When after many many years my Great-Aunt Marjorie moved into a retirement home from the house she had shared with her sister, we found two lifetime’s worth of cards, postcards, sketching materials, holiday snaps and most memorably an entire twenty-something binder series of those posh sort of glossy thick papered magazines that come with matching ring binders all about the royal family (though becoming increasingly tenuously linked as the series went on).
We had to say goodbye to a lot of it, and the art bits and bobs were assimilated into my craft box, but what we could my parents kept, tucked away here and there against the moment when we would have time to sit down and put together these fragments of our family history.
In the little bag of pictures and photos are two cards, both addressed to my Great-Aunt Doris, who would then have been aged about 10.
One, postmarked December 1916 is simply signed A Barrett, although “A Merry Xmas to you” has been neatly written across the top of the picture, and the other, which I think must be slightly earlier reads:
“Many Thanks for your letter.
I hope to find more P.C.s [postcards] that you will like.
Fondest love to all.
Postcards sent home from France, and the start of the story of my Great-Great-Aunt Nance.
Annie was born in 1878, the fourth of my Great-Great-Grandparents’ eight children, the third being my Great-Grandpa. She originally trained and worked as a lady’s maid but in her mid-twenties she had a career rethink and trained as a nurse, working at King’s College Hospital on its old Portugal Street site in the middle of what was then London’s slums, and is now lots of very shiny glass lawyers offices.
She also signed up for the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) and when war was declared she was mobilised on 10 August 1914, and on 24 September 1914 she was posted to France.
100 years ago today that’s where she would have been. She served in France throughout the war and I suspect that that Christmas postcard to Aunt Doris was one of many family high days and holidays that she spent on the far side of the channel.
She was promoted to Sister on 13 April 1915 and was at one stage the Sister in charge of the Officer’s Ward (honour indeed). In notes from January 1918 organising some sort of reshuffle, she was described as “a thoroughly reliable ward sister equal to any emergency“, with a side note that she has experience of and would be considered especially suitable for being appointed as the Sister in charge of a Casualty Clearing Station, the small moveable hospitals that sat close behind the front line to be used for short term care before their patients either returned to action or were stabilised enough to be transported further back to the big field hospitals. I’m not suggesting that she ran around in squelching mud patching up wounds while shells whizzed overhead, for one thing, CCSs were deliberately put just outside the enemy’s artillery range, but let’s just say that one of the ways that you can spot the location of a wartime Casualty Clearing Station is by the cluster of military cemeteries that surround it. Compared to her colleagues who remained at home working in the big London military hospitals she must have felt like she was in another world, one designed to test every ounce of your inner fortitude.
The only comment I have from Annie herself comes in a letter to her matron in October 1922 when she resigned from the TFNS. She notes that since being demobilised she has suffered from asthma attacks and so would no longer feel sure of herself;
“…and from previous experience of active service, one must be in the best of health.”
An understatement if ever there was one.
But I’m jumping ahead of the story. It’s not clear whether Annie ever was in charge of a Casualty Clearing Station but she continued serving in France all the way through to the Armistice. When peace broke out she requested demobilisation as soon as possible on the grounds that her mother was unwell and required nursing, a request that was granted though even then it was 29 March 1919 before she landed in Folkestone, filled in yet another set of forms, was officially demobilised and set off for Bournemouth and the home she was to share with her mother and two younger sisters.
As she served in France between August and November 1914 she was awarded the Mons Star, and on 1 January 1919 she was also awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross, for good work and valuable service in military nursing.
And whilst the First World War did see a dramatic increase in the number of RRCs and ARRCs awarded, I’m pretty sure that Aunt Nance, former lady’s maid and daughter of a widow running a boarding house in Christchurch did not fall into the group of ladies who it seems began to rather expect at least an ARRC simply by virtue of their position in pre-war society. If the testimonial provided by Sydney Browne, TFNS Matron-in-Chief is anything to go by, Annie earned and fully deserved the honour;
“Miss Barrett …could train and instruct her subordinates, and possessed good temper and tact. She was a very capable, energetic and resourceful Sister and exercised an excellent influence. She was a good disciplinarian, but at the same time combining strictness with kindness.”
I’m a big fan of stories with happy endings, and for Annie it is a happy ending. After the war she initially requested a nurse’s free transport to Vancouver, Canada, presumably to meet up with one or more of her three brothers who had emigrated/been sent there before the war, though she later withdrew the request and in 1922 she and a friend started a nursing home together in Guildford.
And then in 1926, aged 48, she married Percy Short, who if family legend proves correct, served on HMS Iron Duke at the Battle of Jutland, and they, together with Auntie Polly and Auntie Edie, lived the rest of their days together at Southbourne where my story meets living history once more, as my father remembers being taken “to visit the aunts” as part of his childhood holidays to his grandparents in Bournemouth.
She was a woman who did extraordinary things rendered ordinary by circumstance. A woman whose story I can be proud of. A woman for whom I am very thankful; thankful that she stood up to give help when and where it was needed, and thankful that she came home again afterwards.
(Photo credits to Dad and to whoever originally took the rather crumpled up photo of Aunt Nance in uniform that we found inside one of the medal cases)