Brookwood Cemetery – The Nurses of Brookwood

Tucked away beneath these trees and bushes, this is the Brookwood Nurses’ Plot.

Or, according to this map of Brookwood Cemetery, with the much smaller Brookwood Military Cemetery, or at least some of it, in orange, and the Nurses’ Plot in red, ‘Princess Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service (Nurses Plot)’.

Once upon a time, the little plot looked like this, with just open space beyond,…

…but now the bushes enwrap the headstones, and the land behind is covered by the small white headstones of the Ismaili burial ground.

The Army Nursing Service was formed in 1884, followed by, in 1894, a reserve of nurses, Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Reserve.  Following the Second Boer War between 1899 & 1902, the need for a professional nursing service led to the creation of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in March 1902, which, in 1908, took over responsibility for the reserve force, who were employed on an individual contractual basis during the Great War (there’s an example of this later).  Above: QAIMNS nurses in 1914.  And if, at this point, you have spotted the obvious error, no, I have absolutely no idea why the earlier map refers to the plot as ‘Princess Alexandra’s’ as opposed to ‘Queen Alexandra’s’, because nowhere can I find any reference that the service’s name was ever ‘Princess Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service’.

Four of these nurses died in 1916, one in 1917, and seven in 1918.  The headstone closest to the camera at the front of the plot…

…marks the grave of Sister Christine Nicol, QAIMNS, born to Scottish parents in the Falkland Islands in 1880,…

…and who died of illness on 6th February 1917 aged around 36, I think having served on the Home Front as opposed to serving abroad, but otherwise I can tell you no more about her.

We shall return to Sister Maude Ellen Hills, the headstone in the foreground*, shortly, but first, on the far left,…

*a headstone which had yet to be erected, you may have spotted, when the ‘once upon a time’ photo I showed you earlier was taken.

…this is the grave of Staff Nurse Edith Sarah Tulloch, QAIMNS, who died on 8th October 1918 aged 33.

Medical Board assessment from November 1917 (left), and the only document (right) that I could find that specifies a cause of death, right at the bottom, where you will find ‘Pneumonia following influenza’.

The first, but not the last, Spanish flu victim we shall encounter in this plot.

Sister Maude Ellen Hills, Territorial Nursing Service (the Territorial Reserve Forces Act of 1907 led, the following year, to the creation of a Territorial Force Nursing Service to support the new Territorial Force).

Taken ill in 1918, Sister Hills seemed to know what lay ahead, according to this letter dated 1st July 1918,…

…because she would die on 22nd July 1918, aged 43.

Once again the form on the left gives the cause of death, in this case, ‘Carcinoma of Stomach’.

Sister Gertrude Annie Stephenson, QAIMNS,…

…had served in Salonika since February 1915* (above left), and was seriously ill by late September 1917 (above top right) before being evacuated back to Blighty in October (detailed below left), where she would die of abdominal cancer on 25th March 1918, aged 42 (above bottom right).

*which is more than curious considering British & French troops first landed at Salonika in October 1915.  Should the date on the form really be February 1916, I wonder?

And thanks to the letter on the right, written by her sister a few months after her death, we know a little more about her, including her earlier service in France, and her later journey home from Salonika.

The grave of Staff Nurse Ida Durant Hannaford, QAIMNS.

Active Service Casualty Form from which we learn that she was another nurse taken ill in Salonika and evacuated to Blighty,…

…where she died in London ‘after the operation of hysterectomy’, on 14th March 1918.  She was 34.

Staff Nurse Hilda Louise Lea, QAIMNS, who died on 10th May 1916 aged 38.

The form on the left shows that she embarked for Egypt in August 1915, and faced a medical board there on 8th March 1916, the results of which are documented on the blue form on the right, which ends with ‘The Board recommends that this sister be transferred to England’.

Which was where she died, just a couple of months later, although nowhere can I find her actual cause of death (although the previous blue form gives us an idea).

Reverse of an identical form to the previous blue form, this one dated ‘Cairo 17.3.16’, the final point, I thought, being of particular interest in that it makes it clear that diseases contracted on service abroad are to be ‘regarded as caused by military service’.

The grave of Sister Margaret Elliffe, QAIMNS, aged 27,…

…whose journey began on 1st September 1914 when she offered her services as a nurse to His Majesty’s Forces (left), and ended on 24th May 1916 when she died at Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital in Millbank, London (right), although again, I know not why.

