Today is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. A devastatingly bloody battle with over a million men killed over its course. The first day alone – 100 years ago today – resulted in around 57,470 casualties. It continued until the 18th of November 1916 – the BBC have some excellent pictures here if you would like to know more.
The Beale family were, unavoidably, involved in the First World War. Helen and Maggie, the two unmarried Beale daughters, joined the local East Grinstead VAD unit in 1911, which led to certificates in first aid and home nursing.
Helen, after serving as a VAD in local Red Cross hospitals and in London, volunteered to work overseas and was posted to France in August 1915 for 13 months. We are lucky enough to have the large collection of letters sent to and from her when she was away in France.
She was sent to at No.26 General Hospital, Etaples from August 1915, arriving only a few months after it was established. She was there until almost the end of the Battle of the Somme, leaving in September 1916.
It is a town of huts, both wooden and tin and canvas – almost miles of them
No. 26 General Hospital consisted of 35 wards, two operating theatres and assorted ancillary services in huts and a large corrugated iron building. In 1917 another VAD, Elsie Tranter, records being able to hear the guns at the front quite clearly. Vera Brittain famously recorded her experiences as a VAD at Etaples, after Helen had left, in Testament of Youth.
The Beales were a close family and sent many letters dealing mostly with domestic and practical matters – they were trusted to “self-censor”, so the war and Helen’s work were mentioned only superficially.
It’s a great time to be out here & a thing to remember for always, and I wouldn’t be missing it for anything…
Life was tough, tending war casualties. Working days were long and life could be hectic. VAD nurses were kept busy, keeping wards clean and meticulously tidy, as well as doing actual nursing.
We really have been busy for this past eight days – convoys in, evacuations out, dressings, Medical Officers popping in and out, the C.O. coming in with fresh orders about extra beds, the Quartermaster coming in and countermanding them, the Matron and the Wardmaster doing the same, patients arriving on stretchers from the theatre or going there or to the X-rays, everybody wanting drinks and writing paper, and their positions shifted or something or other until one really didn’t know which way to turn or what to be at next.
Discipline was strict and conditions were somewhat spartan. Helen rose to the challenge and coped well, describing her demanding work at the hospital:
Eleven & a half hours bang off on end, probably not sitting down at all, or only on the end of a bed whilst one is cutting up dressings etc, is a pretty long spell, and especially that most of the time one is working against time to the most dreadful extent!
I find it is almost impossible to settle down to anything in the night – my lurid imagination always runs riot and I think somebody must be haemorrhaging and I’d really better pop out from behind the screen and go and look.
We are lucky enough to have Helen’s medals in our collection which she was awarded for her war work.
I’ll leave you with a letter Helen wrote to her mother on the 3rd of July 1916, just after the start of the Battle of the Somme. Not quite how we see it based on what we now know.
No. 26 General Hospital
July 3rd 1916
Isn’t it just lovely to have such real exciting news! I do hope it goes on being good. We eagerly read the London newspapers here to get the official reports and so sort our minds a bit as to what is real news and what only rumour. Of course we are busy – off times go by the board at times like these – we are rather thrilled at a notice put up in the Mess to say that folks in surgical wards are to stay within call if they do get off duty – it makes one seem quite important if only in one’s own eyes! This is the kind of time when we bless our luck in being out here. I’m afraid I sounded grumpy rather in my last letter – you can’t think how trying slack times are after a very few days of them. Directly folks get busy all goes much better.
Everybody at home must be simply simmering with excitement over the news – if only we are able to keep it up and really and truly “push” this time. We have had some nice boys from our part in – the good broad burr sounded very home like.
On Saturday being as how it was Dominion Day the Canadians had a bean fest and a Base Ball Match between themselves and the Americans. We strolled along about 5.30 and sat on a bank and watched the fun and were provided with the very sweetest of sweet tea – flavoured with maple sugar I should guess – which we had to lose as we couldn’t drink it. Baseball is a kind of complicated rounders – the real excitement comes when the batter runs from one base to the other – invariably he and the matcher and the ball all arrive at a base at the same moment in a flurry of dust and either he is out or he isn’t according to somebody’s fancy. Last time, or rather the only time, I have seen it played was in New York on the day of our arrival when Mr. Philpotts took Doppy and me to a popular Saturday afternoon’s game.
It’s a quarter to nine but still quite warm and light for sitting out on the balcony. D. Pring was at work in the theatre till 12.30 last night and up at usual at 6 this morning so she has gone to bed and I must go soon so as not to disturb her – also one wants to keep fresh and ready for anything just now and there is nothing like a nice long night’s sleep for that – is there?
I was so glad of Mag’s letter to give me such an account of everything. I wonder if you will ???? Park (?) for a few days – it will be rather a good little change for you I should think. My love to folks there if you go – tell me how my particular fancy Johnny Kenwick (?) is if you see him won’t you.
It’s no good I can’t write sense tonight – I want to tell you all the little thrill bits, at least the things that seem so to us but perhaps aren’t really, and so I will stop as I can’t write those!!!
Very much love to you both,