Saturday, 17 November 2018

WHAT'S IN A NAME? by Penny Dolan.

Last Sunday people stopped, stood silently for two minutes in honour of those who died in World War I and in more recent conflicts. People remembered the names of those who had died: the names carved on War Memorials or told in family stories whether in Britain or elsewhere.

This History Girls post is a personal story about name and identity and the aftermath of war: the subject is my mother’s oldest brother, named Herbert, who was born in India in 1910.

His father was true army, both as an orphaned boy-soldier and as a man. His mother was the sixth of seven children of another Indian Army officer and, in that time and climate, both would have been familiar with death. They brought the boys to England sometime around 1914. Herbert and his two brothers would have been far too young to serve but perhaps they travelled on the troopships bringing the Indian soldiers to Suez and on to France.

Herbert was the oldest son: however he did not want to be a soldier. Studious and sensitive, he took a clerical post and became interested in the church and books and amateur dramatics.
Then, aged around twenty, along with a close friend, he converted from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church and took a new name: Michael.

Saint Michael the Archangel, venerated in Christian and other faiths, is depicted with the sword he used to defeat Satan. In another role, as the Angel of Death, he offers redemption to dying souls and is therefore a rather useful devotion for anyone involved in battle.

A good soldierly name, but his father did not welcome the religious conversion. Herbert’s mother wanted to follow but that caused so marital trouble that she took it no further.

Not long after, Michael chose to pursue his vocation. He went to Begbroke Priory in Oxford, the Novitiate House of the Servants of Mary. I do wonder what had happened in his life that had made him so devoted to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows? 

Had he seen disabled soldiers on the London streets? Or lost friends in the Flu Pandemic? Had his mother's and little sister's illnesses driven him to a deeper faith? Was any unknown sibling lost on the way? Something made Herbert Michael take a different direction but I do not know what.

On his ordination to the priesthood, he chose another military name: Martin.  

Saint Martin was a soldier in the Roman army. As he approached the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a half-naked beggar. Martin tried to give him his thick army cloak, but the beggar refused, saying that would leave Martin without one. Martin declared he could not leave the beggar to face another cold night. Impulsively, Martin slashed his cloak in two, gave one half to the beggar and went on his way. That night Martin saw a vision of Jesus, wearing the half-cloak he had given away. Martin became a revered priest, bishop and saint and his half-cloak was kept as a precious relic in Tours cathedral.

His order sent Father Martin to Salford during the war years, working in the Manchester slums. He was rarely able to visit home. On his annual visit to the Servite Mother House in Fulham, London, Father Martin could visit his mother for an afternoon. Sometimes he brought a troop of Scouts south to a Jamboree in Gilwell Park, near Epping so we could visit him there. But mostly he stayed away.

He led what seemed to me to be an odd but culturally rich life. We had some of his now unwanted books around: books of poems and plays and Lake District walks and watercolours. He sent me letters with amusing drawings and introduced me to the Victoria and Albert and the British Museum. I adored him from an awkward distance, for he could have a terrifying temper.

A sense of separation was inevitable, I suppose. Despite various vicar-detective tv fantasies, strict religious observances kept faiths apart during those decades.

Catholicism was seen as a faith of foreigners, with sins told in secret. The Church liturgy was not straightforward but recited in Latin with bells and even the daily practice was full of precise rituals and prayers. Communicants fasted from the evening before Mass, both the rich and those who had little food in their bellies in those hungry times and there was all that fuss about fish on Fridays. Divorce was impossible and Catholics could not attend any service – even a marriage or a funeral – in the church of another faith without permission, and those who entered the religious orders were encouraged to view the order as their family, rather than real relatives.

Maybe more than all that, as I grew older, I picked up another problem. His younger brother fought in the Second World War and came back from Dunkirk with his hair turned white. My father, who flew in bombers, returned with headaches and violent mood swings. 

Whenever they got together, and Uncle Michael was mentioned, there was a slight, silent accusation in the air that, for all his soldierly names and his good work in the slum parishes, the beloved man was a soldier’s son who never served in the war.  It was one of those unspoken silences that echo on and on in the wake of war.

Penny Dolan

Friday, 16 November 2018

Of poppies and remembrance: Sue Purkiss

It can hardly have escaped anyone's notice that last Sunday was the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. (A hundred years would have seemed an unimaginably long time to me when I was a child: now, not so much!) There have been poppies everywhere - but apparently, not quite enough of them...

In Cheddar, where I live, there has been some murmuring, because there has been no civic display of poppies. Other villages, it is claimed, have HUGE poppies attached to lamp posts. (It seems that there weren't enough of these to go round - Cheddar asked, but did not receive.) Outside every shop in Winscombe, a neighbouring village, there hangs a flag with that iconic image of exhausted soldiers stumbling through the hideous desert of the battlefields.

It has to be said that Cheddar has form here. When it was the Millenium, all the villages for miles around - tiny, many of them - suddenly acquired boundary stones with the village name carved on them. Not Cheddar. We got two raised beds, which are known as 'the village green' - even though we have two huge quarries nearby which could surely have provided any number of magnificent boulders. (You can tell this is still a sore point.)

Outside Cheddar Catholic Church

However, as others pointed out: even if the lamp posts lacked poppies, there were numerous displays in shops and outside churches: there was even one in a telephone box, which has been adopted by a group of local artists and used for mini-exhibitions. For Remembrance Day, they filled it with poppies in different media - fabric, ceramics, glass. And next weekend, there will be a theatrical performance scripted by brilliant local dramatist Gill Scard, who specialises in researching local history and then creating a performance piece from her discoveries, using local people as actors.

Inside the phone box (photo Ellen Grady)

So Cheddar, like everywhere else, has in fact found its own ways to remember, and to remind. And the vehicle for this is the poppy. It's not a universal symbol; it was adopted after the First World War, and its choice was inspired by a poem called In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, who noticed that poppies were growing in the scarred battlefields, and saw them as a symbol of hope and revival. In 1921, the Royal British Legion first sold poppies to raise money for wounded and disabled servicemen. In France, the cornflower became the symbol of remembrance. The white poppy, which has become more popular in recent years, was actually first promoted in the twenties by the Peace Pledge Union, who felt they wanted something which symbolised peace: perhaps they felt that red suggests blood.