Arrangements for her funeral at Brookwood.

Staff Nurse Lillie Wallace, QAIMNS, who died of illness on 6th June 1916, aged 25.

I can tell you no more.

The final grave in the front row is that of Staff Nurse Kate Rosina Sturt, QAIMNS.

Original application form (left) and notice of acceptance (right), dated 21st May 1915.

Letter, on the left, written just over a year later, in June 1916, offering to extend her service on the cessation of her current contract.  According to the form on the right, she had served in Malta (during the latter months of the Gallipoli campaign – more about Malta later) before returning to England; she then went to Newham for what must have been a very short period of time because she would be admitted to Vincent Square Hospital in south west London where she died of ‘illness contracted on duty’, according to the text beneath the photograph of her, on 13th December 1916, aged 28.

The West Ham Union Infirmary, as it was known until 1917, had over 600 beds and cared for many thousands of wounded & sick servicemen during the Great War.  I think it likely she was sent to work here, and logic dictates that it was here that she fell sick.

The grave of Sister Dorothy Helen Cole, Territorial Nursing Service,…

…who died on 24th October 1918,…

…of pneumonia following influenza, aged 29; the document above (bottom left) is worth reading.

Staff Nurse Winifred Haviland Irwin, also Territorial Nursing Service,…

…and another flu victim.  She died on 18th November 1918, a week after the Armistice, aged around 31.

Now you know the inner secrets of a nurse’s wardrobe.

Death notifications that include some of the nurses whose graves we have visited.

The final burial we have yet to see in the plot is Nurse Phyllis May Maltby, V.A.D.* Member, who served on the Home Front in the West Country & the Midlands, but was another who had also spent some time on Malta.  She died of pneumonia on 6th December 1918 aged 27, whilst serving at the 1st London General Hospital in south London, another victim of the flu.  Hers is the first name that appears on the GRRF below, followed by nine more of the nurses buried here in the Nurses’ Plot.

*Voluntary Aid Detachment.  The Voluntary Aid Detachments were non-military organisations created in 1909 whose members were trained by the St John Ambulance Brigade.

At which point we shall embark on one of those detours we often find ourselves navigating on this website, because you will have noticed that a couple of the nurses buried here had spent some time on Malta (below, the tented hospital camp at Spinola Fort on Malta),…

…and if you know your Mediterranean geography to any great degree, you might be wondering why nurses were serving there in the first place, and who exactly it was they were tending to.  It was all about Churchill’s great venture in the Dardanelles in 1915, the objective of which was to knock Turkey out of the war.  The intention had been, once the Turks had been pushed back from the landing areas in the first days of the Gallipoli invasion, to erect hospitals along the coast from where the wounded and sick could be evacuated to the base at Mudros on the island of Lemnos, some fifty miles away to the south west.  The intention had been that serious cases were to be taken aboard hospital ships where they could receive immediate attention, and those classified as ‘walking wounded’, and cases of milder sickness, would be packed into transports for the journey.  What the intention failed to take into account was the total failure of the attacking troops to push inland, leaving medical orderlies on the shell and bullet-swept Gallipoli beaches working in the open with no way of classifying wounded men in any structured way, and soon men were simply being packed aboard whichever ship was available to transport them to Mudros.

Except that, before long, the hospitals around Mudros port were full, the hospital ships anchored in the harbour were full (above left), and there was simply no alternative for the transport ships than to continue for a further two days to Alexandria in Egypt (above right – transports in Alexandria harbour in April 1915 prior to the Gallipoli landings; these same transports would almost certainly later return packed with sick and wounded).

Although by then, for some (above left), there was no need to travel further.  On arrival in Alexandria (berthed troopships in Alexandria harbour, above right, tented Alexandria hospital, one of many, below),…

…they were likely to find the hospitals full, necessitating, for some, another three-day journey of not far off a thousand miles to Malta.  The transport ships had only been intended to be used for the two-hour or less trip to Mudros, and conditions for those aboard after several days at sea with minimal sanitation were truly awful.  In the early days many transports had yet to be cleaned of the debris left behind by their original equine cargoes, and with cases suffering from gangrenous & suppurating wounds kept on deck for the ‘air’, the men suffering from fever & dysentery, packed inside in the heat of the ship’s hold, must have suffered appallingly.  And that’s without even mentioning the danger from U-boats.

