Sunday, 24 September 2017

Wimmen Doctors!

Amongst those volunteering for service during the Great War were a large number of relatively newly qualified female doctors.  These were of course refused by the British Army as being female they could not be reliable nor capable with dealing with the situation ahead. 
Te women, especially Scots women, knew the answer to that!  They had already met much resistance from all sides but had succeeded in qualifying as doctors and indeed surgeons.  The Scottish Women's Hospital movement led by Elsie Inglis applied to the French authorities who were unsure about these women but nevertheless accepted them and under control of the French Red Cross allowed a hospital to be developed at the former Cistercian Abbey at Royaumont some thirty kilometres from Paris.  From January 1915 until March 1919 the hospital operated very successfully and from a slow start became recognised as the best hospital the French or indeed anyone else operated.  The French were totally unprepared fro the number or type of casualties that would arise during the war, the British and German better prepared but even so all were lacking in relevant experience, medicines and qualified staff.

The Abbey while attractive and restful was totally unsuited for hospital work.  Sanitary arrangements were never satisfactory, accommodation required huge manpower efforts to amend and living accommodation for the staff appalling and worse in winter when it froze!   Conditions were never great no matter how hard the staff strove but nonetheless they managed to save life, avoid amputation where possible, much more than other hospitals managed, and became much loved by the French soldiers.  
The soldiers were mainly French although these included many Senegalese who had different habits that had to be taught and North Africans, mostly from what is now Algeria, all of whom came to respect and admire the Scots lassies.

The staff were led by Doctor Francis Ivens and Elsie Inglis, Inglis herself left to set up a  similar hospital in Serbia where Typhus was common and her hygiene improvements cut the causes of many illnesses.  In 1915 she was captured and repatriated but instead of sitting around created another hospital for work in Russia.  This began in 1916 but cancer caused her to return home in 1917 when she died on arrival in Newcastle.  Edinburgh honoured her with a hospital named after her, much reduced now to being a mere children's clinic I believe.  She also appeared on a Scots £10 note 'Clydesdale Bank' I think.
Francis Ivens was another strong willed suffragette who had attained medical qualifications.  When Elsie Inglis moved to Serbia Ivens was left in charge at Royaumont and how well she did her job!  Running the Abbey hospital, operating, checking patients, ensuring the staff, Doctors, nurses, orderlies, chauffeurs, kitchens and all else required to keep the Abbey running were happy in the difficult circumstances of war and also ensuring the French authorities trusted the hospital and offered support while also keeping the committee back in Edinburgh aware of the needs of the Abbey Ivens had no time to herself over some four years of work.  The fact that few fell out with her, almost all trusted her implicitly and she, like several others at the Abbey, received the Croix de guerre from the French government speaks volumes for her abilities.  One major achievement was the work on 'gas gangrene' which early in the war killed many or led to amputations of limbs.  Her work at the Abbey contributed mightily to finding success in dealing with this comparatively new problem.

All staff throughout were female.  Occasionally a mechanic was employed to keep the vehicles working but the drivers remained female.  Some patients were able to help with the daily duties and willingly did so as part of their rehabilitation yet all the daily grind, which included carrying patients on stretchers upstairs to the wards and moving bags of clothing and linen to the top floor was undertaken by the women.  The desire to show the men they could do the job had a big influence on these suffragette influenced lassies.  Many were highly qualified, others less so, some middle  class others not, yet they worked together with the usual bitchiness occasionally breaking out but usually dealt with by Dr Ivens or another staff member with tact and firmness.
During major offensives such as the Battle of the Somme work was unending.  Doctors and nurses, drivers and orderlies worked until they dropped and then carried on.  Some three thousand men came through in a few days, these were checked, X-rayed, early path lab work carried out and the result was highly successful.  Over the years which included The Somme in 1916, the battles of 1917 and the 'great push' of 1918 saw over 11,000 patients came through the hospital and of these only 159 died.  An excellent result for the work of Dr Ivens and her staff. 

Elizabeth Courtauld belonged to this area.  The family were famous for their contributions to society and 'good works' and eventually Elizabeth qualified as a doctor and headed for Bangalore where many women found medical experience unavailable at home.  Elizabeth was the oldest of the doctors at 50 years of age and her work included the smaller casualty clearing station at  Villers- Cotterets including the emergency evacuation under shellfire and bombing from the air at night during the German push in 1918.  This was an experience few forgot!  After the war like many others she returned to India to enjoy her work there.


the fly in the web said...

That was a fascinating post...many thanks!

Jenny Woolf said...

A lot is owed to those brave suffragettes, and it's good to know they continue to be appreciated for the many things that they have done not just for women but for everyone.

Adullamite said...

Fly, Fascinating wimmen.

Jenny, Tie all suffragettes to the railings I say!

Lee said...

Great post, Adullamite.

They were strong, brave, determined women...pathfinders, worthy of admiration...their deeds should never be allowed to be forgotten.

Adullamite said...

Lee, They ought not to be forgotten, Scots of course...