Red and white poppies on the beautiful thirteenth century steps to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral

Symbols are powerful things. This display, at Wells Cathedral, on the well-worn steps which lead up to the Chapter House (one of my favourite places in the world), surely testifies to that.

Incidentally, I wasn't at church at 11am on the 11th. I had popped into my local branch of Sainsburys, and, stupidly, hadn't even noticed the time. I wondered why all the staff were standing at the front of the store: someone quietly told me. And at 11am, we all stood in silence for two minutes. And there was something intensely moving about that, and about the way that afterwards some people spoke softly about those they had been remembering. It didn't matter that we weren't in a beautiful church, or before some imposing monument. It did matter that we were a group of human beings, sharing in an act of remembrance. And it doesn't matter which village has the best poppy display. What matters is that we remember, in whatever way suits us best.

Displays by children from local schools in the Chapter House

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Hair in History. An interview with Susan J. Vincent by Fay Bound Alberti

I am delighted to dedicate my blog post this week to a new book by Dr Susan J. Vincent, a brilliant cultural historian and past partner-in-crime when we took our PhDs together at the University of York.

Susan, once a primary school teacher, has spent the last 24 years instead following a childhood interest in historical dress. She is a Research Associate at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (CREMS) at the University of York and has written on topics - and garments - that range from early modernity to the present day. Her previous books include Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England (2003), The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today (2009) and as general editor, Bloomsbury's six-volume publication, A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion (2017).

Susan J. Vincent 

Susan's new book, Hair: An Illustrated History, published by Bloomsbury Press, aims to take the reader ‘on a lavishly illustrated journey into the world of this remarkable substance and our complicated and fascinating relationship with it’. Through a clever blend of art, film, diaries, newspapers, texts and images’, Susan explores the stories we have told about hair and why they matter: ‘From ginger jibes in the seventeenth century to bobbed-hair suicides in the 1920s, from hippies to Roundheads, from bearded women to smooth metrosexuals’, you will never look at hair the same way again.

I met up with Susan to talk about the book, and to ask what had been her inspiration.

Hair: An Illustrated History, by Susan J. Vincent

Fay: “Hair is a fascinating subject. What made you interested in its history?"

Susan: ‘Well as you know, I’m a dress historian. I became aware that while sociologists and anthropologists had written a lot about hair, dress historians hadn’t – hair exists somewhere between the body and the garment and it was part of dressing practice in the past – people in the past had good and bad hair days too!”

Fay: ‘What’s the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book?’

Susan: ‘So many things! I was surprised how wearing a length of hair that is opposed to the status quo and the norm is shocking and adversarial and can be used to make political statements. I was also surprised how much continuity there is in what we have wanted from hair over hundreds of years. The way we treat and wear hair might have changed, but people have always wanted to style it and look after it, and to have it thick and full. They worried about it falling out. They wanted to change its colour. Perhaps most surprising is the similarity in how people in the past felt about their hair care providers, the relationships they built with them, and the continuity in hairdresser and barber stereotypes.”

Fay: “Your book contains wonderfully descriptive stories about how people thought about and treated their hair over the years – do you have a favourite?”

Susan: “My favourite area is the bob, and how it enflamed passions. When women began to ‘bob’ their hair in the 1920s, it was linked to suicides from shock - either on the part of the newly-bobbed woman, or the suicide of a shocked and appalled family member. And bobs were hugely transformative - for individuals, for the hairdressing industry, and for society as a whole. For the first time ever, women didn’t have to have long hair, a change we take for granted today”.

Fay: “What is the most important message of the book?”

Susan: “That we can’t take hair for granted. I wanted to call the book: What we’ve done to hair and what hair has done to us. And I think that’s it in a nutshell: hair is not neutral, it has a huge effect on us, and we have an effect on it. We use it in lots of different ways, live our lives with it, make political points, and harness it to establish and articulate relationships”.

This beautifully illustrated and researched book covers a wide range of different perspectives on hair, as our discussion suggests, and I will leave you with an extract. Today, there is enormous pressure on women to eradicate hair from all over their bodies (at least the places where we don’t want it to grow). And the industry of hair removal is expensive and extensive. As a counterpoint to this trend of hair removal, and as a reminder that in the midst of exploitation around the female body, some women found ways to thrive, Susan tells the story of Madame Clementine Delait, a Bearded Lady.

Madame Clementine Delait, courtesy of
Wellcome Images

“Clementine was born in 1865 in a small village in Lorraine. Aside from shaving her facial hair, which began to grow in her teenage years, she lived an unremarkable life, marrying a local baker and together with him setting up the Café Delait. It was sometime after this that things started to change, for she ended up making a bet with a customer and letting her beard grow: ‘The success was immediate’, she wrote, ‘they were all crazy about me'. (Quoted in Susan Bell, 'Memoirs of a Bearded Lady who Noted Barbed Comments in Ink).

As Clementine’s fame spread, her beard became an attraction that was good for business, and she and her husband renamed their establishment the Café de la Femme à Barbe (Café of the Bearded Woman). Clementine’s husband died in 1926, just before she turned forty, and the widow took her facial hair further afield, eventually achieving celebratory status in Parisian and London theatres.

There are numerous postcards of her in many different poses and contexts, not only from her days of wider fame but also taken in front of her café, the establishment’s eponymous bearded proprietor. She died in 1939, requesting that her tombstone bear the inscription, ‘Here lies Clementine Delait, the bearded lady’. Thus Clementine’s memoir reveals that she deliberately put away her razor and chose to come out of the hirsute closet. She herself publicized her ability to grow whiskers, and it was a source of personal pride, as well as profit.

As evidenced by the memorial inscription she chose, Clementine Delait’s beard was a fundamental part of her identity and it gave her a social standing and degree of agency she would otherwise have been unable to attain. And she most certainly did not feel herself to be merely a curiosity for exhibit: ‘I was much more and much better than that.’


