Friday, 12 August 2016

#OTD 100 years ago: Which women doctors did the army take on?

Thanks to Col. Walter Bonnici’s hard work, I know that on 12th August 1916, Dr Isabella Stenhouse left Southampton on board the HMHS Gloucester Castle. 

Gloucester Castle before decoration in its hospital ship regalia.

She and fifteen other women doctors were joining 22 of their colleagues. Together, they formed the first cohort of women doctors that the British Army had ever dared to recruit. Not that the army was taking the risk of sending them to help with the flood of wounded from the battle raging in the Somme. Oh, no. Rather than let these ‘ladies’ anywhere near the fighting, the army was shipping them to Malta, far away in the Mediterranean.

It was not that these women were inexperienced. 

Isabella had spent 1915 working in France - that story is told in the book.

Georgina Davidson, too, had served with the French Red Cross but, when that job had finished, she had travelled to Serbia to join Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Florence Bignold had also worked in Serbia.

Recently qualified Martha Stewart had been forced to retreat from advancing enemy troops while running a surgery for Mrs St Clair Stobart’s Serbian Relief Fund. By way of thanks, the King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had awarded her the Order of St Sava. 

And, as if to cap them all, New Zealander Ada McLaren had spent three full months as a prisoner of the Austrians after being captured while working with the Berry Mission, again in Serbia.

Yet these experiences had deterred none of them from boarding the Gloucester Castle. On this day 100 years ago, they set off for war again. 

Their companions were no less bold: Mabel Hector had worked in India; Elizabeth Moffett was an active suffragist who, on occasion, had refused to pay her taxes, while Katherine Waring was so confident of her abilities that she had signed up only 6 months after qualifying. 

As the ship slipped out of port and headed towards the Bay of Biscay, what was going to happen next?

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