From the Archives: War Time Journeys

19 November 2020

Our familiar ways of remembering the sacrifices made in conflicts since the Great War have been sadly altered this year. However, even with the restrictions we have undergone to face this current crisis, ceremonies took place this Sunday and we can still reflect on the hard work and courage shown by those who have experienced war. To mark Remembrance Day this month during the World Health Organization’s Year of the Nurse and Midwife, this article follows the stories of the SHCJ, the women of the Motor Transport Corps and Holy Child Old girls who volunteered as nurses and ambulance drivers in the First and Second World Wars.

In war time school magazines, old girls give accounts of their experiences treating those affected by war. In the Mayfield Review of 1915, there are multiple reports from recent recruits to the Voluntary Aid Detachment and other organisations. Gildie Moran and Christine Lane nursed soldiers convalescing at Monkstown House Auxiliary Hospital in Dublin. Barbara England worked with wounded soldiers, while also helping refugees from Belgium alongside locals at volunteer infirmary dispensary in Glasgow.

Elsie Shute wrote to Mayfield from the Duchess of Sutherland’s Red Cross Hospital and Ambulance Unit based in Dunkirk during 1915. This was an ‘evacuating’ hospital that gave urgent care before sending patients to base hospitals. In her letter, Elsie describes the shelling of Dunkirk by ships that lasted from 7:15am to 2:00pm with shells falling every seven minutes:

the noise is beyond all thought or description. If you can imagine every thunderstorm you have heard rolled into one, it would be something near the noise after about the first two […] after each terrible explosion one wondered if one would be there to hear the next. But there was little time for thinking of oneself

Elsie’s account goes on to detail the careful process of moving patients downstairs away from the glass paneled roof while trying to maintain calm. The staff were ‘terrified’ of a panic which might prove fatal to those whose health was fragile. Elsie praises the fortitude of the French soldiers she treats, describing them as ‘charming to nurse and so patient’ remembering one man smiling and chatting despite terrible injuries. Thinking back to days at Mayfield she sends a message to Reverend Mother General that she is trying to live up to what was promised long ago: to be ‘a credit to you …true children of the Holy Child and the SHCJ.’

In the Second World War a later generation of Holy Child Old girls contributed to the war effort. Their work ranged from gathering harvests and milking cows in the Land Army to technical work in a Dome Teacher for the Auxillary Territorial Service (A.T.S.).

One organisation which was to develop a close relationship with the SHCJ was the Motor Transport Corps (M.T.C.). The M.T.C. was established in 1939 by Mrs G.M. Cook CBE as a voluntary civilian organisation. Its main purpose was to provide drivers for military and British government departments. As a M.T.C. driver, Iris Birtwistle worked with the American Ambulance Corps based the South East of England. In an area where ‘there were many dogfights in the skies’, Iris would transport patients to hospitals. Iris writes in the Layton Hill Magazine 1943 her story of a Polish airmen found at sea and badly injured. The nurse feared he would not survive the journey. He smiled as Iris offered him her Rosary and managed to pull though.

The M.T.C. also worked in multiple capacities in Europe and beyond. The French Government agreed to the M.T.C.’s offer to work in France in December 1939 and 130 members were deployed there. Two M.T.C. women were taken prisoner after the invasion. As this news clipping kept by the Neuilly community relates, Miss Penelope Otto managed to escape and was recommended for a Croix de Guerre.

Once war was declared in 1939, it was clear to the Community at Neuilly that they could not expect students and they would have to find other work to do to support themselves. The French Service Sanitare Automoblie introduced the sisters to the British M.T.C. and 47 Rue Perronet became their Paris headquarters on 8th December. The M.T.C. ladies ‘came to love the atmosphere of the convent’, while the nuns ‘devoted themselves to their comfort and well-being’. One M.T.C. member, Mrs Yvonne Macdonald (née Bell), was a Holy Child Old girl of Mayfield and Neuilly. She proved a stalwart friend to the community in the desperate times ahead.

When the situation for France grew grave, Yvonne suggested to Reverend Mother Mary St Maurice that, once the British embassy ‘gave the signal’ the M.T.C. could arrange for the community to be evacuated from Paris. When Yvonne warned her that the journey would be dangerous, M.M. St Maurice simply ‘put her whole trust in God and accepted’.

