by Alison Bailey
This week we are wearing our red poppies with pride and many of us will attend moving Remembrance services on Sunday. The British Legion’s soldier silhouette is once again marking the roadsides of many villages in the area. Whilst it is imperative that we remember the terrible sacrifice of a generation of young men in WWI and the conflicts that followed it is also important that we recognise that this is not the only narrative. There are other stories to tell and other achievements to recognise.
Local women made the most extraordinary contributions to WWI. Two of them, Louisa Garrett Anderson and her partner, Flora Murray were both qualified doctors. They trained at the London School of Medicine for Women, founded by Louisa’s mother, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. They were militant suffragettes in the years leading up to the war with Louisa spending six weeks in Holloway Prison for taking part in a mass window smashing campaign in 1912.
When war was declared in 1914, they laid down their banners and sought to help the Allied war effort. They founded the Women’s Hospital Corps and undeterred by the rebuttal of the Royal Medical Corps they offered their services to the French who were desperate for medical and surgical aid. They had just 12 days to raise the funds, find a staff and purchase the equipment and all the stores which were needed for a military hospital. They then travelled to Paris to open their first unit in the Hôtel Claridge.
Flora Murray wrote in her memoir Women as Army Surgeons “the long years of struggle for the Enfranchisement of Women which had preceded the outbreak of war had done much to educate women in citizenship and in public duty. The militant movement had taught them discipline and organisation: it had shown them new possibilities in themselves and had inspired them with confidence in each other”.
They designed their own practical uniforms and wore the purple white and green badge of the Women’s Social and Political Union with pride. Despite never having had the opportunity to work with men’s bodies before as women doctors were only permitted to treat women and children, the Women’s Hospital Corps was an immediate success and the British Army quickly realised their mistake. In 1915 they were asked to establish the Endell Street Military Hospital for the Royal Medical Corps in a former workhouse in Convent Garden. The St Giles Workhouse, as it was known, was supposedly the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Like the hospital in Paris and a later hospital in Wimereux, this hospital was staffed entirely by women, from chief surgeon to orderlies. The hospital became a specialist centre for head injuries and fractures and even published clinical research. It closed in August 1919 having treated 24,000 patients and carried out more than 7,000 operations. It was widely considered the best run hospital of the war and the all-female staff proved what many had before doubted, that women could manage the medical and administrative needs of a hospital just as well as men. Mostly funded by suffrage campaigners, the hospital adopted the suffragette motto ‘Deeds not Words’. When the 1918 Representation of the People Act was passed, giving limited suffrage to women, a purple white and green flag was raised.
Flora Murray was never recognised as a lieutenant-colonel by the British Army, the rank she was due as Doctor-in-Charge of a military hospital. Nor did chief surgeon Louisa Garrett Anderson achieve any rank. However, they were both made Commanders of the British Empire shortly after the war. Together they purchased Paul’s End, a large house close to Holy Trinity Church, Penn. Because of its association with Lord Curzon, the founder of the Anti-Suffrage League the church had been targeted by suffragette arsonists in 1913. Flora continued to practise as a doctor in Penn until her early death in 1923. Louisa stayed on, became a Justice of the Peace, secretary of the Penn Conservative Association and chairman of her local League of Nations branch. I wonder if she ever told her follow JPs that she had once spent 6 weeks in prison! She died 20 years after Flora and was buried with her in Holy Trinity’s graveyard. Their memorial stone is engraved “We have been gloriously happy.”
Read more about local women’s contribution to WWI in my book Women at War, available from Amersham Museum.