10/07/2013
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Scottish nurses on the Western Front in World War I

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Ian Crofton tells the story of a pioneering hospital run by Scottish women on the Western Front in World War I.

This is a story that spans a century, a story that links two generations of medical women who served through two world wars ...

My mother, who died in 2010, was Dr Eileen Crofton MBE. She had qualified as a doctor in 1943 and served for the remainder of World War Two as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Her full-time career was interrupted by a boisterous brood of children, but in 1973 she became the first medical director of Action on Smoking and Health in Scotland After her retirement in 1984 she continued to work throughout the world to raise awareness of the harm caused by tobacco, and it was in this capacity that she found herself at an international medical conference at Royaumont, a Cistercian abbey some thirty miles north of Paris.

The delegates at the conference were taken on a tour of the abbey, but it was only as an aside to my mother that the guide pointed out a plaque in a dark corner. This commemorated the fact that during World War I, the abbey had been a ‘Scottish Women’s Hospital’. The fact that my mother was Scottish, a doctor, and a woman to boot, struck the guide as a good reason to draw her attention to the plaque. But he did not think it of sufficient consequence to bother the rest of the group.

Women on the Western Front

My mother’s interest was fired. Interest turned to passion, passion to healthy obsession. She was herself a medical woman, proud of what medical women had contributed to medicine. And she soon realized, as she begun to dig deeper, that the story of ‘The Women of Royaumont’ had been largely forgotten. It was a story that she determined should be better known – and so the idea for a book was born.

In 1914, the long battle fought by women to train and qualify as doctors had largely been won, but they still faced many obstacles in their chosen career. Women did not even have the vote, and many of the women who volunteered to go to Royaumont – as orderlies, radiologists, bacteriologists and nurses as well as physicians and surgeons – had been involved in the women’s suffrage movement. On the outbreak of war, it was at a meeting of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies that the idea for a military hospital run entirely by women was born. It was an ideal opportunity not only to support the war effort, but also to show what medical women could achieve beyond the traditional role of caring for women and children.
 

The War Office took a different view. They turned down the offer flat. So did the British Red Cross.


In the end, it was the French Red Cross who gratefully accepted, and suggested the Abbey of Royaumont – then an empty, echoing, chilly shell – as a suitable location.

And so the story began: four long years of hardship, dedication and heroism. These gritty and free-spirited women cared for hundreds and hundreds of horrifically injured soldiers, from all over France and its colonies. Not only did the women help to heal their bodies – achieving groundbreaking work in battlefield surgery, particularly in the field of gas gangrene. They also helped to heal the shattered minds of these traumatized young men. And all this under sometimes appalling conditions of privation, sleeplessness, overwork and aerial bombardment.

Now the fruit of my mother’s researches – the forgotten story of these remarkable women – has been published by Birlinn under the title 'Angels of Mercy'. It’s the sort of title that publishers insist on, the sort of title that makes authors cringe. They may well have been angels of mercy (I can hear my mother growling), but they were also angels with attitude – real women with real guts.



'Angels of Mercy: A Woman’s Hospital on the Western Front 1914-1918' by Eileen Crofton is published by Birlinn, £9.99 pbk, available in all good bookshops, online and direct from the publisher.

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