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Women of the Great War

Visit to the Imperial War Museum
and the Florence Nightingale Museum

10th October 2014

My first reaction, on looking at the programme for this visit, was to question the connection between the role of women in World War I and Florence Nightingale.  A little research into the Hospital in the Oatfield was soon to provide the answer.

The first stop on this full day was outside the Imperial War Museum.  Here we were to meet our Blue Badge Guide, Marion, and to assemble by the naval guns in front of the building for a group photograph.  After a brief coffee stop we went to the First World War Galleries for what could only be a taster for a return visit.

One of the first exhibits was trench signs, the names helping soldiers to find their way, often reminding them of home, and alerting them to sites regularly targeted by the enemy.  There was a display focusing on the munitions workers, women as well as men.  In June 1915, there were 195 female employees at the Woolwich Arsenal: two years later the total was over 25,000!  The Women’s Police Service was set up to supervise women workers as there was concern about a decline in women’s morals!  Women also took jobs on farms, in offices, and joined the military.  Young women from the upper and middle classes joined the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD): their comfortable backgrounds had not prepared them for the horrors they were to encounter.  Ethel Bilbrough’s diary tells of the strains put on those women who remained at home.  Taxation rose from 6% to 30% during the war: there was great pressure on household budgets and patriotic cooking was encouraged by the Food Economy Campaign.

Trench Signs
VAD Uniform

Before lunch we returned to the coach for a tour of some parts of London particularly affected by the events of World War I.  Marion pointed out Victory Arch, the main entrance of Waterloo Station.  At Smithfield there is evidence of the Zeppelin raid that took place on 31st May 1915, and pock marks from the first Zeppelin raid on London can still be seen on the gateway to St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

After a substantial roast chicken lunch at The Mad Hatter Hotel in Stamford Street, we proceeded to the Tower of London to see the Blood Swept Lands and Seas Of Red art installation, created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins to mark 100 years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in World War I.  Everyone was delighted when Marion suggested that we fit this into our programme.  This opportunity was a real bonus and a truly memorable experience, proving as well how fortunate we were to have a guide who was so willing to adapt her schedule to suit the group.  When the sun came out the poppies looked even more striking.  By November 11th, there will be 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat, providing a powerful commemoration of such an important centenary.

Florence Nightingale’s
Turkish Lantern

The route to our final stop, the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’s Hospital, took us past many buildings connected with women’s role in the war effort and other famous London landmarks.  At the museum there was much of interest to see.  Victor Tardieu’s small oil paintings of Millicent Sutherland’s “camp in the oatfield” were quite special.  The bright colours of the awnings borrowed from nearby seafront hotels contrast with the haunted look in the eyes of the wounded soldiers.  The rural settings and the colourful hangings would have helped the men recuperate from the nightmare conditions of the front line.  Other highlights were the recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice on phonograph, the cutting edge of technology at the time, and to be reminded of the work of Mary Seacole in the Crimea and the courage of Edith Cavell.  One member of the group remarked how Edith’s dog, Jack, appeared to be still looking for her and waiting hopefully!

[Addendum: one of our members, Jill Wood, has provided this reminiscence of her training and service as a Nightingale nurse]

Our trip came to an end all too soon but a great deal had been packed into one short day.  We were blessed with fine weather in London and had a troublefree journey back to what appeared to have been a wet Cranleigh.  Our thanks must go to Gwen for organising such an interesting and well-paced visit, and to Marion, our excellent tour guide.  She fed us just the right amount of information while we were on the coach and her suggested changed itinerary met with everyone’s approval.  What I saw will remain with me for a long time.

Text by Jane Cross

Photos by Jonathan Cross

Related Links (open in new window):

IWM First World War Galleries
Florence Nightingale Museum

Some of the "big guns" of Cranleigh DFAS
assembled outside the Imperial War Museum