Thursday, 30 October 2014

Marie Louise Hamilton Mack (1874 - 1935) - First Woman War Correspondent, Belgium 1914

With thanks to Dominic Sheridan for bringing Marie Louise Mack to my attention.

Louise was Australian - born in Hobart and educated in Sydney where she moved with her family. Louise went to London to work in 1901.  She was the first woman journalist to report first hand as a war correspondent from Belgium in 1914.

You can now read on-line the fascinating diary Louise kept when she was no longer able to send reports back to "The Evening News" in London by wire, due to the approaching German Army: "A Woman's Experiences in the Great War" which were published in aid of the Red Cross Belgian Refugee Fund:

With thanks to the wonderful Gutenberg project which enables us to read these amazing stories.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Remembering all those who lost their lives when the S.S. "Marquette" was sunk on 23rd October 1915

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission List of Female Casualties of the First World War has a list of the nurses from Australia and New Zealand whose lives were lost when a German submarine sank the S.S. "Marquette"a troopship in the Aegean Sea near Salonika on 23rd October 1915.  They are commemorated on the Mikra Memorial in the Mikra British Cemetery, Kalamaria, Greece.

To read the full story, please see the link:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Blanche Maupas (1883 - 1962) - France - The "Maupas Affair"

With many thanks to Phil Dawes the WW1 historian and researcher for this wonderful piece about Blanche Maupas.

Although not nearly as big as the Dreyfus Affair, the Maupas Affair was a ‘cause célebre’ in France in the years after WWI, thanks to the strenuous efforts of Mme. Blanche Maupas in fighting to clear her husband's name.  

Théophile Maupas was the schoolmaster in the village of Le Chefresne, Lower Normandy.  
His first wife had died of tuberculosis and he had a daughter, Suzanne, from that marriage and another daughter, Jeanne, with his second wife Blanche Maupas née Herpin.  

He had enlisted as a bandsman in the ‘Territorials’ in 1895 and had received some military training. When war broke out in August 1914 he was immediately called up. The 336th. Infantry regiment marched out of St. Lo in a big parade, with a brass band and carrying banners saying ‘A Berlin en quinze jours’ – ‘To Berlin in a fortnight’.  The regiment took part in several phases of open warfare in the Battle of the Marne.  The war soon became deadlocked.  After five winter months in the trenches Maupas was court-martialed, with others, for refusing to send his men 'over the top' at Souain in Champagne.

The charge of refusal to obey an order in the face of the enemy was laid by General Réveilhac against six corporals and eighteen of the youngest men arbitrarily chosen from the ranks.  The motivation was made clear: ‘pour encourager les autres’, for the sake of example.  The preceding weeks had been chaotic in the trenches with high death rates of officers and men and the chain of command in disarray. The ‘Top Brass’ was anxious to regain control, set an example and counteract serious incidents of mutiny in the French Army.  The original tribunal took under an hour to reach a unanimous decision that four corporals should be stripped of their military rank and executed.  

Corporal Théophile Maupas defended himself in court and explained why he had seen fit to disobey orders: “The orders were that I was to attack the enemy as soon as the bombardment finished, when the barbed wire would be broken.  In my section the wire was entirely unbroken. I therefore declined to lead my men to their certain deaths”. (At the hands of German machine gunners).  In effect, he signed his own death warrant by admitting that he had refused to send his men over the top. He also explained the reasons, viz.: the exhausted condition of his men; their low moral after many failed attacks; the high death and injury rate of the 21st Company; that dead men were hanging on the unbroken wires and uncollected bodies littered No Man’s Land; that French shells were landing short, with the result that the German machine gun positions and the barbed wire, which was 8 to 10m. wide, remained unscathed.  

[Later evidence emerged that an acting General believed that the distance between the trenches at Souain was a mere 25m. when in fact it was up to 150m.  It was possible that violent March winds had caused the shells to fall short but testimony was submitted that General Réveilhac had previously threatened to shell his own trenches to force out recalcitrant men]. 

