Wendy’s round-the-world trip to honour WW1 nurse
A YOUNG First World War nurse wearing a starched collar, white apron and ‘kerchief-style cap, tied at the nape, stares serenely out of a hand-coloured photograph in an oval frame.
It was this revered image of Jeannie Smith Lee, hung proudly on the wall of her grandmother’s sitting room, that first pricked the curiosity of Wendy Dunlop.
And when she inherited a ‘treasured bundle’ of Jeannie’s letters, posted home to her family in Haltwhistle from field hospitals in France, she decided it was time to record her great aunt’s short life for posterity.
Wendy is a freelance writer from Christchurch, New Zealand, who has travelled to Tynedale this month with her aunt Marion, (Jeannie’s niece), to introduce her book, Letters from France, into local libraries and bookshops.
The two women also wished to visit some of the people who had helped her research it, such as Tynedale Tennis Club, where Jeannie was a member, and Wydon Farm, Haltwhistle, which was Jeannie’s mother’s home.
“I knew she was the sister who had gone to war and never came home,” Wendy said.
“But I didn’t feel able to push my grandmother (Jeannie’s sister and Marion’s mum, Eleanor) to tell me too much about her as she was still really distressed that she died overseas as a nurse. I don’t think she ever really got over it.”
The deep grief her death must have caused is apparent in the last letter Jeannie ever sent back to Blighty. It was to her ‘Dearest E’ (Eleanor) who had sent her some much-appreciated chocolate as she knew Jeannie had had measles.
In the handwritten note dated March 28, 1917, she said she was hoping to get leave, and added: “I do hope I shall get some. I am longing to see you all.”
Tragically, two days later, Jeannie died from sepsis, aged just 25. It was perhaps a complication of her measles or of meningitis, as she had recently looked after another nursing friend with cerebro spinal meningitis.
In her book, Wendy wrote, “In the Great War, millions paid with their lives and every life lost was a tragedy for the next of kin. But this war saw a greater involvement of women than any other conflict that had gone before. The deaths of women, especially nurses, evoked powerful emotions within their communities as well as personally among their families and friends.”
Certainly this very newspaper carried a lengthy obituary of Jeannie and reveals how kind she was. For she had evidently given up her turn for leave so that her friend, Isabella Watson, another Haltwhistle nurse , could return for her father’s funeral.
Letters home were heavily censored, so there was a limit to how much Jeannie could reveal about life on the Western Front.
Nevertheless, her correspondence, complemented by Wendy’s assiduous research, afford us a glimpse into the desperate conditions in which the brave VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses had to work.
Stationed on the outskirts of Rouen, in Northern France, Jeannie mainly nursed in wooden huts or tents and the cold and mud were abiding problems. Indeed she wrote home for gumboots and camphorated ice, which was used to treat chilblains.
Wendy said: “In the years before antibiotics, the smallest wound could cause an escalating infection with life threatening consequences.”
In one letter Jeannie wrote: “It is awful when it is wet, plodging through the mud from one hut to another. It is snowing hard just now as I write. By the way, we wear thick woollen gloves, always, even when we are getting our meals because the steel handled knives nearly freeze our hands...”
However, the bloodied soldiers, brought in in their hundreds, afforded Jeannie and her fellow nurses the utmost respect and gratitude.
“We cannot do a great deal for the men because we have so many to look after, but poor things they are SO grateful. The change in them after two days or so is absolutely astonishing. They are in such a state when they come down (from the front).”
Rats were a perpetual problem. Even when Jeannie herself was being treated for measles, the hospital was plagued by vermin. “The tent here is awful and simply overrun with rats,” she wrote. “They dance polkas on our beds at night and last night, a little VAD in the next bed to me woke us all with a terrifying scream. One had run through her hair.”
After complaining to the commanding officer, the floors of the tent were taken up. “They raised dozens but only caught two. We are hoping for a little peace tonight.”
Jeannie’s VAD record card reveals she joined the Red Cross in 1911 as a member of the 30th Northumberland Voluntary Aid Detachment, based in Haltwhistle, where she lived at Scaurside House, Tyne View. She was a governess in Hexham and regularly played at the tennis club there.
Her cattle trader father, Smith Lee, and mother, Bessie, had three other children – Jeannie’s elder sister, Eleanor, who was also a governess and music teacher at Bellister Castle; a younger sister, Laura, a primary school teache, and brother Duncan, who joined the Northumberland Fusiliers.
By 1910 there were 202 Voluntary Aid Detachments around the country and over 6000 volunteers; this increased at the outbreak of war in 1914 when the Red Cross and Order of St John combined to form the Joint War Committee.
Soon after the war began, Jeannie applied to undergo nursing training at Armstrong College in Newcastle and, having gained her First Aid and Home Nursing certificate, did a placement at the RVI before volunteering at Gilsland Hotel, which had become a convalescent camp for the wounded.
In 1915, she went to work in the military hospital in Newcastle, 1st Northern General, before applying for active service overseas from October 1916.
Wendy said her father must have given his permission reluctantly as Duncan was already in the mud-filled trenches of France.
Before embarkation, VAD nurses received a letter from the commander in chief, which said that sacrifices might be asked of them.
“Give generously and wholeheartedly, grudging nothing, but remembering that you are giving because your country needs your help,” it said.
Jeannie, sadly, was one of those who paid that ultimate sacrifice.
Her name is on the Haltwhistle war memorial along with 80 of the town’s other Great War casualties. Her body lies in the St Sever cemetery in France and next Thursday, on the centenary of her death, Wendy and Marion will pay their respects at her grave.
When they first visited 10 years ago, Marion recalled: “It was the most moving experience. The cemetery looked enormous, but we were told that this was not a big cemetery, which brought home to you just how terrible the death toll was.”
Wendy said researching the book had unlocked a legacy as it led her to the Nursing Memorial Appeal,which aims to erect a permanent memorial next year in Staffordshire’s Memorial Arboretum with the name of every nurse who died in both world wars.
Jeannie’s is already on the list – and she is also set to have a nursing scholarship created in her name.
“That’s something special,” Wendy said.
To contribute to the memorial fund, visit www.nursingmemorialappeal.org.uk