Eileen Crofton, Angels of Mercy

Well now first of all – apologies for the long absence! Perhaps, you think, I might just not have had time to write about all the books I’ve read. Yet to be perfectly honest, I haven’t had the time or the energy to actually finish a book in a long while. And now there will hopefully be two or three posts in fairly quick succession because I have finally finished some books!

After a brief foray into light reading or the modern novel, I returned to my interest in history. As this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, I had wanted to read a book related to this subject. However, it appeared to be hard to find a book which doesn’t just deal with the more well-known Western Front in the usual manner. Imagine my glee when I discovered a book about women on the front!

The rather naff title (sorry!) disguises a really fascinating story of the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont, France. This hospital was situated directly on the front line from late 1914 and was staffed and run entirely by women – with the exception of the occasional male helper and the French chef. Women had only been allowed to qualify as doctors since the late 19th century and the Royaumont staff included many of the early pioneers – surgeons Francis Ivens, Agnes Savill, Ruth Nicholson, bacteriologist Elsie Dalvell and radiographer Edith Stoney.

The women did everything – the more obvious nursing tasks such as dressing wounds and cleaning wards, but also the cooking, carrying the injured men up and down stairs on stretchers and collecting the wounded from the clearing stations. The chauffeurs faced great dangers as they often had to drive at night through German shell attacks, especially in the final months of the war.

The hospital was on the front line during the battles of the Somme and in 1917 the women were asked by the French government to establish an outpost at Villers-Cotterets, even closer to the front line, to be used as a clearing station for the wounded. This outpost had to be evacuated as the Germans suddenly advanced in early 1918 and the last women only just escaped after all the wounded and the staff had been evacuated.

The hospital remained in action until May 1919, when it was finally closed. Many of the women who started out as orderlies or nurses went on to become doctors and surgeons. The women of Royaumont and the other Scottish Women’s Hospitals opened up the field of medicine for their fellows as women had previously been almost completely confined to gyneacology – apart from the few, like Elsie Inglis and Frances Ivens who had dared to be different.

These incredible women helped the French soldiers, whose own government was unprepared for the horrors of the injuries in the trenches – even more unprepared than the British and the Germans. By the end of the war, these doctors had contributed pioneering research into gas gangrene, radiology, surgery and bacteriology.

Whilst I did not necessarily always like Ms Crofton’s style of writing, her book was absolutely fascinating and is definitely worth a read.

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