The four corporals, all with Normandy connections, were shot at 1300 hours rather than at dawn in front of the assembled 336th. Infantry Regiment at Chalons-sur-Marne.  The executions were carried out hurriedly and the ‘stripping of rank’ was ignored. After their executions the soldiers were buried in unmarked graves. Pressure from relatives and others after the war saw them reinterred in the French war cemetery at Suippes. 

Blanche Maupas was familiar with the dire situation in the trenches as Théophile had written to her regularly giving some of the details. After his arrest he wrote to her: “I have done nothing to reproach myself for, I am neither a thief nor a murderer. I have not sullied the reputation or the honour of another person. I can walk with my head held high”. 

Blanche was not told about the death, or the reason for it, for nine days. The news came as a terrible shock. She could have hidden in shame as others in her position understandably did. Instead, believing that her husband had been unjustly executed, she spent many years fighting local officials, the military authorities and petitioning the League of Nations in order to clear her his name. She also fought to have the right to a war pension and to have the right to continue teaching in the village school where she had replaced her husband when he went to war.
Blanche was assisted by a group of well-wishers and a Teachers’ Union representative but she also suffered at the hands of the inevitable gossips and trouble-makers. Blanche wrong-footed officials by presenting her business card which announced that she was a schoolteacher and the widow of Corporal Maupas, an executed man.  
She made progress with the local officials thanks to her well-run campaign, but the military authorities ‘stonewalled’ her request for a review of the judgment and ignored her bulky dossier of evidence for many years. She felt obliged to go over their heads to the League of Nations.  Some people thought that she was obsessive but she had to be both obsessive and persistent to go through so many years of petitions and endless meetings, ignoring the numerous setbacks along the way.  All this at the same time as she was looking after her children and being a successful Head Teacher in a number of schools in the Manche area.

Her persistence paid off.  Sixteen years after the war at a special League of Nations Court a judgment over-ruled the decision of the 1915 military tribunal. The ‘decimation’ of soldiers initially ordered by General Réveilhac was condemned by the League of Nations as being ‘flagrantly illegal’.  The Court accepted that Corporal Théophile Maupas did not willingly disobey an order. The decision was based on: 
  The fact that the order was unrealisable in practice;
  that the men were weakened by a long stay in the trenches; 
  that they were discouraged by the failures of previous attacks;
  that they were very demoralised by the high number of losses of their comrades.

The Court made a further important ruling: '… an order to sacrifice his life cannot be forced on someone when it surpasses the limits of human capability to comply with it’. 

Nineteen years after the initial court martial the highest military court in France finally overturned the 1915 decision.  Unfortunately Corporal Maupas was not alive to benefit from these rulings.  

During the years of waiting for the League of Nations to act Blanche had successfully fought to have her husband’s name added to the names on the war memorials at Le Chefresne and at Sartilly, her husband’s native town.  
In June 1923 the municipal council of Sartilly, with the approval of the Anciens Combattants, gave Blanche Maupas permission to have his body reinterred in the communal cemetery. In early August 1923 Blanche travelled to the military cemetery at Suippes in Champagne to collect her husband’s remains.  He was reburied at Sartilly on 9th. August 1923 with an ‘unending cortege’ in attendance. Her efforts and those of the Anciens Combattants of the commune led to the construction of a monument. 
The Monument to the Corporals of Souain was unveiled on 20 September 1925. It consists of a bronze bas-relief set into a block of dark granite. The inscription reads : 'Souain - aux Caporaux Maupas, Lechat, Girard, Le Foulon 17 Mars 1915'. The bas-relief depicts a background of four soldiers standing tall and dignified, but blindfolded and awaiting execution. A young woman personifying Justice is kneeling and weeping in the foreground and a set of scales is knocked over in front of her. 

Corporal Maupas lies beneath the monument and Blanche Maupas, who died in 1962, occupies the grave immediately to the left of the monument. 

Over the years schools and streets have been named after Blanche and Théophile. The names of the four corporals have been added to all the lists and monuments from which they were initially omitted.  Films, plays and television programmes have been made on the subject and books written. 

