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'A fitting memorial to nurses who made the ultimate sacrifice’

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In her seminal work Nurses of Passchendaele, Christine Hallett describes how on 4 June 1917, 12 nurses who were sleeping in their barracks next to the field hospital awoke to the sound of shrapnel balls and fragments of shell flying in all directions – some travelling with great velocity and punching holes in the walls of wards, shredding pillows and smashing bed screens. 

peter carter

It was miraculous that only one occupant of the ward – an orderly – sustained an injury. 

This was typical of the horrors faced by wartime nurses and members of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). 

VADs were an essential component of the nursing workforce. Although not registered nurses, they received training and were an indispensable asset to the medical defence services.

One of the most notable VADs was Vera Britton whose book Testament of Youth graphically describes the work of these courageous women. 

A hundred and one years later, on Monday 4 June 2018, there was a dedication service of a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum to those nurses and VADs who were killed in the two world wars. 

“It is thought that up to 1,500 nurses and VADs were killed during the two conflicts”

The service was held in the presence of HRH The Countess of Wessex, who spoke at length to some of the veterans present. The weather was dry and overcast, and the silence and serenity was in marked contrast to that experienced by those nurses at Passchendaele. 

It was a poignant and moving service. It is thought that up to 1,500 nurses and VADs were killed during the two conflicts and, while there are memorials to some individuals and collective heroines, there was not one to recognise them all. This oversight has now been rectified. 

The service was conduct with great sensitivity by Canon Michael Rawson, sub-dean and pastor, Southwark Cathedral. 

Sonja Curtis, a trustee of the appeal and one of the main drivers behind the initiative, gave an address about the memorial, which was followed by Lord Julian Fellows – he of Downtown Abbey fame – who spoke about The Extreme Nursing Award Scheme. 

In addition, Group Captain Sonia Phythian, herself a nurse, gave a poignant reading from Matthew Ch 5 v.1-12. Diana Scougall read the poem Night Duty by Eva Dobell and Eunice Drewry read Letters Home

Those present comprised members of the Nursing Memorial Appeal Committee, who should be commended for raising the money for the memorial. 

Also present were nurses, serving members of the armed forces and members of the public, many of whom have supported the appeal in one way or another. 

There were prayers, hymns and the last post followed by a two-minute silence. 

In the gathering were Ethel Lote, who nursed the wounded from Dunkirk, and Margaret Brearley, who was a VAD, trained as a nurse and served in the Royal Navy. The Countess of Wessex spoke at length to both. 

“At last there is a fitting memorial to these courageous people”

I felt privileged to have been present and the memorial, which consists of two hands holding a globe of the world and has the names of the nurses and VADs who died in the wars inscribed on it. Georgie Welch sculpted the caring hands, while the rest of the memorial was made and engraved by stonemason Nick Johnson. In addition, Audrey Arden-Jones, a nurse and poet, had suggested the words that are inscribed on the base – “like stars in a bright sky they lit up our world”. 

As Sonja Curtis said, at last there is a fitting memorial to these courageous people. I would encourage nurses to visit the arboretum and spend a few moments in quiet reflection in memory of our predecessors who truly did make the ultimate sacrifice. 

The Extreme Nursing Today appeal will provide a living memorial and it is hoped that, when it is in place, it will support nurses who are expertly trained and are needed to provide vital lifesaving support in extreme situations at home and overseas. 

The funds provide training and research grants for those involved in humanitarian and conflict nursing.

For more information, go to the Nursing Memorial Appeal website:

Dr Peter Carter OBE is former chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing

Nursing Memorial Appeal

Peter Carter and Ethel Lote

Peter Carter and Ethel Lote

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