Thanks on International Nurses' Day to all who have nursed soldiers!

Today, 12th May, is International Nurses' Day 2015. Nursing services in the Great War included such organisations as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS), the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) and the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), not to mention the excellent Red Cross. Often nurses with very little training were thrust into situations that would strike terror into the hearts of the most hardened casualty nurses today, at a time when medicine was much less advanced, with far less support and equipment available; yet they soldiered on and gave their utmost. These extracts from “My Home in the Field of Honour”, written in 1916 by a rich American lady called Frances Wilson Huard, married to a Frenchman who had gone to war and left her to run a large château North-West of Château Thierry in the Aisne, show that nurses could be every bit as brave as the most celebrated hero on the Front Line:

“Madame Guix, a woman but little over thirty, came from Choisy-le-Roi. Mercière (haberdasher) by trade, on the death of husband and baby she had adopted the career of infirmière (nurse), and at the outbreak of war found herself in possession of her Diploma and ready to serve…

The following morning, a few moments’ intercourse proved to me that Madame Guix’s competence extended far beyond the bounds of her mètier (trade). She was a splendid worker, no task was too difficult, so long as it furthered our purpose – namely, that of being ready in case of an emergency…

The population of my own courtyard had quadrupled by five o’clock. People from St. Quentin, Ternier, Chauny – each with a tale of horror and sorrow – sought refuge for the night. Madame Guix was permanently established in the dispensary as a line formed in front of the city clinics, each one waiting his turn, hoping that she might be able to relieve his suffering…

“Have you come for the wounded?” questioned a white capped sister as I closed the convent door and strode up the steps. “Yes, sister.” “Heaven be praised! Come this way quickly. Your nurse is here but cannot suffice alone. We’re of no use. There are only five of us to look after the alms house and a hundred refugees. We know nothing of surgery or bandaging.” In the middle of a big, well-lighted room stood Madame Guix, bandaging the arm of a fine looking fellow, who shut his eyes and grated his teeth as she worked. On a half-dozen chairs sat as many men, some holding their heads in their hands, some doubled in two, others clenching their fists in agony. Not a murmur escaped them. The floor in several places was stained with great red patches. “Quick, Madame Huard, we must stop the haemorrhages at all costs. The wounds are not bad, since the men have come on foot, but one can never tell with this heat.” A sister tied a white apron around me, and in a second I had washed my hands and begun. The first shirt I split, my heart leaped to my lips. I was neither a novice nor a coward, but the sight of human blood, flowing so generously and given so ungrudgingly, gave me a queer feeling in my throat…

…Our task was not yet finished. (A blue-coated soldier) drew his head up with a jerk, and turning to me with an almost furious look in his big black eyes he snapped, “Are you married?” “Yes.” “Then you know what it is. My God, my wife and babies, shut up in Valenciennes. It is not this that’s killing me,” he continued, slapping his bandaged arm… and he beat his fist on his knees in rage. The anger and agony had reached a paroxysm, his lips trembled, his mouth twitched, and brusquely throwing his arm around my neck, he buried his head on my shoulder and burst into tears. I had not seen a man weep before; I never want to again. For a full quarter-hour he sobbed like a child – this great sturdy fellow of thirty-five. “Forgive me, you’ve done me so much good. I know I’m a fool, but it just had to come – I couldn’t stand it another minute. I want you to see her picture – she’d think you’re great.” And so before he would let us touch his wound, we had to feel in his breast pocket and draw forth a wallet from which he produced the cherished photographs…

(That same evening)

“Two men and a stretcher,” and there in the brilliant moonlight I beheld the most ghastly spectacle I had yet witnessed. Thrown forward on his saddle, his arms clasped about the horse’s neck, was the form of a dragoon. The animal that bore him had once been white, but was now so splashed with blood that it was impossible to tell what colour was his originally. Both man and beast were badly wounded… a lance had pierced his thigh and the horse’s flank, which meant it had been a hand-to-hand fight, and the blood still flowing freely proved that the combat was not an hour old. Madame Guix and I were doing our best when the white faces of my notary and his wife appeared at the door of the dispensary. “Madame Huard, we’ve come to tell you you must go!” “Go?” “Yes, (we have been warned) that the battle would be here by morning.” “But I can’t leave the wounded.” “But you must go. The worst that can happen to them is to be made prisoner, but think of all the young people who look to you for protection. You cannot desert them. You must go.” I looked at Madame Guix. “Go, Madame Huard, you must. You owe it to the others. None of you need me and I can be of service here, so if the sisters will keep me I’ll stay.” Reluctantly I shook hands with my nurse, and hastened down the steps…

“Is there any hope?” “Not one chance in a million! Would to heaven we had the right to spare them such suffering. Morphine is no longer helpful in his case.” It was a shock to hear this. The lad, who a couple of hours before was unknown to me, suddenly became very dear. I turned about to hide my emotion, but was startled out of it by a double line of white beds on which were writhing men and boys in the most awful agony, yet not a sound broke from their lips. (A second doctor) looked around for an aid. “Can I do anything for you, doctor?” He asked, “Are you a nurse?” “No.” “Have you ever seen an operation?” “Yes.” I lied. “Have you a good temperament?” “Yes.” “Then come over here and hold this basin.” I obeyed, then Doctor Jean Masbrennier began a series of operations which will remain graven in my memory forever…

(Madame Huard’s home has now been requisitioned as a French emergency hospital, and she, as a voluntary prisoner in a ‘zone des opèrations’, is not allowed to leave.)

I thought of Madame Guix. Was she still alive? Yes, Madame Guix was there – a heroine, so I learned, loved and respected by every soul who had been obliged to remain in that unfortunate town. I found her ministering to twenty-six severely wounded men – French, English and Germans – quite alone to do all the work, an eighty-year-old doctor coming but once every two days. “She is wonderful,” said Soeur Laurant, “afraid of nothing. Once at the beginning of the invasion she was put against the wall and a brute of a German aimed and pulled the trigger of a gun he had found in the corner. She had accidentally covered it with a wounded man’s great coat! He accused her of hiding arms! Then, in the thick of the battle, she went out into the German lines and sought a doctor for our men – feeling herself incompetent. The whole German medical staff came in and felicitated her on her courage and devotion before they left. I tell you all this – because she never will.”

Madame Guix duly made her appearance, and our hospital was declared open. From loans and requisitions we have accumulated a hundred beds, and for fifteen months now, by begging and the strictest economy, we have managed to keep alive and care, as best we can and in our primitive way, for all those of France’s brave sons who come to us, sick or wounded. With God’s help, we shall go on doing so until the day of our complete victory.”


Forces War Records Subscribers can read this incredible book for free, while non-subscribers can download it as an e-book or PDF for a modest fee of £2.95:


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