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New memorial dedicated to nurses of First and Second World Wars

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A new memorial has been unveiled to commemorate the service of nurses during the First and Second World Wars.

The memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire carries the names of the nearly 1,300 nurses identified as having died during or as a direct result of their war service.

Composed of two bronze hands holding up a sandstone globe, it commemorates the service of both professional nurses and the volunteers who joined up to help via Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs).

The VADs – run by British Red Cross and the Order of St John – complemented the work of professional nurses and allowed many men to be released to enter active service.

Those behind the project noted that nurses came from across the world to serve, many from Commonwealth nations. The soldiers they worked alongside valued them highly, but they highlighted that they received very little political or public recognition for their service.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nurses Memorial dedication 2018

Nursing memorial

Wartime conditions also meant that many also returned home traumatised by their experiences and never felt comfortable to tell their story.

The memorial, which is the culmination of more than six years of work by the Nursing Memorial Appeal, was designed by sculptor Georgie Welch and engraved by stonemason Nick Johnson.

Last Monday, a service of dedication was held for the memorial, which was attended by HRH The Countess of Wessex, who is colonel-in-chief of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.

During the event, the countess, who acted as the memorial appeal’s royal patron, was introduced to former VAD Margaret Bearley and retired nurse Ethel Lote.

Ms Lote from Aldridge in Staffordshire was just a teenager at the outbreak of the Second World War when she began work as a nurse at Burntwood Military Hospital.

The first convoy of soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk were taken to the hospital where she gained first-hand knowledge of the horrific injuries suffered by the soldiers. The hospital beds were never empty and as the conflict raged on the severity of the injuries increased.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Dedication Plaque

Dedication plaque on nursing memorial

She met her future husband in 1939 while assisting with a post mortem during an air raid. However, despite becoming engaged later that year, they were unable to see each other for five years as he was dispatched to East Africa with the Royal Naval Sick Berth.

They finally married in 1945. She arrived at the chapel after working a night shift to discover a coach had been used to bring many of her patients to come and share in her special day.

Ms Lote continued to work in nursing after the war and did not fully retire until she was 90. She continues to speak to people about her war time experience, leading talks and sharing her life story.

The Nursing Memorial Appeal was established in 2011 to raise funds for a permanent memorial at the arboretum and highlight the contributions of nurses during conflict.

Actor and TV director Lord Julian Fellowes, a long-standing patrons of the campaign, also announced a new initiative to provide an ongoing, living legacy of the appeal. Extreme Nursing Today will fund bursaries and research grants for students in humanitarian and conflict nursing.

The Nursing Memorial Appeal has partnered with the University of Huddersfield with a view to developing a curriculum and providing accreditation.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing Memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

Nursing memorial dedication ceremony, 4 June 2018

  • Below is a personal account of the dedication event and the background story to the memorial written by Richard Pursehouse

Nursing Memorial, Alrewas, 4 June 2018 – by Richard Pursehouse

The suggestion there should be a memorial for all nurses of both World Wars was first raised two years before the start of the Great War commemorations. The Nursing Memorial Appeal to raise funds for a memorial was launched four years ago, intending to raise around £50,000. The next stage of the fundraising, to cover the maintenance of the memorial and cost of the site at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) in Staffordshire, is ongoing.

Although there are several individual memorials across the country, and some for specific groups at the NMA, there is not one for all nurses. The memorial unveiled at the NMA on 4th June 2018 honours professional nurses who worked in Casualty Clearing Stations or on hospital trains and ships, and also the unpaid volunteers serving with the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs).

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing memorial

Ethel Lote during WW2

Possibly the best well known VAD nurse is Vera Brittain, born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. Her recollections as a nurse and losing the men closest to her (fiancé, brother, friends) were published in Testament of Youth.

Many Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses had little or no nursing experience but were motivated – they wanted to ‘do their bit’. Some were inspired by the work of Lady Ampthill, who during the Great War had been the chairman of the Committee for Supplying Comforts to the Regular Bedfordshire Battalion.

After the Great War many nurses came back to a life very different from the one they had left, their experiences changing them forever. Lady Ampthill began the VADs Ladies Club, for those returning to have somewhere to share their experiences.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a term that became mainstream during the Vietnam War, had been described in the two world wars in various terms – shell-shock, battle fatigue, or almost euphemistically ‘exhaustion’. Nurses were just expected to “move on” as the soldiers had experienced much worse, the reasoning being mental scars were not as deep as the physical ones.