In the year 2000, for the millennium, the war memorial at Le Chefresne was refurbished and in 2003 Maupas was further honoured in Le Chefresne when the square in front of the Mairie was named ‘Place Théophile Maupas’.  In 2007 a monument was built opposite the town hall in Suippes where the original court martial took place. It portrays the execution of the four corporals.  
Phil Dawes
Oct. 2010 updated October 2014

Sunday, 12 October 2014

WW1 Forces Sweetheart - Gertie Gitana (1887 - 1957)

The name"Gertie Gitana" (though I hadn't a clue how to spell it!) has been going round in my head for the past few days, so I had to look her up.  Mum used to talk about Gertie.

Gertie was born Gertrude MariaAstbury in Longport, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, UK on 28th December 1887. Her father, Gulielmi Astbury, worked as a Foreman in a pottery.  Her mother, Lavinie Kilkenny Astbury, was a teacher at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School in Cobridge,  When Gertie was three years old, the family moved to live in Hanley.

The story goes that Gertie was spotted singing in the street by a talent scout from Tompkinson’s Royal Gypsy Children’s Troupe, and was signed up to sing with them.

Gertie’s professional career began in 1898 when she was eight years old at The Tivoli theatre in Barrow-in Furness, Lancashire.  She had a significant billing at The Argyle Theatre in Birkenhead, Wirral in 1898, before making her first appearance at a London theatre in 1900.  Shen she was seventeen, Gertie topped the bill at The Ardwick Empire in Manchester.

Her stage name - Gertie Gitana- is believed to have been taken from the Spanish or French word for Gypsy - possibly because of Gertie's dark good looks.

Gertie had an illustrious career as a musical hall star, drawing crowds and at the height of her career, receiving in excess of £100 a week.  Gertie's signature tune was"Nellie Dean" and during WW1 she entertained the wounded in hospitals around the country, gaining the nick-name "the Forces Sweethert".  In 1928, Gertie married the music hall entertainer Don Ross (1903 - 1980), who was her leading man in the musical comedy "Dear Louise".

Two musical shows were specially written for her 'Nellie Dean' and 'Dear Louise'.   Gertie also appeared in a Royal Command Performance.

Don started the road show "Thanks For The Memory" for his wife.

Gertie gave  her final performance at the Empress Theatre in Brixton in 1938.  She died in 1957 and was buried in Welford Road cemetery in Wigston Magna, Leicestershire.  Don, who founded the British Music Hall Society and was its first Chairman, died in 1980.

Her name lives on on Cockney rhyming slang - Gertie Gitana - banana

Gertie is reputed to have financed her brother, George Astbury, who was a cycle dealer and builder of G.A. cycles at 42, Great Cambridge Road, London, N.17

Frederick Street in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent  was  renamed Gitana Street in her memory

On Princes Street, Edinburgh (up near the galleries), there is a bench which just says: "In loving remembrance of Gertie Gitana Music Hall Artiste "There's an old mill by the stream, Nellie Dean."

One of Gertie's successful songs was

“Never Mind”

'So he wants you to forget him,' says a grey haired man in tears
As he reads his daughter's letter still a girl of tender years
'He has left you for another who has crept into his heart
Forget him and forgive him 'twould be better so to part'
Then to his breast he takes her head as tenderly to her he said,

Chorus: 'Though your heart may ache awhile, never mind
Though your face may lose it's smile, never mind
For there's sunshine after rain, and then gladness follows pain
You'll be happy once again, never mind.'

'In his love he may have faltered as his letter seems to say
There will be a bright tomorrow, darkest clouds will fly away
Time will be the wonder worker, though it's hard I know to part
He may tire of his new love and creep back into your heart
Love like pride must have it's fall, true love will conquer after all.

Chorus: 'Though your heart may ache awhile, never mind
Though your face may lose it's smile, never mind
For there's sunshine after rain, and then gladness follows pain
You'll be happy once again, never mind.'

Written and composed by Harry Dent and Tom Goldbourne
Performed by Gertie Gitana (1887-1957)

Source:  Wikipedia, Find my Past, Google Images and

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Review: "Unknown Warriors The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914 - 1918"

If you think that the women who were nurses on the Western Front during the First World War were all safely tucked up well behind the lines and out of the line of fire, think again!  Many of them were awarded the Military Medal only 'earned under fire' as Kate Luard's book of her WW1 experiences tells us.

Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, who wrote the preface to the first edition, met Kate on a visit to her Casualty Clearing Station during the later stages of the Battle of Arras.  The Arras account (Chapter4) is of particular interest to me because my Great Uncle was killed there on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917.

In the introduction to the new edition of the book written specially by Christine Hallett and Tim Luard, we learn that Kate, who attended Croydon High School,  was already a decorated war nurse by 1914, having trained in the 1890s at The East London Hospital for Children and King's College Hospital in London, joined the Army Nursing Service in 1900 and served for two years in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902). Kate was in her 40s and Matron of the Berks and Bucks County Sanatorium when she joined the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service on 6th August 1914.  She was mobilised and sent to France.

The book begins on 17th October 1915, when Kate was with the British 1st Army commanded by Sir Douglas Haig. The first letter in the book was sent from Lillers, where Kate was posted in charge of a Casualty Clearing Station, after four months in a Base Hospital.  All of Kate's letters contain a great deal of information about what it was like for the soldiers and the nurses of the Western Front.  There is not one word of complaint and one cannot help but admire those nurses and the wonderful job they did saving lives under terrible conditions, without many resources.  It is interesting to contrast today's NHS with all our modern equipment, medication, hygiene and safety laws with what Kate and her fellow nurses had to put up with during WW1.

During moments of relative calm and occasional well-earned breaks from nursing, Kate describes picnics, tea parties and trips to visit the surrounding countryside and mentions the variety of flora and fauna (snowdrops, fly orchis, ferns, ox-eye daisies, birds, mosquitos) that provide welcome relief to the "waste of life and suffering" and "the mud that out-muds itself everywhere" that Kate dealt with daily.

Wherever they went "les Dames Anglaises" (the English women) in their nurses' uniform caused a stir - whether among the local population - the children following them about - or with the soldiers serving at the front who invited them to tea, showed them round, filled them in about the progress of the war and took them flowers.

Caroline and John Stevens have done a wonderful job putting together the letters Kate Luard wrote to her family while she was on the Western Front and preparing them to be read in the 21st Century.  This book is fantastic - it is as though Kate is with us today as we commemorate the centenary of the first global conflict ('insane and immoral' as Kate calls it) t that changed the world for ever.  I cannot help but agree with Kate's feeling on the war - she was after all called upon to try to help repair the damage done to many of the humans involved.

I do urge you to read this book - it has a map of the Western Front drawn by Kate and lots of notes to help the reader to greater understanding.   It is outstanding and answered many of my own questions regarding conditions on the Western Front.   Her family must be very proud of Kate.

"Unknown Warriors The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914 - 1918", edited by Caroline and John Stevens, including the Preface to the1930 edition written by Field Marshall Viscount Allenby and an introduction to the modern version by Christine Hallett and Tim Luard, published by The History Press, Stroud, Glos, 2014.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

More about Mildred Aldridge

Volume 1 of "Inspirational Women of World War One - No Women's Land" was published recently (details on  In the book you will find brief details of some of the amazing women I have found so far during the course of my research for commemorative exhibitions.

I received this wonderful e-mail on 30th September from John Stevens:

"I have been reading through your most fascinating book "No Woman's Land".  It may be of interest to you that on page 57 Lt Edwin [Eddie] Allen James Edwards was the youngest brother of my Grandfather[ my Great Uncle!] Sadly Eddie was badly wounded on 15th October and died back in England aged 19.His older brother Capt Gerald John Edwards of Kings Royal Rifle Corps was also killed in 1917 aged 34."

It is astonishing how many of the threads in my project are linked.

My grateful thanks to John for getting in touch and letting us know what happened to his Great Uncle Eddie after he met Mildred who looked after his troops, giving them tea, bread and butter and biscuits.

Mildred Aldrich, the American author who lived and worked in France and retired in July 1914 to the banks of the River Marne for some peace and quiet after the hustle and bustle of Paris, is very definitely one of the Inspirational Women featured in the exhibitions as well as in Volume 1. You can read the whole of Mildred's "Hilltop on the Marne" via the wonderful Gutenberg Project on the Internet and her story is amazing.