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Sisters of Mercy

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

It was not only the soldiers in the frontline and in the trenches that were killed in the First World War. It is estimated that 1,500 nurses were also killed from Britain, the United States, Europe and the Commonwealth countries. In Of All Faiths & None the lives of the nurses behind the front lines forms a key part of the story. In this blog I set out extracts and pictures from war diaries which identify the actual horror that the nurses had to face. The nurses stations had to be near the front line and were vulnerable to shelling from the opposite forces.

On the night of 19/20 May 1918, the 1st Canadian General Hospital was bombed, which is shown in the photograph. The War Diary for the hospital records:

"At the close of what had been a peaceful Sunday enemy aircraft came over the camp in large numbers viz at 10pm. The hospital was wrapt in slumber when the planes were immediately overhead. The raid was obviously planned to take place in relays, and during the first stage the part that suffered most was the sleeping quarters of the personnel, particularly that of the NCO’s and men.A number of bombs, incendiary and high explosive, were dropped in the midst of the mens’ quarters. Fires were immediately started which offered a splendid target for the second part of the attack. The scene was immediately converted into a conflagration and charnel house of dead and wounded men. Bombs were also dropped on the Officers’ and Sisters’ quarters, buildings being wrecked".

In A War Nurse's Diary the following extract can be found. The photograph to the right shows the cemetery where the Dutch nurse was buried. "Towards the second week of January it was inadvisable to go on nursing the patients in the wards, and all who could be removed to safety were taken into France. We became just a dressing station and dumping ground for the dying or those who would die if they journeyed further, so the poor old Principal saw all his precious wine-cellars and vaults raided to make room for the wounded. We even had a theatre in a wine-vault, lit by candles and oil-lamps.

Scarcely had we removed the last patient into safety, and forbidden the staff to go up to their dormitory, when a great shell came crashing down, smashed through the dormitory roof and floor below, right into the empty ward, wrecking all that part of the building! Our Chief saw it was unwise to stay even in the cellars, so the ambulances were filled with patients and they were driven into Dunkerque. Some of the nurses were removed to La Panne and some to St. Malo near Dunkerque. They sought another hospital building elsewhere. All that time the town was under a hurricane bombardment. There was not a window left in Furnes. We had been told not to go outside, but one of our nurses, a Dutch girl, went round to her lodgings to fetch her hold-all. Crossing the market-place, a shell exploded near her, blowing her leg off from the hip. Although she received immediate attention nothing could save her. She bled to death. At a little cemetery in a village nearby we buried her, walking in procession behind the coffin."

This attack would have taken place on 20 October 1917 and the Dutch nurse's name was Elise Kemp.

The horror that the nurses had to face caused by the Somme offensive is probably best told from an official war diary, which records that between 1 and 5 July 1916 St Johns admitted 1,400 soldiers.

"There were piles upon piles of exhausted men, covering every inch of available hospital space. Here the severely injured lay, in excruciating pain, hovering between life and death—some praying for the latter. Their bodies viciously mutilated, blasted apart by relentless artillery and machine gun fire, their uniforms in shreds, their limbs blown away or shattered to pieces, they gazed at nurses with soulless, desolate eyes. Amidst an ever extending carpet of blood and khaki, nursing sisters, V.A.D.s and orderlies attended to their vast array of patients. The place resembled a living hell. Henceforth there seemed to be no distinction between night duty and day duty. Everyone just worked to the point of exhaustion."

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