The concept

Designed by sculptor Georgie Welch, the memorial has two parts: a sandstone globe measuring one metre in diameter, which rests inside two upwardly-pointing bronze “caring hands” sculpted by Georgie (her own hands being the template).

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing Memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

Close up of detail on the nursing memorial

The globe was painstakingly engraved by stonemason Nick Johnson; the landmasses are surrounded by a ‘sea of names’ of British, Dominion/ Commonwealth and American nurses and VADs who died during both world wars. So far over 1,244 names have been included on the memorial, which is expected to increase to around 1,700 names as the story about the memorial gains exposure.

It has been difficult to establish the exact number of nurses who died, due to difficulties in finding records. As new information is uncovered on other nurses, their names will be added to the list and the memorial will be amended. Around the base is the inscription “As stars in the dark sky they lit up our world” and space for more names to be incorporated.

 

Barbara Hallows, chair of the Nursing Memorial Appeal, explained the globe represented where these nurses came from, served and died, on land - and sea; “Quite a few of the nurses who died were torpedoed when on hospital ships.”

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

Guests at the memorial dedication

Barbara qualified as a nurse in 1951, trained at Middlesex Hospital and worked as a health visitor for many years in Essex. She wanted to get involved when she first heard about the idea for a memorial to all nurses: “We’re used to seeing war graves set up for the soldiers who have died, but there’s no talk about the nurses and I thought that the relatives of nurses should also have somewhere they could go.”

Dr Cecelia Anim, president of the Royal College of Nursing, explained the contribution made by all nurses during and since the two conflicts “It is very important to have this recognition because the volunteer nurses knew there was a risk attached to what they were doing, but through care, compassion and kindness they put their lives aside and went to help others.”

The Royal College of Nursing and the Florence Nightingale Foundation are among the appeal’s official partners and its recent royal patron is the Countess of Wessex who joins other patrons at the event such as Lord Julian Fellowes (writer of the screenplay for the film Gosford Park and TV series Downton Abbey); his wife Lady Fellowes also attended, whose grandmother was a VAD nurse.

The event

Strict security surrounded the private event. Some 300 invited guests and representatives from various medical groups rubbed shoulders with attachés from numerous Commonwealth countries including Canada, New Zealand and Australia. After the helicopter arrival of the Countess of Wessex the ceremony was opened with a welcome by Cannon Michael Rawson, Sub Dean and Pastor of Southwark Cathedral.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing Memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

Sculptor Georgie Welch and stonemason Nick Johnson

Alison Pearce led those gathered in singing Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn ‘Praise, my Soul, the King of Heaven. ‘The Bidding’ explained why everyone was attending to remember, “nurses who freely gave their lives in two World Wars in the service of others for whom they cared. We give thanks for their skill, generosity and bravery in bringing healing and wholeness to our broken world.”

Sonja Curtis, one of the trustees, took to the rostrum to expound on The Nursing Memorial; she was followed by Lord Julian Fellowes who described the work of the Extreme Nursing Award Scheme, which trains medical staff for, “vital, life-saving support in extreme situations at home and overseas.”

‘The Reading’ from Matthew Ch5 v1-12 was read by Group Captain Sonia Phythian Allied Rapid Reaction Force and PMRAFNS, who was followed by Diana Scougall reading the poem ‘Night Duty’ by Eva Dobell. Dobell was born in Gloucestershire and was a VAD nurse in the Great War.

Eunice Drewry, dressed in a VAD uniform followed, reading extracts from ‘Letters Home’ by nurses and patients sent to their loved ones. Cannon Michel Rawson then dedicated the memorial, walking around it reciting, “In memory of all who are commemorated here, we anoint this memorial with the oil of healing, thanking God for the work of their hands.”

The Kohima Epitaph, familiar to those who attend Armistice and Anzac commemorations, was read out by Warrant Officer Class 1 J. A. Sessions of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. Since 2003 QARANC has had as its Colonel-in-chief HRH The Countess of Wessex GCVO.

