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In this guest blog post, novelist and Lives of the First World War Volunteer Kristen den Hartog shares with us the remarkable stories of six women from one family, who contributed to the war effort in various ways.
Elsie Mabel Gladstone was the third of five sisters of striking resemblance, all of whom were born into a military family in India, and had settled in St. Helier’s, Jersey, before the First World War. Elsie completed her training as a nurse at London’s Guy’s Hospital in July 1915, and immediately entered the Civil Hospital Reserve. She served on a hospital ship for some time, and then in France and Belgium. In 1919, Elsie was working at the 48th Casualty Clearing Station, treating soldiers suffering from influenza, when she herself contracted the illness, and quickly developed pneumonia.
On the back of this portrait of Elsie in uniform, her sister Rose wrote, for posterity: “Sister Elsie M. Gladstone. QAIMNS; died nursing influenza stricken troops, Namur, Jan 1919. Served in France from August 1915. Rec. RCC. Anaesthetist for the hospital train.” These last words add a little piece more to Elsie’s story, and the level of responsibility she carried, for in the latter part of the war, due to a shortage of medical officers, some 50 specially selected nurses completed extensive training as “lady anaesthetists .” The decision was controversial, and only reached because the situation had become so dire. Despite months of training, the women were not allowed to keep their certificates, and their new skills would not be recognized after the war. One Australian nurse wrote in her diary that her work as an anaesthetist was “a big mental strain ” because of the risk involved, and kept a running tally of the number of times she’d administered anaesthesia — 49 and then 129 and then 227 — “and no casualties so far.” By January of 1919, for all she’d accomplished, Elsie Mabel Gladstone was patient rather than nurse, and succumbed to her illness at age 32. She was buried with military honours in Belgrade Cemetery, one of only two female casualties of the Great War interred in Belgium. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class for her contribution to the war effort, but she did not live to receive it.
- Elsie’s mother and sisters
Perhaps Elsie’s work treating wounded soldiers inspired her family back home; the Red Cross Register of Overseas Volunteers shows that Elsie’s oldest and youngest sisters, Florence Amy Lorne and Gladys Crommelin, signed up together on the same day. They served as VADs in Malta, where Florence met and married a doctor named James Sackville Martin. A photograph exists of the 1916 Valletta wedding, showing the sisters and uniformed groom alongside military men and a Territorial Force matron. Florence’s VAD career seems to have ended at this point, but Gladys carried on, moving from Malta to Falmouth Military Hospital, to Ashton Court Auxiliary Hospital, and finally to the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, where she remained until April 1919.
The second youngest Gladstone sister, Margaret, worked as Head Cook at the Fernleigh VAD Hospital in Larkfield, and also volunteered at home in Jersey. There, beginning in 1915, the women’s widowed mother, Florence Eliot Gladstone, and their sister, Rose, both worked in “hospital stores” at the Continental Hotel, which was the wartime headquarters for the Jersey branch of the Red Cross. Local volunteers produced everything from food parcels and knitted socks to pneumonia jackets and padded splints. Rose volunteered for a year before returning to India to marry, but some time after the war, she traveled to Belgium and photographed Elsie’s grave. Mother Florence, in her 60s by war’s end, continued at the Continental Hotel until January 1919, the very month that Elsie died in Belgium.