Sunday, February 7, 2016


It amazes me how in the literary world themes go in cycles.  Within the past few years there has been a run on books relating to WWII especially people who helped saved the Jews and others escaping Nazi terrorism.

At present the theme is nursing on the battlefields of past wars, and in keeping with our YEAR of MERCY theme  I have presented some well known and lesser known books and TV series about the women who bravely volunteered.

This year we have MERCY STREET a PBS American period medical drama television series. It is set during the Civil War and follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides- New England abolitionist Mary Phinney and Confederate supporter Emma Green. I find the acting for the most part poorly done, but the history is interesting.

Mary, a widow, is sent as new head nurse to an Alexandria (VA) hotel owned by the Southern Green family which is repossessed as a Union military hospital, much to the family's  disliking.
Inspired by memoirs and letters from real doctors and nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital, this new drama reveals the stories of those struggling to save lives while managing their own hardships.

Annie Bell- Note they did wear their long dresses
To depict a realistic and accurate account of this era, the writers and producers collaborated with historians and medical experts, including James M. McPherson who is an American Civil War historian who received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom. Shauna Devine, who wrote Women at the Front:Hospital Workers in Civil War America was also an advisor.

Interesting to note from her work as many as 20,000 women worked in Union and Confederate hospitals during America's bloodiest war. The women were black and white, and from all social classes, serving as nurses, administrators, matrons, seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, and custodial workers.

Field Hospital

Military protocol and society "correctness"  banned women from field hospitals, thus nursing duties continued to be assigned to men. But with the increasing numbers of casualties and the overburdening of facilities, gender-related strictures on nursing broke down and spurred the nation’s women into taking immediate and decisive action to help correct the situation. Leave it to women!

We saw in a past Blog how religious orders sent trained nurses to  staff field hospitals near the front. Within a few months of the war’s onset, some 600 women were serving as nurses in 12 hospitals.

Nuns who volunteered 
There is very little written record of their service though a few of the more famous names left accounts, including Louisa May Alcott, Jane Stuart Woolsey (widow of a prominent industrialist) and Katherine Prescott Wormeley, who with noted landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted and the Rev. Henry Bellows, played a role in the work of the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian agency set up to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women and men who wanted to contribute to the war effort. The Commission was a volunteer affiliate of the Union Army.

 At the beginning of the war, nurses were merely volunteers who showed up at military hospitals. But after Battle of Bull Run, Clara Barton and Dorethea Dix organized a nursing corps to help care for the wounded soldiers. Clara  established an agency to supply soldiers and worked in many battles, often behind the lines, delivering care to wounded soldiers on both sides.

The Sanitary Commission

One critic of this new TV series stated that women of this period did not speak out as it was not "lady-like", so he felt in part the series did not ring true. He must not have read of Dorothea Dix
and all she did in the Civil War to help the wounded. In April 1861, Dorothea  assembled a group of volunteer female nurses, staging a march on Washington, demanding that the government recognize their desire to aid the Union’s wounded. Throughout her life Dorothea begged biographers to de-emphasize her Civil War years. But in 1983, long after she was dead and could not protest the well-deserved honor, she was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

These women may have lacked professional training but they labored tirelessly to bring aid and comfort to the sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the fighting.

Mansion House

Women on the battle front

Thursday, February 4, 2016


For Christmas I received some interesting books related to birds.  One of my favorites is BIRDS IN A CAGE by Derek Niemann. Birding in the 1940s was not the popular passion it is today and field guides were not that common or were poorly done.

"In the summer of 1940, lying in the sun, I saw a family of redstarts, unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees." Soon after his arrival at Warburg POW camp, British army officer John Buxton found an unexpected means of escape from the horrors of internment. Passing his days covertly watching birds, he was unaware that he, too, was being watched. Peter Conder, also a passionate ornithologist, noticed Buxton gazing skywards. He approached him and, with two other prisoners, they founded a secret birdwatching society.
Peter Conder

This is the amazing and inspiring story of an obsessive quest behind barbed wire. Through their shared love of birds, the four POWs overcame hunger, hardship, fear and boredom. Their quest would draw in not only their fellow prisoners, but also some of the German guards, at great risk to them all. Derek Niemann draws on original diaries, letters and drawings, to tell of how four men were bonded by their wartime experience which propelled them into the giants of postwar wildlife conservation.

