Thursday 6 July 2017

Kate Luard – a British Nurse at Passchendaele - review of "Unknown Warriors" Kate's letters home from the Western Front

Paperback edition “Unknown Warriors The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914 – 1918” (The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2017)

I was very pleased to see that Kate Luard’s First World War letters have been published in paperback form in time for the centenary commemorations of the Battle Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres, 31st July – 12th November 1917).  Chapter 5, pages 129 – 158 have Kate’s description of treating the wounded of Passchendaele. This is a timely reminder for me of Kate Luard’s work during the Battle and I have included Kate among the panels of an exhibition featuring people involved in the Battles of Messines (Mesen), Passchendaele and after – 1917 which will be on display at The Wilfred Owen Story Museum in Birkenhead, Wirral from the end of July 2017.

The paperback has exactly the same format as the hardback version published in 2014 and when I reviewed the book in 2014, I wrote the following:

‘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 with a letter dated 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 a Casualty Clearing Station Lillers of which Kate was placed in charge after four months at 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.’

Dipping into the book again, on page 39 you will find a description of the problems of Gas Gangrene in wounds (not to be confused with ‘Poison Gas’ as Kate explains).   The Canadian poet, doctor and artilleryman Colonel John McCrae suggested that the microbes that caused the problem were probably caused by the generous use of manure for agricultural purposes in the fields of northern France and Belgium. (GRAVES, Diane. “A Crown of Life The World of John McCrae” (Spellmount Ltd., Staplehurst, Kent, 1997).

And a snippet for my friend Elena Branca of the Italian Red Cross is in the Postscript Chapter at the end of the book on page 205, dated 8th February 1918: “…There is a large Labour Battalion of Italian soldiers working here, also Chinese and Indians…The Italian officer was horrified because I go about in a Trench Coat & Sou’Wester instead of white robes with large Croix Rouges (Red Crosses) on them as ladies of the Red Cross do in Italy…”

If you haven’t yet read “Unknown Warriors” I urge you to do so - 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 in hardback and in 2017 in paperback form.