Monday, 27 January 2014

Betty Stevenson - an extract from her book

I have written about Betty before in this weblog.  The following is, to my mind, very interesting as it tells us that civilian relatives of wounded servicemen were allowed to go to France to visit wounded soldiers too ill to be evacuated to the UK.  These people were looked after by the YMCA.

Betty, who was born in York, joined the YMCA as a volunteer in France during WW1 at the age of nineteen. She started off working in the YMCA Huts, and then became a driver.  

In this extract from the book written by her mother and aunt after her death in 1918 from her letters and diaries, Betty talks about the funeral of a young soldier in a letter to her mother. On the day in question, Betty was recovering from a bout of ‘flu.   She was based near Etaples in France.

A.P.O., S.11, B.E.F., 11th November 1917

“The other day I was out before breakfast to take two relatives to a funeral.  Officer’s relatives.  I’ve had to take thousands to funerals but I’ve never felt so miserable as I did at this one.  It was a mother and such a pretty daughter.  I’d been driving them up to the hospital for quite a long time.  They thought the boy was getting better and then he suddenly died.  I could hardly bear the funeral, and how they bore it, I can’t imagine.  The cemetery is in a big sandy hollow in some pine woods, just off the road, and on the other side is a big hutment consisting of the mausoleum, the padre’s rooms, and the orderlies’ rooms.  I sat in the car shivering, on the coldest morning I’ve ever known, with very few clothes on as I’d dressed in such a hurry, and watched it.

First came a piper (they always pipe the officers to the cemetery), and you know what a piper makes one feel like.  Then two buglers.  Then a young padre with his white robes all blowing about in the wind, showing trench boots and little glimpses of khaki.  Then the coffin covered by a Union Jack on a two-wheeled cart, like a stretcher, with two men in front and behind, wheeling it, and then my two poor relatives and a YMCA lady with them.  They walk very slowly, and had to walk behind those pipes for at least ten minutes before they reached the grave.  I couldn’t see any more then.   The cemetery is always full of soldiers, and they all stand at attention while the sad little procession passes, and all traffic is stopped until they have passed.  While the service was being read, one of the orderlies cane up and spoke to me.  He saw how cold and miserable I was, and he deliberately set to work to cheer me up.  A nice Scotch boy with a burr.   “The push must go on, you know”, he said. 

He began discussing the various padres who took the services – how some always hurried and hustled: “no religion about it,” and how others made one feel that they meant each particular service that they read, sometimes forty a day.   He cheered me up a lot, and then the Last Post went.  Everyone stood to attention, the passers-by stopped, and the men who had been lying about jumped up.  Then they all came back, and the padre bicycled away to breakfast with his robes rolled up under his arm.

I was numb with cold and I didn’t get my breakfast until 11 am.   On the way back, we called at the hospital and got the boy’s belongings – little notebooks and trumperies – a pathetic little bunch of things, which the mother couldn’t hold tight enough.  I shall never forget the Scotch lad – he was a true brick.”

Betty was killed in an air raid on the night of 30th May 1918.  She and her colleagues were on their way back to their quarters after helping refugees at the railway station after their day’s work was over.   After the main raid, a lone plane jettisoned its bombs in a field where the party had taken cover.  Betty was killed instantly and two of her colleagues were injured.

Adam Scott, one of Betty’s YMCA colleagues, in a letter to Betty’s mother after her death, remembered:

 “During the retreat in May, when French women and children, driven from their homes, were passing through Etaples in thousands, Betty was one of the two ladies who, might after night, gave food and drink to these poor refugees on the station, after her day’s work at the canteen was over, and it was there she had been working until ten o’clock on the fatal night.”

Betty was buried with full military honours, as an Officer of the British Army, at the British Military Cemetery in Etaples, France. According to her colleague Olive Stewart-Moore, the cemetery is in “a lovely spot, with the river and the sea, and the woods on the other side.”   Betty received the French Croix de Guerre.

The website gives details of the air raids on Etaples in 1918:

“01.06.18 Etaples air-raid.  Received telephone message from Etaples saying that there had been a very bad air-raid the night before – nearly all the hospitals in the Etaples area had suffered, particularly the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Liverpool Merchants’ Hospital, 24, 26 and 56 General Hospitals.  At the SJAB Hospital, one sister had been killed and five wounded and a few others were suffering from shock.  At No. 24 General Hospital, Miss Freshfield, VAD, had been seriously wounded in the head, and one other Sister had been slightly wounded.   The Matron-in-Chief, War Office and BRCS and DGMS have been informed.”

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