Friday, 28 August 2015

The Caring Profession

D/DLI 7/805/102 J.B.E. Simmons, a soldier of a Durham Light Infantry Home Service Battalion, guarding a prisoner in a hospital bed, two nurses, a German prisoner of war, and a Canadian soldier, Sergeant W. Wade, 1914-1918

Mention nurses during the First World War and most people would probably think of the Red Cross and St John’s Voluntary Aid Detachment - even if they might not know the full name.   VADs were volunteers who had typically had little or no previous medical training.  However, the VADs were just a part of the nursing services during the First World War, as we have been learning from the research that we’ve been doing. 

Last week I wrote about Cissy Spence and the “trying circumstances” under which she won the Military Medal.  Cissy was not a VAD but a “professional” nurse.  She worked in Darlington and Wolverhampton Hospitals before the war and was part of the Civil Hospital Reserve of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS).  The QAIMNS were founded in 1902 with the intention of providing regular nursing support to the Army.  It was soon realised this standing army of nurses was not attracting enough recruits so Civil Hospitals were encouraged to allow their nursing staff to be used by the War Office in time of need.  This meant that trained nurses were on standby and Cissy set foot in France on 8 August 1914, before the majority of male soldiers.

Also founded in 1902, the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) provided similar support for the Navy.  While researching the Five Sisters Memorial in York Minister we came across the story of Louisa Charlotte Chamberlain, who family lived in Eastgate:

She served aboard the Hospital Ship China and was killed by a mine off Scarpa Flow along with a dental surgeon from County Durham, Herbert Myers Marshall:

Another area that I’ve been particularly interested in is the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.  Founded by Elsie Inglis, these hospitals employed women doctors as well as nurses to look after wounded soldiers.  They had strong links to the pre-war suffragist group the Women’s Union of Suffrage Societies and the Sunderland Press Secretary of the NUWSS posted a long account of the work they carried out in Serbia (Sunderland Echo, 20 March 1915).  I haven’t been able to track down any female doctors who worked for the SWH (yet!) but Durham at War does feature an orderly from Hartlepool that served with the organisation:

Red Cross database of VADs:

More information about the QAIMNS

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Friday, 21 August 2015

In trying circumstances

Watercolour of a nurse tending to a wounded soldier in a hospital, by Captain Robert Mauchlen,9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry c.1917 (D/DLI 7/7/920/11(11))
D/DLI 7/7/920/11(11) Watercolour of a nurse tending to a wounded soldier in a hospital, by Captain Robert Mauchlen, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry c.1917  
Recently a volunteer enquired as to whether Victoria and myself ever clashed over who did a certain piece of research.  While we may have had words over the last biscuit at teatime, we seem to have developed our own spheres of interest and even of seamlessly batting research between ourselves to suit our particular talents. 

For example: Victoria has a special interest in Prisoners of War, be it German prisoners in Durham camps or Durham men in camps in Germany or Switzerland.  This led her to the Hamsterley Parish magazines, looking for mention of the German POWs from Harperley.  In addition to what she was looking for, she found a record of the awarding of the Military Medal to Nurse Spence.

This information she passed to me, as she knows that I am interested in the role women played during the war and have been co-ordinating the Five Sisters research.  I soon found that Cissy Spence (also known as Sarah Jane and Joan) received the Military Medal for calmly carrying on with her work while bombs dropped all around her.  The Casualty Clearing Station that she was stationed at had 250 patients of which 27 were killed and 68 wounded during the raid.  In a piece of quintessentially British understatement her citation describes this as “trying circumstances.”

The Military Medal was first introduced as an honour in March 1916 and was awarded to its first female recipient, Dorothie Feilding, in September of that year.  During the war, 135 Military Medals were awarded to women.  Two of those medals we have tracked down to women from County Durham: Cissy Spence and Kate Maxey.  I wonder if there’ll be others…

Friday, 14 August 2015


Image used with permission of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
Yesterday [13 August] I went to a talk on a new collaborative First World War art project between Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and American sound artist, Halsey Burgund

The piece is called Tributaries and it is an app based sound work using voices of Tyne and Wear.  The geographical scope of the project overlaps with Durham at War, such as Gateshead and Birtley. 

The app is meant to be used on a smart phone whilst walking around Tyne and Wear.  Over an ambient background piece of music that is constant but varies depending on how far from the Tyne you are, voices come in and out, reading from First World War diaries, letters, newspapers et al.  Some of the content is also location based so if you were using the app in North Shields for instance, you might hear an extract of a story relating to the town or a person from there.

The content already available was produced by volunteer using material from within Tyne and Wear’s archive and museum collections.  The volunteers did both research and the reading.  Newcastle Library held an open day for the public to look at First World War era newspapers and record their favourite stories.  The voices also include that of Jenny Bartram, the BBC weather presenter, who reads from the weather log of St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay. 

A key aspect of Tributaries, as with some of Halsey Burgund’s previous works, is that is evolving.  Not only is the piece interactive (based on location), but it is contributory.  Users can record their own voices which will immediately be added into the sound work.  This can be from family records or reflections on the war and a particular location. 

