• Women in Wartime
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How do objects reveal stories? 

From paintings to personal diaries, join IWM expert Ngaire as she helps us discover the extraordinary stories of the people who cared for the wounded in the First World War. 

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Carers - Part Two

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.  

Ahoy! Welcome on board, welcome back come on in. My name is Ngaire, I work for Imperial War Museums and as we've discovered on some of our recent adventures in history, Imperial War Museums was actually started in the time that the First World War was still being fought. It was known that so many people had sacrificed so much that a museum should be started to collect objects, painting, letters, diaries, all very precious things that would tell the stories of real people whose lives had been affected by that war and conflict. And we've continued to collect ever since and so the museum is absolutely full.  

But for now, we're in a much smaller space, we're at home aboard my boat with lots of time to think about some of those objects and our last adventure in history took us back not just to the First World War but to those people who were providing care to the wounded in the trenches, and we looked at some really personal objects. And they are some of my favourite objects in the museum, the ones that show us the thoughts of an individual that let us see their handwriting and what they were thinking at the time. 

On today's adventure in history, we're going to start off with a diary. Do you keep a diary or maybe a blog or maybe you've got a YouTube show like me. What do you write or record in your diary? Would you let anyone else read it or see it? Martha Withal was a nurse she was in the territorial force nursing service in Scotland at the start of the First World War. As fighting grew more and more fierce, she was moved from the hospital in Aberdeen to military hospitals in France and it's in this period that she keeps her diary. And I love her diary because not only do you get a real insight into her thoughts and feelings, like being let into her own private world and we get to see her really neat handwriting, but we get these really tiny details such as being told she's got to move quickly from one hospital to another and in a hurry to pack, it takes three nurses sitting on the lid of her case to get it closed.  

From those small details to the really large details of the realities of treating the wounded in the First World War. Martha was involved in providing medical care so she would look after the injuries and the battle wounds, things like measles and frostbite but as we discovered last week, providing medical care isn't just about the physical well-being of the patient, it's also about their mental well-being, their mental health as well and Martha certainly saw that as part of her role. 

So, when we look in her diary, we discover that she often took time out of her busy day to sit and talk to the patients or she might write a letter or a postcard home on their behalf. She would go out and pick flowers to bring into the ward, find books for them to read and as we discover, she takes a very special shopping trip to the nearby French town of Boulogne just before Christmas in 1914 because she and the other nurses have decided that these men deserve a stocking to open on Christmas Day. Martha is on night duty on Christmas Eve and so into the pairs of socks that the nurses have hung up on the end of each of the soldiers bed,  she fills them with apples, oranges, toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, mittens, Princess Mary gift boxes - which you might remember from another of our adventures in history - as well as some of those items that she'd gone into Boulogne to buy and they were children's toys. So, one soldier gets a teddy bear, another soldier receives a singing pig, and another soldier gets a spinning top, a rattle for another one.  

Martha writes in her diary at 6:00 a.m. she could hear the shouts of laughter and she said they were a joy to hear because 'for once the men know they are not forgotten'. And it is in these details of acts of kindness and the attention to detail that Martha puts into her patients’ wellbeing, their morale, the sense that keeping up their good spirits is also important for their recovery that makes her diary so fascinating to read. Now, another woman who certainly went well above and beyond the duty of care in the First World War was Sergeant Major Flora Sandes. There's a bit of a clue in her title there as to how her story pans out.  

At the start of the First World War, one of Britain's allies was a country called Serbia. Now an ally is countries that are working together, they are on the same side. And Serbia is in a region called the Balkans, so it's to there that flora goes with a small nursing unit. She's trained already because before the war she was part of the St. Johns Ambulance Brigade. Now, that might sound familiar to you because they still exist today. If you've been to big events like football matches, you'll have seen them on duty, ready to provide first aid if it's needed. Now by October 1915, Flora is serving as part of the Serbian Red Cross and in that month October 1915, Serbia is invaded and as conditions worsen for the Serbian Army, Flora's duties get greater and greater until she's actually serving as more of a soldier, as well as a nurse. In fact, she's allowed by the Serbian Army to join them as a medical dresser so she's in the Second Infantry Regiment. 

But as conditions deteriorate and her duties get greater still, one day Flora actually removes the Red Cross badge from her uniform and she says as a representative of Britain, she is now joining the Second Infantry Regiment as a soldier. And she was greatly courageous, in fact the soldiers that she 

served with were impressed by her courage and she was right involved in the fighting and it's in the fighting that she's wounded by a grenade. Now the wounds that she received means she can no longer fight. From what we've heard about Flora Sandes already, do you think that at that point she then returns home? No, I didn't think you would think that either! Flora decides if she can no longer fight as a soldier, she's going to carry on with the first job that she has. 