For a chance to win a copy of Hair: An Illustrated History by Susan J. Vincent, please answer the following question in the comments. The lucky winner's name will be drawn at random:

Which of the following items is the most recently invented hair-care invention?

a) tweezers
b) comb
c) hairbrush
d) curling tongs

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Dancing into the Modern Age: 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration - by Lesley Downer

November 1868: Emperor Meiji enters Edo in his phoenix palanquin
On November 26th 1868, a hundred and fifty years ago this month, a vast procession three and a half thousand strong filed through the massive gates of Edo Castle, with musicians stepping out in front. Right at the centre, born on the shoulders of forty or fifty close packed bearers, was the imperial palanquin, topped with a golden phoenix, carrying the sixteen year old Emperor Mutsuhito, whom we now know as Emperor Meiji. 
Emperor Meiji on his way to Edo

He had been wending his way across the country from his ancestral home in Kyoto for twenty days. Ten thousand people lined the streets to watch him pass. Shortly afterwards Edo was renamed Tō-kyō, ‘Eastern Capital’, and Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace. The event was dubbed the Meiji Restoration. A whole new era had begun. 

Shoguns had held power in Japan for many centuries. During those years the emperors had been like popes, spending their lives sequestered in the imperial palace in Kyoto and never leaving. For 250 years the country enjoyed uninterrupted peace. Japanese culture flourished - the world we see depicted in woodblock prints and on the stage of the kabuki theatre, the world of Basho’s haiku, Zen and much else. 

During most of those years Japan was closed to the west. The only westerners were 20 Dutch merchants who were allowed to live on a small island off Nagasaki. A Dutch ship came once a year and kept the Japanese up to speed with western science and developments. Thus the Japanese knew a fair bit about the west but the west knew very little about Japan. 
The rickshaw, invented in Japan in 1869

Then, in a single day - July 8th 1853 - everything changed. Fishermen in their boats at the mouth of Edo Bay saw four monstrous ships surging towards them, spouting steam. ‘As large as mountains,’ the fishermen reported, ‘moving as fast as birds.’ It was as if aliens had landed. But it was not Martians. It was Americans. It was Commodore Matthew Perry and his famous Black Ships. 

The fifteen years of turmoil that followed ended with the shogun being overthrown. The fifteenth and last shogun retired to his family lands and the teenage Emperor was borne in splendour into Edo, now Tokyo. And straight away things started to change. 

Ginza Bricktown 1874
Under the shoguns Edo had been an eastern Venice, lined with canals, with willow trees swaying along the banks. People went around by water, on foot, by palanquin or on horseback. There were no wheels for transporting people, only for goods. Wheels were quick to arrive. The rickshaw was invented almost instantaneously - in 1869. Soon rickshaws were everywhere, clattering through the streets, with the drivers shouting and threatening to mow people down if they didn’t leap out of the way fast enough. 

Tokyo mushroomed much as China is mushrooming now. New buildings shot up in the western mode, of brick and stone, not wood. One of the first was the Mitsui House, a splendid wedding cake-like confection, owned by the wealthy shopkeeping and money exchanging Mitsui family, soon to found a business and banking empire.

Then in April 1872 an area called the Ginza, full of furniture shops and second hand shops, mysteriously burnt down. No one was hurt, generating the suspicion that the fire had been set deliberately. The area was rebuilt entirely in sparkling new brick buildings and called Ginza Bricktown. The street was lined with all sorts of wonderful shops - a brand new newspaper office, a post office and a beef restaurant where people could dine on an exciting new dish - beef. In 1874 the Ginza was lit with Japan’s first gas lamps. 
First train at Shimbashi station by Shōsai Ikkei, circa 1870 -
donated to Wiki Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  Also in 1872 the first train line opened linking Tokyo and Yokohama, built under the direction of the Englishman Edmund Morell. He had succumbed to fever and died at the age of 30 the year before the railway opened and is buried in the Foreigners’ Cemetery in Yokohama. The emperor was there in all his regalia to open it. He was 20 by now. He soon set an example by changing to western clothing (a military uniform with lots of medals) for official duties. He also made the revolutionary announcement, ‘I shall eat beef.’ 

The empress followed suit. In 1873 she announced she was going to give up teeth blackening which was quite as shocking as if Meghan had suddenly announced she was going to blacken her teeth. Up till then adult women had always painted their teeth with lacquer to make them a lovely shiny black.
View of Benten Shrine: The Emperor and Empress cherry blossom viewing with their attendants
by Utagawa Hiroshige III 1881 - donated to Wiki Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the cities at least everyone who could afford it was madly experimenting. Men rushed to the new-fangled barber shops - the first opened in 1869 - to have their oiled samurai topknots cut off and their hair cut in the latest style, the jangiri style, the cropped cut. People who had grown up wearing topknots and swords tried the bizarre new western fashions - trousers and Sherlock Holmes capes and incredibly uncomfortable leather boots.

Women were more conservative in their dress choices. Geisha being trendsetters were the first to try western clothes - bustles and bonnets. The very first person to wear high heeled shoes was a Nagasaki geisha in the 1880s.

Then in 1883 the Rokumeikan - the Hall of the Baying Stag - opened in central Tokyo right opposite the Imperial Palace. It was a rather flashy Italianate mansion of white painted brick with colonnaded verandas, set in landscaped gardens. There Japanese high society - gentlemen in frock coats, ladies in bustles, bows, corset and bonnets - dined on French food cooked by a French chef, using knives and forks, played billiards, had charity bazaars, sang western songs and played western musical instruments.

Dancing into the future - at the Hall of the Baying Stag
There were also famous balls. The idea was that gentlemen should appear with their wives on their arms as western people did. But unless you were an ex-geisha as quite a few of the ladies were, most upper class Japanese women were not accustomed to going out with their husbands, so a lot of the ladies at the Rokumeikan were actually the geisha of the gentleman in question, not the wife.
From Aguranabe, 'Sitting round the beef pot'
by Kanagaki Robun

All this modernising was a lot of fun but it also had a serious purpose - to persuade the western powers that the Japanese were every bit as civilised as them so that they would repeal the hated unequal treaties, by which the Japanese had to pay inflated export duties and the exchange rate was rigged in the westerners’ favour and many other humiliating clauses besides.