You can find out more, including how to download the app, available for Apple and Android, at 

Friday, 7 August 2015

"Under Hell’s Flames" - The Battle of Hooge, August 1915

Before the First World War, a few kilometres east of Ypres on the Menin road lay the small village of Hooge. Hooge was no more than a handful of houses and farm buildings, but set back some 200 metres north of the road there was a large red-brick chateau and stables.

By the early summer of 1915, Hooge lay in ruins and no man’s land ran between the chateau and stables, then on 19 July a British mine was exploded under the German trenches, leaving a crater 40 metres across and 12 metres deep. Into this still-smoking crater rushed British soldiers. From the lip of the crater, the nearest German trenches were only five metres away. Less than two weeks later, on 30 July, the Germans launched a surprise attack, blowing up the stables and then, using flame-throwers for the first time against British soldiers, capturing all of Hooge and driving the terrified defenders away from the Menin road south towards Sanctuary Wood.
A view of the Hooge crater showing sandbags and other debris from German dugouts, August 1915 (D/DLI 2/2/213)
D/DLI 2/2/213 A view of the Hooge crater showing sandbags and other debris from German dugouts, August 1915
General Plumer, commanding the British Second Army at Ypres, ordered an attack to recapture the lost ground and the 6th Division was given the task.  Not only did this include the 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, they were chosen to lead the attack. *

Just after midnight on Monday 9 August 1915, rum was issued to each man and two hours later 2 DLI was in position on the northern edge of Sanctuary Wood. In addition to the usual weapons and equipment, they had to carry additional rifle ammunition, sandbags and shovels, plus one day's ration and a full water bottle. These men were about to attack at night across 500 metres of rising ground, hindered by shell holes, broken trees, shattered trenches, barbed wire and the unburied dead from the earlier fighting.

At 2.45am, the British artillery opened fire. Twenty minutes later, the Durhams advanced as near as was possible to the German front line and lay down to await the end of the shelling. At exactly 3.15am, the bombardment lifted and the Durhams attacked.

An account of this attack was recorded in a letter by an unidentified private, published a newspaper:
"Our artillery opened fire and they replied. It was simply awful but we lay there waiting for the order to charge. It came and we lost all control of our senses and went like mad, fighting hand to hand and bayoneting. We got into the first line and went straight on and then dug ourselves in under hell's flames." (D/DLI 2/2/47(1))
The 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Hooge 9 August 1915', Gerald Hudson, oil on canvas, The Regimental Trustees of the DLI Museum, Acc no. 883
'The 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Hooge 9 August 1915', Gerald Hudson, oil on canvas, The Regimental Trustees of the DLI Museum, Acc no. 883
Advancing in short rushes, 2 DLI quickly reached the trenches linking the crater, stables and Menin road. It was so dark with the smoke and dust from the explosions that Captain Robert Turner, who led the assault companies, later wrote: "It was difficult to know when we had reached our objective. I remember prodding with my walking stick to locate the road." (D/DLI 2/2/50).  The German defenders were overwhelmed. Later 300 dead were counted around the stables and over 200 bodies were seen in the crater. Many had been bayoneted.

By 6am, the Durhams were digging in on their newly-won positions and, for the rest of the day, they held on despite the incessant German bombardment. Again the anonymous soldier described the battle:
"There was nine of us digging this trench. I turned my back one second and when I looked again - what a sight! I will remember it till I die. Every man in the trench blown to atoms - arms, legs and heads staring you in the face. You will hardly credit what I did… I sat down and lit a Woodbine… I was stuck there by myself for sixteen hours and all the time a heavy bombardment." (D/DLI 2/2/47(1))

That night, after the order to pull back had been given, fewer than 170 soldiers and three officers returned to Sanctuary Wood.  The order, however, had not got through to all the surviving Durhams. Many had been isolated by the bursting shells and it was nearly twenty-four hours later that the last of the men came back.

The fighting at Hooge had cost the lives of over 500 German soldiers with a further 130 taken prisoner, whilst, of the 650 Durhams who had waited in the darkness before the attack on Hooge began, some 60 were killed and 330 wounded. A further 100 Durhams were also reported missing, though not all of these men were later listed as having been killed. 
March off of the colours at the Hooge Ball, 1954 (D/DLI 2/2/360(102))
D/DLI 2/2/360(102) March off of the colours at the Hooge Ball, 1954
Though almost forgotten today, the Battle of Hooge was not, however, forgotten by the 2nd Battalion DLI, and every year, until the battalion was finally disbanded in 1955, “Hooge Day” was celebrated. In the Officers’ Mess, an oil painting hung as a constant reminder to young officers of their battalion’s history; it is now looked after by the DLI Museum.  The battle honour “Hooge 1915” can be found on the old DLI Colours hanging in Durham Cathedral.

(Original text by Steve Shannon)

Further reading:
Nigel Cave, Sanctuary Wood and Hooge (Barnsley, 1993).
John Sheen, The Steel of the DLI: The 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry at War 1914-1918 (Barnsley, 2010).

*2DLI, who were the first Durham Light Infantry battalion to see action on the Western Front (from September 1914) still had many pre-war professional soldiers in its ranks.