Nurse recruitment poster

Kate Luard

A group of VADs en route to France in 1916

NO women fought in the trenches. Even the emancipation wrought by the war didn't go that far. Yet thousands of women shared the dangers and horrors of the frontline, earning themselves their own title of honour – the “angels of no man's land”.

They were the army nurses, who tended the wounded and dying in casualty clearing stations and field hospitals behind the lines. They worked within shellshot, and although they were never deliberately targeted by the enemy, many of the nurses themselves became casualties.

One of these nurses became something of a celebrity. The letters of Essex nursing sister Kate Luard were published after the war, bringing her unsought for fame. As well as being the nurse that any soldier would want at their bedside, Kate was also a vivid writer and sharp observer.

Kate came from south Essex, although she saw little of home for four years. Home for her in the war years was what she called “the quagmire of France”.

Kate's letters chart the unfolding history of the war from the prism of a military hospital ward. They relay, in microcosm, through the eyes of a capable, highly intelligent woman, the story of the army's medical service in the war,

This service, the Royal Army Medical Corps was in many was the pride of the forces, and the envy of every other army in the world. Its scale and professionalism was a legacy of the work of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.

Nothing, however, had prepared the army medics for the new world of industrial warfare and the scale of casualties that it inflicted. In the opening months of the war, doctors and nurses were all but overwhelmed. More men of the British Expeditionary Force died from gangrene than directly from enemy bullets and shells. “They died like flies, and we were powerless to save them,” wrote army doctor Capt Geoffrey Keynes.

More nurses were needed. Fortunately, there was a reservoir of able and willing young women on which to draw.

Almost 20,000 of them had been trained in basic medical practice by the Red Cross and the Order of St John. Most were upper or middle-class girls. Their destiny, before 1914, lay in marriage, children, socialising and perhaps a spot of charity work.

One, Miss Kay Broderick, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Kent, recalled: “I joined the Red Cross because all my friends did and it was a very sociable way to spend a day. Also I had a crush on a local doctor who gave lectures.

“But I found that I was really rather good at it, and progressed to quite a high level of proficiency. I also began to realise that there were more important things in life than the latest hunt ball.” She went on to become matron of a military convalescent hospital.

Young women like this formed the bulk of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, formed in 1909 as an auxiliary brigade of nurses. When the call came from the battlefront, and after a short, intensive period of extra training, the “VADs” headed off to work in the hospitals of France and Flanders, alongside long-serving nurses like Kate Luard.

These women had few illusions about what they were in for. Many had already lost brothers and fathers in the war. Yet for all the horror, tragedy and waste, the army nurses regarded military service as an opportunity and even an adventure. Nobody would ever again look on them as mere marriage fodder.

Certainly other women stuck at home tended to envy them. Despite Kate Luard's vivid accounts of the horrors of war, her sister wrote to her: “You are a lucky devil waltzing to the Front like that.”

As a fully professional Queen Alexandra nurse, Kate Luard was cut from rather different cloth than the VAD girls. The daughter of the vicar of Aveley, she had qualified in the 1890s. Having served throughout the Boer War, she was, come 1914, already a war veteran.

Kate was in France within a few days of the outbreak of war. She was there to observe at close hand the ravages of gangrene as it swept through the wards. The following year she took charge of a casualty clearing station, with 40 nurses, many of them of them raw recruits like Kay Broderick.

Kate Luard is unstinting in her description of the horrors that she deals with on a daily basis, like the young soldier with a head wound who is contorting so violently that his brains are tossed out of his skull pan.

Equally sad, in a different way, are her accounts of the soldiers who, she forms a close bond with, learning about their families and sweethearts, although she knows they are dying. She describes a whole ward full of men “drowning in their own secretions” following a gas attack.

Surrounded by death, she embraces life with a vehemence unimaginable to those of us who who have lived our lives only in peacetime. On her rare rest days, she packed a haversack and went for long hikes behind the lines.

On a spring morning in May, after working all night among the dead and grievously wounded, she takes a shorter walk. She climbs to an observation post on a slag-heap. A soldier lends her a pair of field-glasses, and she watches enthralled as British artillery try to bring down a German observation balloon. Then she walks to a nearby wood to pick orchids. These will be laid on the graves of men who died the previous night, and whose hands she had been holding.

Above all, Kate testifies to the testifies to the courage of the nurses and the soldiers, and the way that laughter kept them going, and somehow sane. Kate describes a wounded officer who had been lying face down on a stretcher for so long that he was glued to the stretcher with blood and other fluids. “I'm most comfortable, thank you, it's all very funny,” he says, laughs, and dies.

The next time that anyone makes a scathing remark about Essex girls, just mention Kate Luard. It is hard to study her letters from the front without falling a bit in love with her. In her dedication, her courage, her tenderness, and the joie de vivre that she maintained in the face of hell on earth, she embodied that generation of wartime women who served as nurses on the terrible Western Front.

If love blossoms, you are part of an army of lovers. Hundreds of thousands of men who were tended by these nurses also fell in love with them. One, Lieut Jack Caddigan, went on to write a song in tribute:

There's a rose that grows in No Man's Land, and it's wonderful to see.

Though it's sprayed with tears, It will live for years,

In my garden of memory.

It's the one red rose that the soldier knows,

It's the work of the Maker's hand.

In the war's great curse stood the Red Cross nurse,

She's the Rose of No Man's Land.