GIVEN BY PROFESSOR MARJORIE DESROSIER
AT ARC-EN-BARROIS, FRANCE
at St Faith’s Church, Overbury
on Saturday 16 August 2014
Professor Marjorie DesRosier of the University of Washington School of Nursing in Seattle, USA has had an exceptionally full life in Nursing during the last 40 years, both in the academic world and also in the field of nursing practice. She has pioneered considerable interest in the History of Nursing, achieving some very interesting research on many aspects. Whilst working in a University in Georgia, USA at the beginning of this century, she came across the full records deposited by an American nurse, Alice Stewart, who worked during WW1 in the L’Hopital Temporaire. This find triggered a very considerable amount of research into the story of the foundation and running of this British and American funded hospital which catered solely for French soldiers wounded in the Haute Marne section of the long front line which stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Following up a continuous stream on new leads, Professor DesRosier unearthed a surprising amount of records and letters still held in the UK and the USA by both public archives and many of the families with relations who had worked at the Hospital. This helped to give a deeper understanding of the evolution of nursing techniques and the challenges of running hospitals in war-torn countries. Many of the people working at Arc-en-Barrois were volunteers with little medical training, coming from very different backgrounds, including writers (like John Masefield and Lawrence Binyon) and painters (like Henry Tonks and Wilfred de Glehn).
Dating back to the late Victorian period, South Worcestershire had a very participative band of ladies who formed themselves into groups tackling various activities. Music-making was a strong interest, and Elgar was active in encouraging this and in harnessing the resultant concerts to help him with his compositions. And nursing, in the spirit of Florence Nightingale, was another activity which became more pronounced with the shadows cast by the fear of a War against Germany. When War was eventually declared, women leapt forward to help provide nursing care. Often these amateurs had lived relatively sheltered lives and yet they were determined to play their role, just as their male contemporaries were in volunteering to join the Military and Naval Services.
The Bromley-Martin family, from Upton-upon-Severn, who had quite recently intermarried with their distant cousins from Overbury, were one of the first to get things moving. The two eldest daughters, Susan and Madeline, led the way, backed up by Eleanor Holland-Martin and their other sister Nora Russell, with Robert Holland-Martin, a banker in London, acting as Treasurer centralising the fund-raising. Whilst it was a major task raising the cash to finance the cost of a hospital in France, as the participants expanded, the network of contacts grew and in the end moneys came from both the USA and the UK, with families in both countries paying, for example, the cost of specific nursing staff and orderlies and also hospital equipment and ambulances. Lady (Kathleen) Scott, a successful sculptress and widow of Robert Scott of the Antarctic, was especially effective in bringing in major American donors and in attracting other artists to sign on to help. To begin with, the greatest challenge was to find a way through the mass of bureaucratic hoops erected by all sorts of organisations, from the French Government and the French military authorities to the British Red Cross and the UK medical bodies which all had vested interests to stop the formation of such a hospital.
In the end, after much determined pushing led by Madeline and her disparate band of activists and advisers, a Chateau was identified, lent by a branch of the French Royal Family, in the village of Arc-en-Barrois near the town of Chaumont to the north of Burgundy. The place had long been a royal hunting site beside one of the largest forests remaining in France. The Hospital, with Madeline as Directrice, specialised in caring for French soldiers (other ranks) who had not been too devastatingly wounded - they did have surgeons and a small operating theatre, and they also ran a convalescent home in the village headed by Susan Bromley-Martin. The Hospital opened for business in January 1915 and continued for four years, eventually closing completely in March 1919. The colourful band of international women and men, who cared so well for the wounded, developed very strong ties with their ex-patients, to the degree that the soldiers continued to write glowing letters of gratitude to a number of the staff for long after the War had ended - well over 1,000 of those letters still exist.
Marjorie DesRosier will certainly make the fascinating Hospital story and the village come alive through her talk. The Chateau at Arc-en-Barrois still stands, bearing a prominent plaque in memory of the Hospital on its main façade, and the village remains a very attractive place consisting mainly of beautiful limestone houses. As a follow-up to the Lecture, if you find yourself in that part of France it merits a short diversion from the local motorway to visit the scene of such unusual enterprise run with determination by such a colourful band of volunteers, so ably backed up by professional nurses and doctors.