Everyone stood for the Last Post. After Reveille was sounded by the bugler, everyone recited The Lord’s Prayer which was followed by another prayer, a blessing and Alison Pearce again taking to the rostrum to lead those attending in singing The National Anthem. The staff and organisers at the NMA deserve a special mention for their involvement in the event.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

The Last Post is played

The formalities over with, Sophie, Countess of Wessex was introduced to two World War 2 nurses Margaret Brealey, and Ethel Lote aged 97, from Aldridge, West Midlands. Ethel had been a teenager at the outbreak of World War 2, and began work as a nurse at Burntwood Military Hospital near Cannock in Staffordshire, Ethel initially dealt with civilian casualties mainly from Birmingham but on 26th May 1940 the wards were cleared and they were advised to prepare for casualties – the first convoys of injured soldiers from Dunkirk.

She explained, “They were still in their uniforms, just how they had been picked up from the beaches. We had the first 100 patients. It was terrible, I’d just started training as a nurse, to see these men and their injuries, a lot of them were burned or had shrapnel wounds.”

Ethel recounted afterwards: “Early on the morning of May 27th 1940 we could see a strange sight slowly coming up the hill towards the hospital. It was a convoy of assorted vehicles entering the main gates.

The men were quickly transferred to the different wards. They were a pitiful sight. Their uniforms had to be cut from their bodies, as many of them were covered with the mud, blood and sand from the beaches of Dunkirk. There were many different injuries, but they were all absolutely exhausted. This was our introduction to the horrors of war, and over the years the plight of the casualties became even worse.”

She also recollected lighter moments: “Every Wednesday evening in the psychiatric hospital there was entertainment provided by some of their patients, and usually a film. Some of us nurses decided to perform on stage, so we produced a number of plays.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

Retired nurse Ethel Lote meets HRH The Countess of Wessex

Once, we performed the can-can, to the amusement of everyone in the audience. We were allowed to take some of our patients from the Military Hospital, either in wheelchairs or on crutches, although the evenings were often interrupted by the sirens sounding an air raid warning, so we quickly had to get back to our wards. There were also dances held in the psychiatric hospital, which we were allowed to attend if we were not on duty.”

Ethel was accompanied at the NMA event by her son Derek Lote. Ethel’s mother Ellen Cross had been a VAD in the Great War. A wreath was placed to remember Nurse Edith Cavell, who the Germans executed by firing squad in the Great War for helping some 200 allied prisoners to escape. There is statue to Cavell adjacent to the National Gallery in London and the railway carriage that returned her body and subsequently that of the Unknown Warrior back to Britain.

Another attendee dressed as a VAD nurse was Liz Howard-Thornton from Blackpool who is a member of The Great War Society, a living history organisation that was established in 1984 to perpetuate the memory and the sacrifices of the personnel who fought and served in The Great War.

She had brought with her a framed photograph and medals of her Great Grandmother who served as a VAD during the Great War, whose husband was killed at the Battle of the Somme on 3rd September 1916. Her Great Grandmother left their baby (Liz’s Grandfather) with family members in Manchester and she went out to serve as a British Red Cross VAD at the No.3 British Hospital, Le Treport France. She stayed there until the end of the war and didn’t see her little boy again until he was nearly four years old.

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Nursing Memorial

Source: Richard Pursehouse

Liz Howard-Thornton dressed as a VAD nurse

After the war she continued in a voluntary capacity to help treat severely shell shocked and injured soldiers on their return, until she remarried. Liz is currently an NHS nurse and gives talks to raise funds for the British Red Cross, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.

Liz placed an open bouquet of red roses and white gypsophila, a colour combination all good florists know is usually avoided in hospitals – as it represents ‘blood and bandages’.

Sophie Countess of Wessex was introduced to others attending including Cannon Michael Rawson whom she thanked for officiating at the event, and also Georgie Welch and Nick Johnson who had collaborated in the sculpture. Georgie and Nick explained that they wanted to create an allencompassing representation of appreciation for nurses from across the world who gave medical comfort to the injured in two world wars.

 

Once everyone had gone, a moment for reflection. In the ‘tranquillity of solitude’, the only sounds were the birds in the trees and the stream running just beyond this serene corner of the National Memorial Arboretum. As former nurse Margaret Brealey had earlier explained, looking and pointing to this poignant memorial, “we’ve got memorials for the men and now we have one for the nurses. They are all here.”

Unsung heroes no more – remembered finally, the nurses who unswervingly answered the call in two world wars and gave their all.

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