But despite all the dancing and modern clothes, the treaties were not repealed until 1895, after Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War. As a Japanese diplomat said wearily a decade later, after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War: ‘My people had been sending artistic treasures to Europe for some time, and had been regarded as barbarians. But as soon as we showed ourselves able to shoot down Russians with quick firing guns, we were acclaimed as a highly civilised race.’

In case anyone might like to hear more, I’m giving a couple of lectures to mark the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration - at the Ashmolean in Oxford on Friday November 23rd from 1 to 2 and at the British Library on Tuesday November 27th at 7.15. 

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale very much based on a true story and set in Japan at the time of the turmoil preceding the Meiji Restoration- out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons or private collection.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Jersey Occupation Food in #WW2 by Deborah Swift

German soldiers on British soil
I've recently been working on a novella for a collection of stories set in WW2. My book is set on Jersey in the Channel Islands. Those of you who have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (or seen the film) will know about the food shortages on Guernsey during the German occupation. All the Channel Islands suffered under the occupation, not just Guernsey.  The geographical position of Jersey meant the Germans saw it as an ideal place of fortification before their planned invasion of England.

When the Germans invaded The Channel Islands, Jersey was cut off from English food supplies, and with thousands more hungry Germans on the island, the finding of enough food became a priority. Potatoes and swedes were a staple, but food was so scarce in the Channel Islands that every last morsel of the potato was eaten, including the peel. By the Summer of 1941, the ration of meat was four ounces per person per fortnight. Bread was scarce, and soon become a rough, hard, mouthful, often adulterated with bran, chaff or sawdust. The British 'cuppa' was made with tea recycled by drying out the leaves.

'The shops were empty, you couldn't buy anything. If you went into town, everyone was talking about food.'
Dorothy Blackwell - farmer's daughter Jersey

Finding and preparing food mostly fell to the women, and was enormously time-consuming. On an island as small as Jersey, the beaches were a source of food, though the beaches were mined by the occupying forces, so it was a dangerous mission to collect mussels or crabs. Seaweed, and moss were avidly collected, and used as vegetables or to make setting agents for preserves or blancmange.

Sugar was not available, so islanders made syrup from sugar beet. Coffee substitute was made from collecting and drying dandelions or parnsips. In harvest time, corn was gleaned grain by grain from any missed by the Germans, and painstakingly ground in home mills originally intended for coffee or spices. Breeding rabbits for the pot, and catching sparrows from hedgerows supplemented the diet with a little protein. Bird's eggs of any type were filched from nests.

Occupation Menu
According to the book The Model Occupation by Madeleine Bunting - here is a typical day's diet on Jersey during 1943:

'Grape nuts' made from mangel-wurzel with drop of rationed milk
Bramble-leaf tea
Bread with smear of cocoa substitute mixed with sago

Boiled potatoes, peas, swede or cabbage
Pudding made of baked breadcrumbs & milk thickened with maize meal.

Bread & 'butter'
Bramble-leaf tea

Vegetable soup
Stewed potatoes & peas

Living in Fear
Thousands of islanders traded on the Black Market, or stole from the Germans to survive. Farmers were luckier, if thery could hide a pig or chickens, but those in towns suffered real hardships. In the face of German authority, islanders were powerless. One wrong word could lead to an appearance before the court and transportation to a French or German prison camp. Islanders witnessed the inhumane treatment of the slave workers brought over from occupied territories in order to build the German fortifications, and they feared the same treatment. Between 1940 and 1945, more than 300 islanders were taken from Jersey to concentration camps and prisons on the continent, for crimes committed against the German occupying forces.

As the occupation progressed, cooking grew difficult, as finding enough fuel became harder. The island was denuded of trees by the German forces. Not only was there no wood for fuel, but nowhere to hide for any type of Resistance, and no hope of escape from such a large invasion force, without capture.

Communal kitchens were set up to minimize the amount of fuel needed for cooking, but to stay warm in the winter months it was still essential to search for kindling and wood, and anything else that could be burned. Everything had to be made - soap soon ran out, and toothpaste had to be made by mixing soot and chalk dust.

By Christmas 1944, electricity was no longer available. Candles became scarce, and winter evenings were spent in semi-darkness by the light of a tin can full of oil, with a bootlace for a wick. Lack of warmth and gnawing hunger made winter on Jersey a true misery.

All food supplies were cut off altogether after the D Day landings of 1944 when France was liberated. Starvation began to stare people in the face. Many succombed to illnesses associated with malnutrition. When the first Red Cross parcels arrived on 27 December 1944, people wept.

My new novella, The Occupation is based on the story of  a Jerseywoman who hid her Jewish friend from the Germans. The real life story can be found here.

You can order the book (in an anthology with another ten WW2 novellas) by clicking the picture.

Channel Island website:
Read more about the occupation of Jersey on the BBC
Or in The Telegraph

My website

Monday, 12 November 2018

Remembering all the Harrys

Private Harry Reynolds died in France on 29 October 1914, aged 25. A careerist soldier, his service was undistinguished. He appears in the army records only when he lost his equipment and slipped cigarettes to prisoners he was supposed to be guarding.

Harry, who joined up at the age of 14, was 4ft 11, with defective eyes. This short, unremarkable soldier left no family behind. There is no grave for Harry.

I found his story as part of a fantastic community history project in Herne Hill, the leafy corner of South London in which I live. The Herne Hill Society, in partnership with The Charter School and local volunteers, undertook a project to map the men and women connected to Herne Hill who were killed in World War 1. The team believe that as many as 700 local residents were killed. On my street alone, there were five telegrams delivered, five families left bereft.

This is their website and I urge you to explore it:

The team has unearthed many heart-breaking stories, including a family which lost its three sons. But somehow, Harry’s story is the one that has lingered. As historical writers, the lives we focus on tend to be the ones that are significant: either because they are remarkable, or they are important, or they fit the narrative pattern we’re seeking to impose.

