role was then a storekeeper. She married Sandy in her home town of Wandsworth in 1924 when she was thirty eight and went to live with him in Edinburgh. She died in 1962. This is her service record.

What a pity that the young boy she took afternoon tea with every summer holiday never asked her or Sandy more about their experiences. But those who served in the Great war became taciturn, they probably wouldn't have wanted to tell me even if I'd had the forethought to ask.

Finally, here's an image of Thomas Kenneally's great book that stated me on the on the quest to discover Ethel and Sandy:


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