April Talk: Personal Stories: Two Sisters – Two Nurses at Stokesay WWI Auxiliary Hospital. The one who went to Bosnia and the one who stayed behind.

Caroline Magnus, of Stokesay Court, spoke about the years of the VAD military hospital there, referring to the mass of research information which exists about the hospital and its staff and inmates. During the First World War the widowed owner Mrs Allcroft, a caring Christian woman, offered her house, vacating it herself, for the nursing of wounded soldiers. It was a superior one of its kind, each soldier from the ordinary ranks, having his own room rather than being in a ward. Mrs Allcroft was the commandant and had seven full-time staff including two sisters, the principal subjects of this talk, Lilian and Alice Williams from Shrewsbury. Mrs Allcroft’s compassionate nature is revealed in extant correspondence between her and Lilian after the stillbirth of Lilian’s first child. There is also correspondence between Lilian, who married the gardener Herbert Weeks, and discharged soldiers who evidently appreciated the good treatment they had received both medical and personal, as individuals with dignity. There were six soldiers when the hospital opened in 1915, and 42 according to the registers by 1916.

Lilian’s sister Alice came to the hospital later after having been a PoW in Serbia. She had joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, an organisation established solely by women who were prepared to treat wounded men, in spite of rebuffs by the British War Office. Serbia suffered appalling conditions during the war and these staunch women went to provide relief for ‘gallant little Serbia’, taking their own equipment. Alice arrived to work with Dr Hutchinson, the feisty daughter of medical missionaries in India, at the ‘finest field hospital under canvas.’ The conditions they found were dire, with the men receiving a diet merely of bread and thin soup, unsupervised medication by powders, and an outbreak of typhus.

After some time spent setting up the field hospital – all of the medical equipment, tents, and everything else needed to run a hospital was brought by Dr. Hutchinson and her team, and paid for by the Charity – and operating under severe conditions of weather, orders were received to move the hospital to evade attacking forces. They had to discard the equipment but refused to abandon the wounded. The choice was to stay and risk imprisonment or worse, or take on the trek in winter conditions. Alice was one of those who chose to stay not believing she could last the journey, and was captured. She and others were transported to Hungary, 32 women occupying just two rooms, sleeping on straw and living on coffee and bread. The staff and patients who left went on a gruelling trek across mountains, largely on foot. Determined to hold up, Dr Hutchinson wore the Union Jack wrapped around her body, underneath her clothes, and produced it to wave when they reached safety! After Alice was repatriated and had recovered, she returned to Stokesay eventually marrying a patient, John Johnson in 1921.

This aspect of WW1 was a revelation to many of the audience, who knew little or nothing of this part of the War. The press coverage at the time of what the women had endured in Serbia was detailed, reporting on their retreat in mud and snow, and their noted possession of hot water bottles (!), but many of the patients died on the way, and there was considerable suffering. Last year British women including Dr Hutchinson were featured on Serbian stamps but the episode is generally little remembered in British history.

An internet search will tell you more about this:

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/european/2016/02/serbia-celebrates-british-heroines-of-the-first-world-war.html

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