Harry’s story brings no clarity to the greater picture. It adds nothing but a single digit to an unbelievably large number. The mud of France cracked open, swallowed Harry, and sealed again. 

Most of us will be invisible to posterity and to be troubled by that lack of significance is pompous and hubristic. But most of us will be mourned by someone. Perhaps Harry had friends in the army who missed him. Perhaps poor, short, squinty Harry had a girl at home.

As the veterans of the World Wars die of old age, we need new ways to remember the Harrys. The map that this history project has created is hugely powerful. Children, in particular, need specific stories of flesh and blood people, not numbers, to force them to empathy. My older children were fascinated and appalled by the stories of the fallen soldiers who had lived on our road. The geographic specificity gave them a sense of connection and helped them really think about the lives, and deaths, of these men. 

We talk of bringing history alive, in fiction and non-fiction. To do that demands an emphasis on the commonality of human experience even as we mine the past for instances of difference and uniqueness.

But London, much as I love it, is a strange and hotchpotch place which constantly erodes a sense of commonality. People pass through, neighbours fail to connect. Most of us are incomers to our London villages. Most of us, too, are not church-goers. We don’t have that sense of belonging to a place that can make Remembrance Sunday so unbearably moving: I remember, in particular, being in a village church in Norfolk for one Remembrance Sunday service, and the surnames of the fallen were the names on the graves and, doubtless, in the records of marriages and baptisms.

We Londoners live, secluded in our overpriced houses, and disconnected to our past. We are ancestor-less. 

I was thinking about this, as I watched a friend’s ten year old find the story of a man who grew up in the house next door to her: Lieutenant John Hood. John was born in Herne Hill, and baptised in the church attached to my kids' old school. He studied at Cambridge, and was beginning a career as a teacher, before enlisting. He joined the 29th Siege Battery in France in November 1916 and for the next two years fought in Belgium and France. John Hood survived the German guns, but caught influenza on 11 November 1918, and died three days later in France.

Image result for st paul's church herne hill
An early image of the church where John Hood was baptised.

One hundred years after John Hood caught influenza, the team behind the Memorial project organised a two minute silence in the centre of Herne Hill during the usually busy Sunday market. We stood amid the veg-sellers and the artisan butchers, the smell drifting past from the cheese stall; the fat from the burgers spitting and the steam rising from the giant vat of tartiflette. Kids and dogs and hungover youngsters clutching coffees.  All the busyness of a London Sunday.  Then a teenager from The Charter School played The Last Post, and we all fell still.

Herne Hill's town crier announcing the silence

There is a particular intensity to a silence that falls on a busy London street. I found it deeply moving - all these decent, unremarkable strangers standing together. It gave me a much needed dose of optimism. I have been dispirited of late by the mood music of public life, and its combative, fearful timbre. We seem to be more frightened than I can remember, more growlingly convinced of the coming apocalypse. Frightened people who feel powerless find anger easy.

We have different visions of the peril: for some it is Trump and Brexit, and the rise of the right; for others Corbyn and a resurgent Marxism. Then there’s the climate. The decline of the US and the rise of a more brutal Chinese hegemony. The coming of artificial intelligence. Putin gurning at Europe’s growing chaos. The likelihood that future generations will, at best, be poorer than us; at worst, face horrors that we cannot imagine. There’s a competitive edge to the catastrophising – my vision is more true and more terrifying than yours. We are strangers, gawping at a pick ‘n mix of dystopian futures.

I keep telling myself that there is an impulse in humans to anticipate an imminent Armageddon. True, yesterday’s silence reminded me that, sometimes, we are right and the Horsemen do sweep in and scythe us down. But it also reminded me that within all the tremulous cacophony of modern British life, there can also exist two minutes of meaningful silence.


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Nurses - the forgotten heroes of the First World War

[The text below is taken from my book, Nurses of Australia:the Illustrated Story: NLA publishing, 2018), which is now in all good bookshops.]

