Hundreds of women saw the horrors of the Battle of the Somme. Here's what they faced on the first day

Penny Starns | 01 July 2016

In 1915, The Order of St John encouraged women to volunteer as frontline medical staff at their 520-bedded field hospital for severely injured soldiers in Étaples, France. The Battle of the Somme changed their lives, says writer and historian Penny Starns

A photo of a woman serving in the Order of St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital during world war one
© Penny Starns
By June 1916 the area around Étaples was home to about 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops, put through their paces daily by enthusiastic sergeant majors. These confident troops were eager to put their trench warfare skills into practice.

Most belonged to ‘pals brigades’. With a strong sense of camaraderie and optimism, they were convinced the Germans would soon capitulate.

Preparing medical arrangements for fighting men was second nature to General Arthur Sloggett, Director General of the Army Medical Services in the Field and a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John. With meticulous precision, his plans for the medical care of casualties reflected a high degree of thoroughness and efficiency.

A photo of a woman serving in the Order of St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital during world war one
© Penny Starns
Sloggett’s plans turned out to be woefully inadequate. It was highly unlikely anyone could have predicted the scale of carnage. Senior military officers and their men were reasonably confident of a successful attack with only light casualties.

Instigated along a 30km line, the battle was preceded by heavy artillery bombardment of German positions. This was thought to have considerably weakened German defences. At 7.30am on July 1 the Battle of the Somme began; within an hour and a half, 20,000 British soldiers had been killed.

By the end of the day there were nearly 60,000 British casualties. The German soldiers had simply taken shelter in deep concrete dugouts and emerged to machine gun British troops.

A photo of a woman serving in the Order of St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital during world war one
© Penny Starns
A young soldier, Private W Roberts, wrote: ‘The short but terrible rush through the fierce curtain fire with men falling on all sides I shall never forget. The sights I saw are too terrible to write about and men almost blown to pieces were lying side by side. Unable to proceed further, the order to retire was given and I thanked God that I came through the terrible ordeal unhurt.’

Walking slowly towards the enemy had proved to be a disaster. Sixty per cent of all officers who took part in the first day of the Somme battle were killed.

The men who followed them were simply mown down by enemy fire at a phenomenal rate. One eyewitness claimed that men went down at such speed he thought someone had given them an order to lie down.

A photo of a woman serving in the Order of St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital during world war one
© Penny Starns
As many of the injured as possible were placed on hospital trains and shipped back to England. Casualty numbers were so high that only the most seriously wounded could be kept in France.

By 3pm, news of the appallingly high casualty figures gradually filtered through to Sloggett. He called the rail transport office at Amiens to urgently order more hospital trains. Some of these took over ten hours to reach the Somme.

With shouts of ‘all hands to the pump’, sisters promptly gave rapid, abrupt orders to their colleagues as severely injured soldiers were squeezed endlessly through hospital doors.

Almost all of these soldiers were labelled with a bright red stripe, indicating that they might haemorrhage at any moment.

At St John’s hospital, they lay in corridors, doorways, recreation rooms and dining halls; some were strewn across dining tables or lay on office floors.

There were piles upon piles of exhausted men, covering every inch of available hospital space. The place resembled a living hell.

23-year-old Lily Fielding, from London, had been woken from her slumber at 4 pm. There seemed to be no distinction between night duty and day duty. Everyone just worked to the point of exhaustion.

A frantic Emma was trying to stem a haemorrhage from a vicious-looking arm wound, tightening a tourniquet with all her strength. Bessie had responded to Matron’s call for more towels and flannels, not to wash the men but to pack into their abdominal wounds to soak up, and possibly stem, the flow of blood.

Cynthia was giving a cigarette to a man who was evidently dying, simultaneously wielding a pair of forceps, trying to pick out remnants of a man’s uniform from his wound.

Matron was a tower of strength, moving about the hospital floors and grounds with a calm and encouraging manner. Sisters, too, appeared to possess an abundance of calm.

Matron offered a listening ear, a kindly word and, when all else failed, a carefully measured 4oz tot of brandy. For the most part, her nursing sisters and VADs were genteel Edwardian ladies, more accustomed to elegant study rooms  than to the blood and guts of conflict.

The strain of nursing under such stressful conditions took its toll. Sister Little succumbed to a fever, Sister Margaret Ballance was charged with so much adrenaline that she was unable to sleep and Sister Warner suffered with blisters and swollen ankles.

Lily complained of throbbing headaches, whereas Emma repeatedly convinced herself that she had forgotten something important. This feeling continually haunted her and prevented her from resting adequately.

Every nurse was needed every single day and through the night-time too: patients were overflowing, tasks numerous, suffering immense and grief overwhelming. Despite her efforts, Cynthia collapsed on 12 July and was ordered to stay in bed for at least three days. Other nurses would follow suit.

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