German map from early 1917 showing U-boat victories in the Mediterranean over a twelve month period,…

…and a close-up of the same map showing the route from the Gallipoli peninsula (beneath the red circle) to Lemnos (in purple), Alexandria, and finally Malta (in green).  Bear in mind that once the Gallipoli campaign was over, sick and wounded troops from Salonika (beneath blue circle), where the campaign would continue until September 1918, would have taken the same route from Lemnos to Alexandria or Malta.

Arrival in Malta; hospital ships in the harbour.  In the spring of 1915 the hospitals on Malta were still in the process of being set up, they were understaffed, and they were overwhelmed by the number of serious cases brought ashore after so many days at sea.  The men died like flies, and the nurses, many also newly arrived from the U.K. as the Gallipoli situation worsened, had to cope as best they could.  It hardly bears thinking about.

Before May 1915 there were four hospitals on the island of Malta, two of which are pictured above.  The largest, on the left, was Cottonera Hospital, with a total of 167 beds, followed by the hospital at Mtarfa Barracks, on the right, where there were 55 beds; the other two could boast 56 beds between them.

In early May 1915 the barracks at Tigne was converted into a hospital for 600 men (rising to 1300 by the war’s end), and by December 1915 the number of military hospitals across the island had increased from four to twenty seven.

Initially, a number of barracks were converted to hospitals.  On the left above, nurses & orderlies pose for the camera at St. Andrews Barracks, opened in May 1915 with over a thousand beds, and on the right, a ward at Valetta Hospital, one of the original four, its capacity hugely increased by the time this photo was taken.

But soon tented hospitals were cropping up across the island, the largest of which, Ghajn Tuffieha Convalescent Camp, seen above from both north & south, was opened in August 1915 with 2,000 beds, which had risen to 5,000 by 1919 (not all of the hospitals remained open throughout the war – four would close in 1916 and a considerable number in 1917).

Accommodation for some was more salubrious; this is St. Paul’s Hutments, although there are still plenty of tents to be seen in the background.

Snapshot of Mellieha Convalescent Camp, open between February 1916 & September 1917, the twenty eighth and final hospital opened on the island during the Great War (it eventually held 2,000 beds).

Between the start of May 1915 & February 1919, 5,468 officers & over 130,000 other ranks were treated in hospitals on Malta, along with 481 nurses who required treatment during that time.  Today around 2,000 Great War casualties are buried on the island, the majority in Pieta Military Cemetery (red dot), although almost five hundred sailors who died during the Great War can be found in Capuccini Naval Cemetery (green dot).  Hardly surprisingly, there are almost twice as many Second World War burials on the island as there are Great War.

Back in Brookwood, there is one more Great War nurse who is buried here, although not in the Nurses’ Plot.  Staff Nurse Laurie Edna Bird, QAIMNS, died suddenly of heart failure on 19th August 1919 (see letter below) aged 29 (thanks to Dee Hutchison for these very recent – 2024 – headstone photos).

Laurie Bird’s name appears on the above GRRF, as, at the bottom, do two more of the nurses whose graves we have already visited.  At the start of the Great War, there were around 300 QAIMNS nurses in total.  By the end of the war that number had increased to over 10,000 as restrictions on eligibility were eased.  Around 200 nurses would die of enemy action or of sickness between 1914 & 1919 while on active service.

Elsewhere, I found this grave, another QAIMNS sister, but this time from a different World War.  Sister Vera Venetia Spedding died at the age of 30 on 20th February 1940.  You can’t see it properly, but the inscription at the bottom says. ‘Utile dulci’, which means ‘Useful & agreeable’.  Well, that’s nice then.

At which point we say goodbye to Brookwood Cemetery…

…and companion,…

…as next post we return to the military cemetery, where we’ll take an admittedly brief look around the Canadian Second World War Plot (above), followed by a couple of other areas of the cemetery that we have yet to visit.

This entry was posted in Brookwood Cemetery & Brookwood Military Cemetery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Brookwood Cemetery – The Nurses of Brookwood

  1. nicholas Kilner says:

    A really excellent post. Fantastically well done to find so many personal letters and documents. Really interesting info on the Gallipoli evacuations as well. Some of those journeys must have been horrific.
    Thats a very odd engraving on Sister Vera Speddings headstone, personally I’m hoping for something a little more endearing on mine.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Cheers Nick. I knew you’d find this of interest, obviously. And yeah, I was pleased with the research, and the Malta business just kinda morphed together as I was considering the fate of these ladies. And the men they looked after.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.