     Over the course of the First World War, more than 2,286 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (which included nurses, masseuses, some ward assistants and one bacteriologist) served overseas on active service. (It was a huge number given that in 1914 there were only 4,200 trained general nurses registered with Australian nursing associations.)
     Only fully trained nurses were eligible to enlist in the AANS. They had to furnish references recommending them for military service, pass a medical examination and submit to the same military regulations as the average military officer.
     Hundreds more Australian nurses who wished to serve but had not been accepted into the AANS joined the British nursing services, either the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) or the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Other Australian nurses volunteered to serve with organisations such as the Red Cross, French Flag Nursing Corps, the Australian Voluntary Hospital, Colonial Nursing Service, or St John Ambulance.
     The AANS nurses cared for Australian and allied servicemen in almost every theatre of war during the long four years of war. They also served in hospital ships off the coast of Turkey and in field and general hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations in countries as diverse as Egypt, Palestine, Greece, India, France, Belgium, and Germany. Australian nurses staffed British and French hospitals and assisted the British, French, Canadian, Indian and South African medical services. 
     During the War, 388 Australian nursing sisters were decorated, with 42 wining military nursing’s greatest honour, the Royal Red Cross. Eight were awarded the Military Medal, and 23 received decorations from the Governments of allied countries.
     The First World War took place prior to antibiotics. Surgery was often performed in the difficult and septic conditions of a Casualty Clearing Hospital and doctors left post-operative treatment almost entirely to nurses. 
     A patient’s recovery, although due in part to a patient’s own powers of resistance and recuperation, was often attributable to the nursing care he received. Careful nursing prevented the onset of secondary pneumonia or further infection which could be fatal, and constant observation allowed the nurse to act quickly to prevent dehydration and excessive blood loss.
     British nurses may have regarded their colonial colleagues with some disdain, refusing to work with them unless ‘fully qualified’, but Australian trained nurses knew they had much to offer. The willingness of Australian nurses to take on whatever type of nursing work presented itself made them highly prized in Casualty Clearing Stations on the front line, and for theatre work. Australian nurses were particularly proud of their ability to act independently when required, unlike the British nurses who were used to a more rigid nursing hierarchy. And the Australian nurses soon needed to use all their ingenuity and pluck.
     Twenty-four AANS sisters embarked on active service overseas with the first big convoy of 44 troop ships on 20 October, 1914. They arrived in Egypt in December 1914 and set up two general hospitals.
     No. 1 Australian General Hospital (AGH), under Matron Bell, (left) was established at the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, a magnificent building, luxuriously furnished, but wholly unsuitable for a hospital. 
     No. 2 AGH, under Matron Gould, took over Mena House (right), also a former luxurious hotel but smaller than the Heliopolis Palace. It may have had a spectacular view of the Pyramids, but it was just as unsuitable for a hospital. 
     The nurses’ home in Cairo was in a former Egyptian harem, ‘a queer, funny old home . . . with barred windows, and inside a huge stone wall twenty feet high.’ (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.80) Inside the walls was a garden with a pool where the ladies of the harem used to wash their feet. 
     In their early days in Egypt, before the Gallipoli campaign, the Australian nurses made time to enjoy themselves, despite the heat. A nurse who had seen active service in Egypt later recalled that she and her colleagues ‘used to go for donkey rides in the evening and wore divided skirts something like our uniforms. My donkey was called Whisky Straight.’ (Sun, Monday 25 April 1938, p. 9) 
     The Australian nursing sisters visited friends, shopped and took trips to the Pyramids and the Sphinx. A perennial problem, however, was shortage of money, as the Army was notoriously lax about paying its staff. 
     Everything changed after April 1915, when the wounded began pouring in from Gallipoli. In May, No.2 AGH took over another Cairo hotel, the Ghezireh Palace and No.1 AGH had expanded to 3,500 beds. The El Hayat hotel at Helouan, twelve miles from Cairo, became a Convalescent Camp with 1,000 beds. But the casualties kept coming.
     Auxiliary hospitals were established in Cairo and Heliopolis in whatever large buildings were available. Luna Park in Cairo became an Auxiliary Hospital. It had fifteen nurses, and by 16 May it held 1,620 patients, 700 of whom were accommodated on the skating rink (as in the photo to the left ). The Atelier Auxiliary Hospital was a former furniture factory that had been fitted out to take 500 beds.
     And still the Gallipoli wounded poured in. Tent hospitals were opened in tennis courts and sporting grounds. Hotels, the Aerodrome, the Casino, the Cairo Sporting Club, and Prince Ibrahim Khalim’s Palace all became Australian hospitals. By 10 June 1915, almost 8,000 patients had been treated.
     Tent hospitals were especially troublesome. In a tent, ‘nursing the room’ – making sure that the patients’ environment was safe, well ventilated and free from dust and infection control was in place – was impossible, as is clear from the photo right.
Australian nurses often found Army regulations hard to stomach, especially those relating to uniforms.
     The heat in Egypt was almost intolerable (in a letter of 19 June 1915, Olive Haynes (below) mentioned that it was 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade (50 degrees Celsius)), and yet the nurses were expected to wear their long and heavy grey serge frocks with the thick red woollen cape over their shoulders. Haynes complained in a letter to her mother: 
‘Matron has a fit when she sees us without our capes. Everything military is quite mad and unreasonable; they can’t see a foot ahead of their noses for red tape.’ In the same letter Haynes took comfort in the news that the nurses were getting ‘new thin red capes – muslin collars and short sleeves with turn-back cuffs – will be much cooler.’ (Letter Olive Haynes to her mother, 28 May 1915)
     Everyone in the Egyptian hospitals, whether nurses, doctors or wounded soldiers, suffered cruelly from the heat. Haynes wrote that the best part of being on night duty was being able to take her cape off, roll up her sleeves and turn her collar in. She was defiant: ‘I don’t mind if 40 Drs. or officers come along.’ (Letter Olive Haynes to ‘Mim’ 19 June 1915)
     This Australian tendency to independence became a necessity, as the nurses were pitched headlong into situations that no amount of training could have prepared them for. Work on casualty ships, in particular, required a great deal of competence, ingenuity and independent thinking. The photo right shows wounded men from Gallipoli arriving at a hospital ship. 
     From April 1915 these vessels would collect the wounded from Gallipoli and transport them to hospitals on nearby islands. Conditions on the overcrowded ships were horrific. Patients who could not be fitted below decks were treated on the open rolling deck, lying side-by-side on stretchers. On the Gascon, Hilda Samsing wrote of performing her duties as ‘stray bullets pattered on board like rain drops after a shower’, and she graphically described her experiences:
