Most of the memorials you’ll see as you walk round Lochnagar Crater are for men who fought in the First World War.
But we also remember that women took part in the struggle too, many on the Home Front and others who served as nursing staff. Women who tended for the wounded, for example, are remembered by the ‘Nurses’ Bench’ installed in a corner, overlooking No Man’s Land. And if you look carefully, you’ll also find a plaque on the walkway to Sister Ellen Andrews, a reminder that some of the nurses did not survive the war.
The circumstances of Ellen’s life are fairly well-documented, and this article is based on research by long-standing Friend, Roger Frankish. The picture, right, shows Ellen as a Staff Nurse. Just visible is her Territorial Force Nursing Service badge (TFNS) on the right lapel of her cape, which has a silver T on each corner. Sister Ellen Andrews was killed in action on 21st March 1918 at Lillers, about 12 km north west of Bethune. She was 32 years old. Lillers was behind Allied lines, but nowhere was safe, and Sister Andrews died in a bombing raid by a German Taube plane. She’s buried in Lillers Communal Cemetery. The aerial attack in which she died took place in the evening, and lasted for several hours. According to a soldier in the Royal Army Medical Corps, bombs exploded all over the town. An ammunition train and oil tank were blown up, and the hospital was damaged.
Sister Andrews was with the Charge Sister/Matron and two other Sister colleagues from 58th Casualty Clearing Station, returning to their billets from the hospital, when a bomb exploded nearby as they crossed the railway. She was killed and the Matron badly wounded.
On 27th March 1918 Miss Emma Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), BEF, wrote in her war diary:
“The two Sisters who accompanied them displayed wonderful presence of mind – although shells were popping all round, one stayed on the line by the side of the girl who was dead and the other who was wounded, while the other went to the CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) for help…The two girls, after bringing their sad burden to the CCS, continued working all night as though nothing had occurred”.
The London Gazette, 3rd June 1918, reported the award of the Royal Red Cross (1st Class) to Miss Maxey, the wounded Sister.
The London Gazette recorded the following day the award of Military Medals to the three Sisters who survived:
MAXEY, Kate, RRC, Sister-in-Charge, Territorial Force Nursing Service.
For gallantry and conspicuous devotion to duty displayed during a recent hostile bombing raid on a CCS. Although severely wounded herself, she went to the aid of another Sister, who was fatally wounded, and did all she could for her. Later, although suffering severe pain, she showed an example of pluck and endurance which was inspiring to all.
LUTWICK, Marie Dow, ARRC, Acting Sister, QAIMNS Reserve.
For bravery and devotion to duty during a hostile bombing raid when in company with the Matron who was severely wounded and a Sister who was killed. She crossed the open bomb-swept ground alone in order to procure help. Subsequently she returned to the CCS and continued to work for many hours, under conditions of great danger.
BROWN, Mary Agatha, Acting Sister, QAIMNS Reserve.
For bravery and devotion to duty during a hostile bombing raid when in company with the Matron who was severely wounded and a Sister who was killed. She remained with them and tended them till help arrived. Subsequently she returned to the CCS and worked devotedly for many hours, under conditions of great danger.
So how did this brave young woman come to be in northern France where her life ended in awful circumstances by a railway track? It was a long way from Gedney Dyke in the Fens, where Ellen Andrews was born on 1st January 1886, daughter of a blacksmith from Wrawby, a north Lincolnshire village, and wife Hannah. The family soon moved to Wrawby; sadly her father died in 1891, aged 26. Hannah married Robert Leeson in 1904; he died in 1905. The 1901 census shows Ellen, 15, living at nearby Barnetby in the house of the village doctor employed as a domestic nurse. By her mid-20s Ellen was a nurse at Leicester Infirmary; there, notices would have been available regarding enrolment into the Territorial Force Nursing Service for the purpose of maintaining a staff of nurses willing to serve in 23 general hospitals in the event of embodiment of the Territorial Force; rolls would be kept of Matrons, Sisters, and nurses willing to serve in their allocated hospitals. Each hospital roll would consist of 120 nursing staff of whom 91 would be called up for duty on embodiment. When Ellen enrolled into the Territorial Force is not known but a document in her service record (WO/399/9453) states she joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service on 26th August 1914 at the 5th northern General Hospital, Leicester, suggesting that she had enrolled and been called up for duty; the March 1915 British Nursing Journal, in an article on 5th northern General, lists Ellen as a staff nurse on the hospital staff. She was highly regarded. In June, 1916, the London Gazette reported that Ellen and another TFNS staff nurse, Miss M. Ochse, 4th northern General Hospital (Lincoln), were awarded the Royal Red Cross (Second Class) “in recognition of their valuable services in connection with the war”; they received the awards from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 7th October, 1916. Ellen agreed to serve abroad in March, 1917, and her annual report in May reported that ‘Miss Andrews was a very good and capable Staff Nurse who on being promoted to be Sister showed her ability to manage her wards well. She is on the Foreign Service list’. On 14th July 1917 Ellen joined her unit, 59th General Hospital (known as the northern General), at St Omer in France.
