Saturday, 1 March 2014

Women who died while in uniform during the First World War

The "Daily Mail" (UK national newspaper) kindly printed part of my letter to them about some of the women who died while serving during the First World War.   This is the full text of the letter I wrote:

I read with great interest the letter concerning Margaret Selina Caswell in today’s ”Daily Mail” (Letters Page, Thursday, February 20th, 2014).  During the course of my research for a series of exhibitions during the Commemorative years, in memory of my maternal Grandfather who was an Old Contemptible, I have discovered how little I knew about the conflict.

One little know fact is how many women are buried in military cemeteries looked after by the CWGC all over the world – not just on the Western Front – Margaret Selina Caswell, a worker with the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, is one of many.   The night of 30th May 1918 was particularly bad -  an air raid claimed the lives of many and hit the Base Hospitals very hard.    Nine other women buried, like Margaret, in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme, France were killed that night: Mary Blaikley, Beatrice Campbell, Catherine Connor, Jeanie Grant, Annie Moores, Ethel Parker, Alice Thomasson and Jeanie Watson – all, like Margaret, workers with the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Bertha (Betty) Stevenson, a YMCA volunteer worker, was also killed on 30th May 1918 during that air raid.   Betty and her co-workers had been taking care of the needs of French refugees in Etaples station after their day’s work was over.  Returning to their hostel, they took shelter in a field during the air raid.  One of the planes jettisoned its bombs in the field where the party was sheltering and Betty was killed instantly.   Betty was buried with full military honours in Etaples Cemetery.

The website gives details of the air raids on the night of 30th May 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.”

Lovingly tended, immaculate cemeteries with beautiful memorials – fitting tributes to our war dead – are something that we tend to take for granted these days.   However, the concept of the War Graves Commission is owed to one man – Major General Sir Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware, KCVO, KBE, CB, CMG.

During the First World War, Ware was too old to fight so instead he commanded a mobile Red Cross unit on the Western Front. He was appalled at the number of casualties and his unit began to record all the graves they came across.   In 1915, this initiative was officially recognized by the British Government and was incorporated into the British Army as the “Graves Registration Commission”.

Ware wanted his work to reflect the sacrifice of all the nations that helped Britain during WW1 and, with the encouragement of the Prince of Wales, who was himself a soldier on the Western Front during WW1, the Imperial War Graves Commission was set up with a Royal Charter.

The Commission demanded very high standards for its work. Three of the most famous architects of that time - Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield - were chosen to design and build cemeteries and memorials.  Rudyard Kipling was given the task, as its literary advisor, to advise the Commission with regard to inscriptions.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has an enormous task as there are official graves all over the world.  If you want to find out details of where a family member killed during a war is commemorated, all you have to do is visit the Commission website - I do hope that people visiting the cemeteries of the Western Front and elsewhere will look for the women who are also buried there.

I am researching women who wrote poetry, inspirational women and fascinating facts of the First World War for a series of exhibitions aimed at members of the general public during the commemorative years.   My aim is to demonstrate the global impact of the conflict and in order to do this in some instances the poems do not directly mention war.

Details of my (self-funded) project are on and  I find new additions for my lists on a daily basis and would love to hear from anyone who has a poet, inspirational women or fascinating fact of WW1 to suggest that I have not already covered.

I am also certain - and today's Peterborough lead story bears this out - that there are undiscovered poems written during the First World War hidden in attics, cellars, drawers, cupboards and I would love to see them brought to light.

There is an exhibition (ENTRY FREE) currently on show at:

The Wilfred Owen Story, 34 Argyle Street, Birkenhead, Wirral, CH41 6AE, UK - Tuesdays - Fridays 11 am till 2 pm. Please phone first as the WOS is manned entirely by volunteers - 07903 337995.

Exhibitions are free to certain venues and can be 'tailored' to suit - for instance, the exhibition held at Fleetwood Library in November 2013 featured, among other things, a female poet born in Fleetwood, information about Wilfred Owen's time in the area and details of the role of trawlers in WW1.   If you would like us to produce an exhibition for you please get in touch -

There is also a companion book to accompany the exhibitions. This will shortly be available as a download - details on 

Pendle War Poetry Competition is a free to enter, international competition.  The 2014 competition also features a Limerick section and a photographic competition to find a cover photo for the 2014 anthology of best poems.  Full details

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