The noise from the shore was most appalling. The incessant booming of the guns with the crackle of machine guns and rifles playing their accompaniment, made us wonder if the Anzac Hill was on a sound foundation. As for the poor old ship, it shook nearly all the paint off her sides, and she has worn a battered look ever since! At 7 a.m. our work began in earnest, and what a day it was! Men who could walk or hobble came up the gangway, and the derrick swung the cradle, with stretcher cases, without stopping, till at 4 p.m. every cot was full, and not a yard of deck space was left to place another man on. And such wounds, and such tired hungry men. We took 700 on board, and when you think they all had to be fed, the 400 cot cases washed, and all those dressings done, fractures set, serious cases operated on, and every man’s name and regimental details entered up in the 24 hours, you will realize a little what our work was like. (Letter Samsing to Watson, undated, reprinted in The Register, 24 November, 1915 p.9)
     In July 1915, Matron Grace Wilson and a contingent of 96 nurses were sent from Australia to Lemnos, a Greek island about 40 miles from the Dardanelles that had become an important army base. It was from Lemnos’ vast, ship-filled harbour at Mudros that troops and supplies were sent across to the Gallipoli beaches.
     Wilson and her nurses were instructed to set up No.3 AGH on the island’s stony, dusty hillside, but they were deposited on Lemnos before their hospital equipment. The photo left shows them arriving on the bare hillside.
     The August offensive on Gallipoli was in full swing and only one or two tents had been hoisted before the first load of two hundred wounded from Gallipoli arrived. 
     The injured men were laid on the ground and the tents that were to serve as wards were pulled up around them as the nurses attended to their wounds. The nurses simply had to make the best of things. When they ran out of bandages, they tore up their petticoats and anything else that they could find to serve the purpose. And, as is clear from the photo right, they had to sleep rough until the tents and equipment arrived.
     There were no streams or springs on Lemnos. The Greek villages that were located in the valleys had wells, but these could not be used for fear of typhoid. This meant that for the first few weeks the nurses were allocated only one small bottle of water a day to serve for drinking and washing purposes. Eventually some of the officers managed to fit up a water distiller. Although there was now enough water to drink, they never had enough for a luxury such as a bath. Nor was there was any electricity in the camp. They used hurricane lamps or candles in their tents, or they sat in the dark.
     Provisions were short and often the nurses went hungry. They subsisted for the most part of bully beef, rice and onions and army biscuits, although sometimes the nurses bought olives and dried fruit and coarse brown bread from the Greek villages. The photo left is of the tent hospital on Lemnos.
     In the blazing summer heat the nurses could not cool off with a swim in the harbour, for fear of contracting dysentery. When winter brought bitter frosts Matron Wilson had to insist that the Army issue them with warm tunics, trousers and boots. Eventually they discarded formal uniforms to wear men’s woollen socks, gum boots and sheep skin coats.
     Matron Wilson referred to some of the problems faced by her Lemnos nurses in a newspaper article in 1931:
In the summer months it was terrifically hot, and the sun beat pitilessly down on our tents, but by December it was bitterly cold, and what had been only dust and stones before became a veritable sea of mud. We always had to go about our work in heavy gum boots. Night after night, when we were safely tucked in bed, our tents would be torn down by the wind and blown half way across the island. And always, in the whole six months we were there, there was such shortage of oil for our lamps and lanterns that as soon as the nurses had done their work in the wards they had to turn out the lights and sit in darkness. (Inverell Times, Friday 15 May 1931, page 6)
     The nurses kept up a brave front for the wounded men, but privately they sometimes despaired, as Anne Donnell described in one of her letters home:
November 10th.
Today in the lines I passed a dear little dog, stopped played with him, then it suddenly dawned on me what a changed life we are living, and growing accustomed to. No little children to love, no trees, no flowers, no pets, no shops, nothing dainty or nice, practically no fruit or vegetables, butter and eggs once in a month, twice at most. Please don’t infer from this that I am complaining, far from it, and we have much to be thankful for, but how we wish that we could give our serious cases the very best of food and delicacies. Of course it’s only natural that we would wish, for our health’s sake, to have some nourishing food. I do have them too in my dreams at night, when I visit the most beautiful fruit gardens and pick the sweetest flowers while little children play around; don’t smile, for it’s quite true. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.63-4)
     And yet, when Anne Donnell left Lemnos in January 1916 she wrote that she would miss ‘the unconventional freedom and the unique experiences we had there.’ (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.76.)
     In his official history of the Australian Army Medical Service, Butler said of the Lemnos nurses:
It is clear, however, that the training in the nursing profession, severe beyond most in its standard of toil, self-discipline and resource in compelling order out of chaos, enabled these trained women to adapt themselves to circumstances, bend to clearly recognised ends such means as could be found, and in a short time obtain a comparative mastery of the situation. (Butler, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Vol.1, p.338)
     In April 1916 No.1 and No.2 AGHs were transferred from Egypt to France (to Rouen in Normandy and Wimmereux in Boulogne in respectively). After the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula No.3 AGH was transferred first to Cairo then to England and later to Abbeville in France. It was at No.3 AGH that a team including Sister F.E. Williams (a bacteriologist) continued valuable research they had commenced on Lemnos looking into the aetiology of dysentery.
     After the heat of the Egyptian desert the nurses thoroughly appreciated the beautiful French spring. But the rain was soon a curse in the tent hospitals. The flapping and leaky tent sides meant that their patients were drenched; often beds were so wet the nurses refused to put men into them. Sometimes there was no flooring under the tents, not even a groundsheet, and the nurses walked through mud to see to patients as beds sank into the ground.
Our hospital consists of tents. My ward is a big tent with about a hundred beds, all surgical cases, and it is hard going every minute one is on duty. The weather has been dreadful. We have had the second Deluge, I think. Anyhow, the whole place is a quagmire, and we have to slosh through mud and water. My ‘uniform’ consists of a very abbreviated skirt, rubber boots tied round at the knees, a sou’-wester jacket and hat. In this rig the boys call me the ‘Little Skipper.’ Other times I’m ‘Little Ausie!’ We have to be ready to go out in the pouring rain, while the mud is awful. I sleep in a tent which leaks badly, so I have to put an oilskin right over my stretcher and put the clothes I want to keep dry when I go on duty under the same oilskin. There is an anti-aircraft gun stationed about 50 yards from my sleeping tent, and I had just dropped off for a few hours' sleep the other day when it started. By the time I got out the enemy plane, was almost overhead. Mr first thought was for my helpless patients in the ward close by, but the bombs fortunately dropped clear. This was my third-air raid, and I must confess I’m not fond of them. (Letter from unidentified Australian nurse, reprinted in the Mail, 20 October 1917, p.6)
     Then came winter. Housed in tents or lightly built huts, the nurses suffered terribly in one of the coldest winters on record in France. Bed sheets froze if a hot water bottle burst. The nurses took their boots into bed with them so that they would be wearable in the morning. Ink and medicine froze and they even had to melt the ice in basins to wash patients.