What sort of life did the nurses face? We get agood glimpse courtesy of records published on Sue Light’s website Scarlet Finders. The record includes extracts from the war diary (WO95/3988-91) of Emma Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service [QAIMNS].
At first, nursing staff were based at a hospital recently used by the French; it could accommodate a thousand patients, but the Matron remarks on: “the usual lack of any satisfactory sanitary arrangements” although “the engineers…are putting in the necessary improvements and additions”. The nurses bunked down in a school, temporarily. At a new officers’ hospital at Moulle, about five miles outside St Omer, there were 105 officers – “all Shell Shock cases”. This was the section of 59th General Hospital where Ellen was a charge sister. Later, the nurses were moved to the grounds of General Petain’s house, where huts were being built. Life was clearly tough: “In the garden a hut, intended for 20 Sisters, has been put up. This is eventually to be partitioned off and to have the usual bath and lavatory accommodation installed. At present, before being completed, 10 VADs are housed in the shell, with no washing water or lighting arrangements. The house is composed of a great many good sized rooms, which at the time of the visit, when I was taken round by the Matron, Miss Whiffin, were crammed with members of the Nursing Staff. The rooms were so full that it was impossible to get in all the trunks. There seemed to be no attempt made by anyone to arrange or make anything in the least bit comfortable or habitable. When I spoke to the Matron on the subject she said that she thought that was the way she was expected to live in France, but afterwards admitted she had been offered a house at a small distance which had electric light and water, but she had refused it, as she preferred to have all her staff together”. There were complaints about an inadequate supply of blankets, candles and coal, and always – the threat of attack, mostly from Taubes overhead. A report on Ellen on 11th October 1917, (59th General Hospital, Moulle section) contained the following information: Rank: Sister (No. 3 section); date of joining unit: 17th July 1917. Report: health: very good; conduct: very good; character: steady and reliable; special duties performed: Charge Sister (Moulle section) Officers Ward (44 beds). Capabilities: If considered suitable for duties on: barges, hospital ships, ambulance trains, casualty clearing stations: yes (to all); duty as assistant matron: no; charge duties: ward sister. Signed: Mabel Whiffin, Matron, and J. Gowans, Colonel, O/C 59th General Hospital. Not long after this, Ellen was transferred to the 58th Casualty Clearing Station at Lillers, where she was killed in action only a few months afterwards. Her personal effects were shipped home a week after she died; they included her Territorial Force Nursing Badge, RRC ribbon on broach, RRC ribbon, identity disc and brassard and two watches – one silver and the other gold. It’s believed the gold watch was presented to her by soldiers at Leicester Hospital, before she went to the Front. Much of the material in Ellen’s file is correspondence between her mother and the War Office concerning the settlement of her daughter’s estate, especially as a will is apparently missing. As no will was forthcoming the estate was split three ways between her mother and two brothers and involved correspondence to brother Henry, at RAF Edmonton, England and brother James, ASC, on active service in France, who nominated his wife Edith in Ipswich to receive any monies due. Ellen’s service file also contains two letters of condolence sent to her mother. One is from the Advisory Council of the TFNS. It records “the cheerful and willing service she rendered to her Country”. One rather terse document in Ellen’s file is a small sheet of plain paper with a typed heading: RELIEF FORM. ‘Relief: Ada White, Sister, TFNS. Home Unit: 1st London General Hospital. Area overseas: France. Member Returned: Ellen Andrews, Sister. Reason of return to United Kingdom: killed.’ Ellen’s name appears as Sister Ellen Andrew on a brass plaque in the church at her home village of Wrawby; in the local school a brass plaque names Nellie Andrew, Royal Red Cross. Her name also appears on memorials to military nurses in York Minster and Aldershot Garrison Church. In 1922 Queen Alexandra unveiled a memorial at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, which once stood at Millbank by the Thames in London, to nurses who died in the war. It contained the names of 119 women, 22 of whom had lost their lives as a result of direct enemy action – in bombed hospitals, or by mines or torpedoes. Ellen’s name headed the list.
What’s in a name?
As you can see, Ellen’s name on her headstone is ‘Ellen Andrew’. But in most documents, she’s known as ‘Ellen Andrews’. Confusion about the spelling of names wasn’t too uncommon. Ellen’s father, Frederic, for example, was registered at birth as ‘Andrew’ and buried as such at Wrawby – but the BMD Index records his death registered as ‘Andrews’. In 1885 Hannah Drew of Walpole St Peter, Norfolk, married blacksmith Frederick ‘Andrews’ at Gedney. Ellen is named ‘Andrews’ on her birth certificate, and was known as ‘Andrews’ in the census returns of 1901 and 1911, but ‘Andrew’ in the Wrawby 1891 census.
Thanks to Roger Frankish, who sent a copy of Ellen’s birth certificate to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the CWGC has agreed to change the name on the headstone – and to add reference to Ellen’s ARRC medal.