A Scarlet Woman!

Posted on October 22nd, 2015

A scarlet womanI would hope most of my readers would have been aware last week, on 12th October 2015, that it was the 100th anniversary of the execution of the British Nurse, Edith Cavell ; in the grounds of the National Shooting Range in Schaerbeek, Brussels, by a German Firing Squad.  So when I was considering what the subject of my latest presentation would be – to the Ladies of the Welwyn branch of the Women’s Institute, which august body is itself celebrating its 100th anniversary this year – I did think about including Edith Cavell in my talk.  But really, she wasn’t a military nurse.  She didn’t serve in anything other than a civilian nurse’s uniform although, because of both her devotion to her nursing duty and her Christian faith, she didn’t flinch from nursing wounded soldiers from any of the allied armies i.e. Belgian, French and British Scarlet womaneven although, in a city under German Military Law, she was breaking the law and taking immense risks.

Interestingly, also over the last week, has occurred the 98th anniversary of another execution of a woman ; but one whose reputation once it became known around the world was never likely to be as saintly as that of Edith.  For on 15th October 1917, she was executed by them having been found guilty of being a double agent.  I will admit that it was in an effort to raise a laugh amongst my audience that I then came up with the title now shared with this blog.  But I had settled very quickly really upon my subject ; women who served with the British Expeditionary Force, either with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service or as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse (VAD).  And of course the former wore a scarlet cape whilst the latter wore a red cross armband.  In both cases they were ‘scarlet women’!

Scarlet womanJust as there are whole libraries of books devoted to very small, individual aspects of the total enormity that was the Great War – and I have just finished Andrew Roberts excellent new book about the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916 – so there are books enough to keep me busy until I can no longer read about the women who nurses.  Some of you may have read ‘Testament of Youth’ penned by Vera Brittain about her experiences as a VAD during the war ; others of you may have contented yourselves with watching the new film released earlier this year although Scarlet womanothers may have rather fonder memories of the BBC series of 1979 starring Peter Woodward and Cheryl Campbell?  Then there is Lyn MacDonald’s ‘The Roses of No Man’s Land’, a collection of memories which she so careful gathered up before the women became too old to remember. 

And finally a whole pile of personal diary accounts amongst which is one of my favourites, recently discovered by the family of Edith Appleton.  But really, just as Florence Nightingale is linked inextricably with the formalisation of nursing training for women and, in tandem, brought them and the highest standards of hygiene and care into not only the hospital ward but also into the public health arena, so one woman and one woman alone bore the burden of crafting a military nursing force that was able to cope with the almost unknown with considerable grace and aplomb. 

Scarlet woman New


And her name was Maud McCarthy.

Born and brought up in Sydney, Australia, Maud travelled to England in 1891 to begin her nursing training at the London Hospital Whitechapel, famously the first hospital to offer formal nursing training – known as the Preliminary Training School – through a programme devised by one Miss Swift who herself had been a trained under Florence Nightingale.  It was from the London Hospital, where by now she was a ward sister, that Maud was selected by the Princess Alexandra herself to travel to South Africa, there to serve as one of her military nurses – with the Army Nursing Scarlet womanService Reserve – throughout the Boer War. When the war ended in 1902, Maud returned to London and, having received several awards, became involved in the creation of the by now Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.   She was promoted to matron within the service in 1903 and went on to serve as matron in the military hospitals in Aldershot (The Cambridge Military Hospital), Southampton (The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley) and London, (Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital, Millbank).  Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914 she became the newly appointed Matron in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium.  She arrived in Le Havre on 15th August 1914 with the first elements of No.2 General Hospital and, bar a few weeks break for leave and six months off during which she had her appendix removed, she remained on the Western Front until 5th August 1919, exactly five years and one day since war had been declared. 

In that time, she had overseen a huge increase in the number of medical units and their nursing staff. And in doing so, Dame Maud had not only remained the only original leader of a part of the BEF to still be in post at the end of the war, she had also earned herself a reputation for having  ‘an absolutely wonderful gift for concentrated work, and a power of organisation that made her invaluable in army hospital work’.  She became matron-in-chief, Territorial Army Nursing Service, from 1920 until her retirement in 1925 and died at home in Chelsea, London, on 1 April 1949 at 90 years of age!


Debbie CouplandAbout the author

Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.


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