Yvonne Bell (second from right, holding camera) seated with (left to right) Anne Murphy, Sigrid Bell and Cecilia Perez as pupils at Mayfield Convent School, circa 1920.

On Sunday 9th June ‘the blow fell’ as a note from the British Embassy military attaché ordered all to leave that night. At 4am the six SHCJ – Mother Mary St Maurice, Mother Mary Rita, Sister Margaret, Sister Dolores, Sister Dismas and Mother St Teresa from the Fribourg community – left Neuilly accompanied by six of the M.T.C. women and two dogs in a convoy of five cars. The keys to 47 rue Perronot were left in the care of a good friend of the Sisters, M. Vidier.

The community travelled south to Bordeaux, where they would take a boat up the Gironde and cross the Bay of Biscay, sailing onto Britain. The sisters stayed for a few days with the Comtesse de Bonneval, a cousin of M. Marie Osmonde. Their hostess – ‘worthy of the noblest traditions of her country’ – lived with her daughter, an M.T.C. worker assisting the 350 refugees from Alsace and Belgium in Bonneval. The Comtesse’s husband and son were both fighting at the front.

On Saturday 16th June, the SHCJ were taken to Périgueux to pick a up M.T.C. member ‘found sleeping peacefully’. The sisters were treated to croissants, butter and milk by kindly and well-meaning hotel staff up at the early hour. They were later informed by the ‘indignant’ proprietor in his dressing gown that these were for his guests. The diarist comments ‘all we could do is regret, pay and go as soon as possible’.

Reaching Bordeaux at 2:30pm, the group found the town populated with a further 500 000 people. After a three-hour search in pouring rain the six SHCJ could find no accommodation. Fortunately, a restaurant owner directed them to the Convent of St Joseph. They could not stay in the school which had become a military hospital, but the community of St Joseph’s made room for the tired SHCJ to rest in their own infirmary. The diarist comments ‘never can we forget the lavish hospitality and delicate thoughtfulness of those dear nuns’.

On 17th June, Yvonne Macdonald reported to the sisters that she had obtained passes for the evacuation of M. St Maurice and M.M. Rita from the British Consulate. This was ‘known to be difficult to secure’ and all were greatly relieved.

The following day the sisters boarded a destroyer that took them out to the Nariva, an ex-cargo boat taking refugees to England. There was little accommodation for the 260 passengers on a boat meant to take 2 passengers and a crew of 50. However, ‘Mrs Macdonald’s powers of persuasion and untiring zeal for our welfare’ secured a steward’s room for four of the SHCJ to sleep. M.M. Rita and Sister Dismas took up a corner of the M.T.C.’s tent on deck.

Danger was ever present during the four-day voyage. Through the nights, four RAF men kept watch and the Nariva’s captain did not go to his quarters for the entire journey. The Nariva paused in the harbour of Royan as a German plane flew towards them before being shot down by French planes. There were also reports that Italian submarines lurked beyond the harbour. A Dutch boat behind the Nariva, also carrying refugees, was hit and none survived. In similar experience to that of Pamela Hussey in 1942, when the ships sailing just before and after the voyage she braved to do her bit were sunk, this must have been a terrible reminder of the grave threat faced by passengers and crew.

As the shores of England were sighted, Major de Linde called for three cheers to be raised for the crew, 41 of whom had given up their beds to women and children. The Major celebrated Mrs Macdonald and the M.T.C. women likewise, since they had ensured all were provided with tea and meals during the long crossing.

All received a warm welcome in Milford Haven from the St John Ambulance workers and girl guides, but the sisters were unsettled when M. St Maurice and M.M. Rita were requested to remain in the town to wait on the Chief Constable’s leave. Both had to stay at the Convent of Mercy but, M.M. Paul O’Connor swiftly resolved the matter the following day. The diarist reflects on this end to their shared experience: a sad and sudden separation for the sextet who had journeyed so far together and shared so many dangers and so many graces.

Her words testify to the ability shown by so many in such difficult times to feel a closer bond, appreciating each grace and every kindness given in the darkest days.