So, she goes back to working in a hospital and providing care for soldiers that are wounded in the fighting. Flora Sandes was actually the only British woman to fight as a soldier in the First World War. Today, many women serve in the army but for those times it was highly unusual for a woman to have such a role, combining nurse and soldier.  

Our final object today is a painting, and this painting is one of many, many that form the collections of Imperial War Museums. And I wonder if looking carefully at it we can unlock some of the story it tells. What can you see in the painting? Where is it set? And - there's quite a few people in the painting, are there any clues in their clothing that tells the sorts of roles that are being carried out? In fact, the more we look at the setting where the painting takes place and the people, the more those two details just don't seem to match do they? 

The stonework and the arches look more suitable to a church whereas we've got patients in beds and nurses caring for them, so we would expect to see in the scene of a hospital. Now you might remember a few weeks ago in one of the adventures in history that was led by my friends Rebecca and Paris, and they were talking about their jobs as curators, people who care for the art collection of the Imperial War Museum.  

Now, some of the art that was collected is commissioned art. To be commissioned is where an artist is actually asked and paid to travel to record details through their work of major events and it just shows how important art is as a form of storytelling, both long ago and still today as a way of recording events like conflicts and war. This painting records the work of Dr Frances Ivens and her hospital. Now I deliberately introduced you to the story of Dr Frances Ivens with that naming of the hospital because when she first arrived in France in December 1914 to take up her duties as a chief surgeon in a hospital, the building that she found herself standing within was by no means worthy of that name. It was about to celebrate its 700th birthday, it's the sort of building we could attach the title ancient to quite confidently, it had no light, no heating and remember the months that she's arrived?  Dr Frances Ivens gets there with her team of nurses in cold wintery December and there's not even basic furniture let alone the specialized medical equipment that Dr Frances is going to require for her surgical procedures and for her nurses to care for the wounded following their surgery. 

Now, this hospital really did need to function because it's located close to a battlefield that you might have heard of called the Somme. The Somme was to see some of the worst fighting and the heaviest casualties of the war, so it was vital that Dr Frances Ivens and her team got this building up to scratch for medical procedures as quickly as possible. Moved by the efforts of Dr Frances and her team of women doctors and nurses, women from Britain and other countries began to send support and donations so that within one month, the hospital was fully operational, and it went from treating six patients to by 1918 treating 10,800 patients.  

Let's take another look at that painting that revealed the final story on this Adventure in History. It was created by Norah Neilson-Gray who had been a student at the Glasgow School of Art before she went to France to join Dr Frances' team as an orderly. She was then commissioned - as we heard that was being officially asked to paint a record, to commemorate Dr Frances' work, the work of all the women in both delivering care and building their hospital in the first place in that ancient building. And exactly 100 years since it was painted in 1920 Norah's work is still doing its job, it's just revealed its story to us. 

Paintings, diaries, photographs - these are the objects that today have revealed the stories of Frances and Martha and Flora. If they'd never been collected by the museum, they might not have survived, we might never have discovered these stories. There they sit in Imperial War Museums alongside many other objects and collection item waiting for us to go and hear their stories as well. 

I hope you've enjoyed this week's adventure in history and on Friday, you could test out your newfound knowledge about care of the wounded in the First World War by tuning in to Imperial War Museums social media channels for a quiz and put that knowledge to the test.  

Imperial War Museums is a charity so if you feel that you're able to help us to tell these stories and keep history alive please go to our website for details on how you can donate to support the museum's work.  

On our next adventure in history, we are actually going to return back to the time of the Second World War and like the unexpected stories that we heard about involving Frances and Martha and Flora we are going to uncover some more stories of people who performed unexpected roles. So, until then, thank you very much for joining me on board my boat today and I very much look forward to welcoming you on board next time. Farewell! 


  • Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day :WWII (Key Stage 3 &4)                                                               
  • Warfare and British society 1250-Present (GCSE)   
  • To increase understanding of the lives of women and how they helped the war effort during the First World War, providing care and medical assistance.                                                                                                                                             

Carers Quiz

Family Mission: Carers Quiz

Put your knowledge to the test!

See how much you have remembered about the carers of the First World War in our special quiz.

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