   The general hospitals were set up just in time to receive Australian casualties from the major battles of the Western Front: Fromelles, Somme, Ypres, Amiens, Poperinghe. The hospitals were within hearing, and often range, of the shells. Between April and December 1916 the three Australian general hospitals alone had eighty-seven thousand casualties. Their patients came directly from the Casualty Clearing Stations near the front line. Nursing staff who had thought (correctly) that Gallipoli was a nightmare came to realise that at least it was short. Then, after three and a half hellish years nursing on the Western Front, just as the fighting slackened closer to the Armistice in November 1918, they faced another, deadly enemy. The influenza epidemic had begun.
Nurses who worked in the Casualty Clearing Stations such as that in the photo left were closest to the front line, and conditions were difficult and dangerous. During often nightly bombing raids, the nurses would sit in the dark fields with their tin hats and gas masks on as bombs fell nearby and anti-aircraft shells whistled over their heads. Then they returned to the tents that served as their bedrooms to find that their clothes had been shredded by shrapnel. 
     And always, there were wounded soldiers to be treated. Sometimes, in one room of a Casualty Clearing Station as many as ten operations would be going on while another fifty men lay waiting at the door for their turn. Members of the surgical teams, including the nurses, might operate for 24 hours straight, stopping only for food. 
     In a letter of 1 May 1918, written after she had been invalided out with nervous fatigue, Anne Donnell described the work of No.48 British CCS in France, near Amiens.
You will all know that the C.C.S. Hospitals are the nearest to the front lines. The wounded first pass through the field dressing stations and then usually come by ambulance to the C.C.S, and then close to the C.C.S is a rail head, from which the hospital trains take the patients down to the various bases. It is usual for two C.C.S.’s to be close together and work in conjunction with the other. Our next door neighbour was 21 C.C.S., and we received the patients alternately, perhaps every two hours, or four, or twelve, just according to how fast we were admitting or how many. . . . One thing, I was free to use my own discretion in giving morphia or stimulants, and you may be sure I was ever ready with either, when I thought it the least bit necessary. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.212, 214.)
     Anne Donnell was the only Australian nurse at No.48 British CCS and missed her compatriots. Sometimes, just chatting to a fellow countryman was enough to lift the spirits:
I think it was the 2nd December when in the morning the night sister greeted me with, ‘Sister, I’ve got an Australian here for you.’ . . . He suffered very much pain and shock and I kept him all day, and made myself snatch a minute now and then for a little chat. He seemed pleased to have met an Australian Sister and vice versa. I was delighted and proud of my Australian. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.218-9)
     Most AANS nurses worked in one of the big general hospitals or auxiliary hospitals. General hospitals were the largest medical units, and they were much larger than the Australian general hospitals that the nurses were used to. Although the authorised bed limit for the general military hospital was 520 beds, very soon most had doubled this, or more. 
     Every type of surgical and nursing work took place in these large and crowded hospitals, and the Australian nurses needed to take on increased responsibilities. In wartime conditions nurses also had to master the use of equipment that had formerly been used only by doctors. Often they did so with no formal training, such as this Red Cross nurse in the photo left who administers anaesthetic, which would never have occurred when she was a nurse in Australia.      
     And it was not just nursing care that they provided. Nurses were expected always to be cheerful and feminine and to give comfort to the wounded. They regularly took on the task of writing home to soldiers’ families to inform them of their patients’ progress. Or they would write to let a loved one know as gently as possible the circumstances of a soldier’s death. 
     Sometimes, however, maintaining a cheerful face was difficult:
I only know that I am not a mere nurse, but represent to them for the time being their dearest ones, and many a time I find myself going to the marquee flap to hide the tears that will gather, and ask for strength to control a distorted face and go back. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.216.) 
     Lonely patients were often singled out for extra care. In June 1917, Anne Donnell was transferred to the British Hospital at Le Tréport, which was dealing with the masses of wounded from Bullecourt and Vimy Ridge. It was so close to England that the families of many seriously wounded patients were able to come over to visit them or take them home. Anne pitied a young man whose family had not yet arrived. 
There was no time to special, one just did what one could for each, and then it was, I thought, a case of the survival of the fittest. . . . But this laddie in the corner, I thought, shall have some special care, and Matron brought him some lovely oranges that he fancied, so I quietly sat down and fed him and told him he would be mine until his mother came. He gave me the loveliest smile as he replied, ‘and I’ll make you my special,’ but quickly added, ‘You must forgive me, Sister, I wouldn’t have said that under ordinary circumstances.’ Next morning when I came on duty, his bed was empty. . . . His parents arrived – too late to see him, but I was so thankful to be able to give them his last message of love. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.170) 
     To give some hint of how difficult it was to ‘special’ one young soldier at that time, Donnell reported that in ten weeks over 12,000 patients went through that hospital.
     The Australian nurses found that the Armistice of November 1918 brought mixed feelings. As Anne Donnell wrote:
There is a certain amount of quiet excitement with most of us. Some are overjoyed and I wish I could feel as they do, but I am terribly depressed. … I think of the gladness, then follows the sadness, and in the gladness I am saddest because I think of those who have lost, the mothers at home whose sunny boys are not going back to make them glad. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.272-3) 
     No AANS nurses lost their lives due to enemy action in the First World War, but 21 died due to illness and disease: three in Egypt, four in India, two in France, three in England, one in Salonika, eight in Australia. Four Australian nurses who enlisted in the QAIMS also died on service. But many nurses never really recovered from the strain of those years and from what they had seen and experienced. 
     The status of nurses within the general Australian population – already high before the war – increased as soldiers returned full of praise for the nurses who had treated them or their mates. On Anzac day, nurses were allowed the privilege of marching beside the soldiers.
     And yet, the role played by Australian nurses in the war soon faded from memory. Nurses were little mentioned in the official war histories and in peacetime many nurses were reluctant to bring attention to themselves and what they had achieved, preferring to stand in the shadow of the Anzacs.
     Or perhaps they did not want to remember what horrors they had seen and experienced in those four years. As one newspaper article from 1931 put it:
The epic story of the part that the army nurses played in the Great War can never be told in full — her own reticence is in itself an effective barrier — and it is a story that has been largely overshadowed by exploits more spectacular. (Inverell Times, Friday 15 May 1931, page 6)
     The exploits of the Australian Diggers at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Ypres, Passchendaele, Mons, Poizieres and the other famous battles may well have been more spectacular than those of the ‘girls in grey’, but they were certainly no more heroic.