The Other Heroines of WW1

Edith Cavell is rightly famous for the courageous stand she took when faced with the task of helping to save the lives of allied soldiers in Belgium, for nursing all who needed it, no matter which side they fought for, and for the wisdom and   compassion with which she faced her terrible death.

But there were other aspects of her life which, though less dramatic, should perhaps have received more publicity.

The fact that after she trained as a nurse at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes and worked in various hospitals in England, including Shoreditch Infirmary,  Cavell was recruited in 1907 by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, (or The Berkendael Medical Institute) on the Rue de la Culture (now Rue Franz Merjay), Ixelles in Brussels and by 1910, “Miss Cavell “felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal,” and therefore launched the nursing journal, L’infirmière”.

A year later, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium. This indicates a high degree of professional competence and expertise, as well as impressive organisational ability which must have been overall at least as important in easing suffering generally as the acts for which she was famous.

And there were other women, doctors and nurses, not so famous, who did not die in front of a German firing squad and so made less good propaganda for the war effort, who, showing day to day unexpressed heroism and similar practical organisation and intelligence, contributed massively to the survival of the men whose wounds they treated.

Edith Cavell was just one of a large number of professional women who, in their determination to use their medical training and expertise to aid the soldiers caught up in the conflict, pushed forward the emancipation of women in medicine.

Their managerial and professional competence, in particular, was the aspect of their work that the men running the war found hardest to stomach. They could cope with plucky little nurses and martyred saints; but women showing every evidence of  being able to run things as well – or better than – men, outraged them. When Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis approached the War Office to offer her services in setting up Field Hospitals, the response was  “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Needless to say, she didn’t.

The Women of  Royaumont.

Scottish Nurses in WW1


The story of the Scottish women who founded the field hospital at the Abbaye de Royaument is fascinating in many ways – not least for having one of the earliest documentaries made about it.

Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century. A pioneer surgeon and physician and champion of votes for women, she is best remembered for setting up and running the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units in the First World War. These were staffed entirely by women – from cooks and mechanics to surgeons and physicians.

Despite being turned down by the War Office,  she dispatched the  first SWHU unit in December 1914 under the command of Liverpool surgeon Miss Frances Ivens to Royaumont, an ancient abbey north of Paris which operated under the auspices of the French Red Cross.

Most of the filming of the documentary appears to have been done at its field hospital, Villers Cotterets, closer to the front in December 1917. It seems safe enough in the film….. but weeks later it was evacuated in the wake of a German advance and subjected to bombardment. The fur-coated ambulance driver, cooks and nurses serving dinner are clearly self-conscious in front of the camera.

There is no doubting the courage, skill and perseverance of the women who served at Royaumont. They retained a strong sisterly bond for decades afterwards – and some were even back in France trying to set up a canteen ahead of the German invasion of 1940. Royaumont was the largest continuously-operating voluntary hospital in France at the end of the First World War. Its mortality rates were better than its army-run equivalents. Miss Ivens was the first foreign-born woman to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour. No fewer than 30 of her Royaumont colleagues were awarded the Croix de Guerre, including sister Catherine O’Rorke, who had been arrested with Edith Cavell in Brussels in 1915.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals depended on an extensive network of fundraising, much coming from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) whose London units provided the x-ray van. Newnham and Girton colleges in Cambridge provided both money and volunteers as did women in the USA and around the world. The film itself may have been part of that fund-raising effort. The Scottish Screen Archive notes the NUWSS as the sponsor. But it could also have been an exercise by the British War Office’s propaganda division, an explanation favoured by Eileen Crofton, in her definitive work The Women of Royaumont (Tuckwell Press, 1997).

That division was then under the command of John Buchan, the Scottish author and later politician who would have known the subject area well. Elsie Inglis rarely visited Royaumont – she was far too busy establishing hospitals elsewhere, including Salonika, where the SSA record says some of the film was shot.

Through Elsie Inglis, the work of the SWH attracted much attention. Less well known are the achievements of the women’s hospital at Endell Street in Covent Garden, London. It treated far more casualties than SWH and was formally integrated into the British Army’s official war hospital network.

Endell Street Hospital

Endell Street was all-female but more overtly suffragist in its approach than Royaumont. It was run by Flora Murray, a former colleague of Inglis, and Louisa Garrett Anderson.

Flora Murray


Murray trained at the London School of Medicine for Women and finished her course at Durham. She then worked in Scotland before returning to London. In 1905 Murray was a medical officer at the Belgrave Hospital for Children and then anaesthetist at the Chelsea Hospital for Women.

She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1908, and acted as physician to the militants. She spoke at meetings and rallies, marched in processions, provided first aid at suffragette demonstrations, and looked after Emmeline Pankhurst and other hunger-strikers after their release from prison. She campaigned with other doctors against the forcible feeding of prisoners.

In 1912 she founded the Women’s Hospital for Children at 688 Harrow Road with Louisa Garrett Anderson. It provided health care for working-class children of the area, and gave women doctors their only opportunity to gain clinical experience in paediatrics in London; the hospital’s motto was Deeds not Words.

In the First World War she served in France with the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC). Along with her friend and colleague Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, she established military hospitals for the French Army in Paris and Wimereux. Their proposals were at first rejected by the British authorities, but eventually the WHC became established at the military hospital, Endell Street Military Hospital, Holborn, London staffed entirely by women, from chief surgeon to orderlies. Their motto Deeds not Words was used for the second time.

She never married and is buried at the Holy Trinity Church with her friend and colleague, Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson near to their home in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Garrett’s tombstone reads “We have been gloriously happy”.

With thanks to Wikipedia.

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