There were relatively few things that inmates could do, but each of them had noticed birds around the camp, and - despite the absence of binoculars - they had started to record what they saw. In particular they noticed the spring migration of 1942 with a daily log being kept of every bird seen over a period of almost two months. In addition Buxton focused his attention on the Common Redstart.

George Waterston

Their interest in birds attracted the attention of security guards who suspected them of plotting an escape plan.  Some of the inmates thought that they were an odd group. All but Barrett were later moved south to another camp in a wooded valley at Eichstätt where Conder studied the Goldfinch and Waterson focused on the Wryneck  (a type of woodpecker); the latter study totaling an astonishing 1200 hours of observation for him and his "assistants".

 Eventually the men were split up before the War ended in 1945 but all returned home safely.

All wrote papers for British Birds at various times and each made his mark on bird study in a different way. By chance they each joined a different regiment in the Second World War, and by tragic coincidence, all found themselves imprisoned at different places during that war, having been captured in Germany, Norway, France, and Greece respectively.
John Barrett

In their own ways each of the four men went on to make their own impressions on the world of ornithology and bird conservation. John Buxton became a teacher and academic and wrote up his studies of the Common Redstart. John Barrett became the warden of Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire (Wales) and wrote highly-popular guides to seashore wildlife. Peter Conder became the warden at nearby Skokholm, eventually joining the RSPB staff in 1954 and becoming its Director General. George Waterston also ended up on the RSPB staff and is widely accepted as the man who made sure that the Osprey was successfully reintroduced to Scotland in the 1950s.

Peter Conder

Peter Conder
The great value of this book is that it brings together the story of what these men experienced. These are stories that have rarely been told, as each of them remained relatively tight-lipped about their experiences - even to close family.

All four died a long time before Derek Niemann had the idea for this book, but despite having never met any of them he has brought to life their different attitudes and experiences with great ease.
Their legacy lives on.  A good read- even for the non-birders!

Saturday, January 30, 2016


Ravensburg, Germany

The VIRGIN OF MERCY is a subject in Christian Art, showing a group of people sheltering for protection under the outspread cloak of the Virgin Mary. It was especially popular in Italy from the 13th to 16th centuries and is also found in other countries and later art, especially Catalonia and Latin America. In Italian it is known as the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy), in German as the Schutzmantelmadonna (Sheltering-cloak Madonna), in Spanish Virgen de la Merced or Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy), in French as the Vièrge au Manteauor Vierge de Miséricorde (Virgin with a cloak or Virgin of Mercy) and in Catalan as the Mare de Déu de la Mercè.

Usually the Virgin is standing alone, though if angels hold up the cloak, she is free to hold the infant Christ. The people sheltered normally kneel, and are shown usually at a much smaller scale. These may represent all members of Christian society, royalty with crowns, mitres and even a papal tiara of a pope. The subject was often commissioned by specific groups such as families, monasteries and abbeys or guilds.
Virgin with 3 Sts.- Maurico Garcia, 1750

The figures represent these specific groups, as shown by their dress, or by the 15th century individual portraits. The Franciscans were major in spreading this form of iconography. While this image of Mary was highly used in past ages, it is still seen in modern times (Alves) and perhaps would be a worthy subject in our world so in need of the Virgin's protection!

The liturgical feast day of Our Lady of Mercy is celebrated on September 24.

Blessed Virgin Mary, who can worthily repay you with praise and thanks for having rescued a fallen world by your generous consent! Receive our gratitude, and by your prayers obtain the pardon of our sins. Take our prayers into the sanctuary of heaven and enable them to make our peace with God. 

D. Ghirlandaio- Italy 15th C.
Holy Mary, help the miserable, strengthen the discouraged, comfort the sorrowful, pray for your people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all women consecrated to God. May all who venerate you feel now your help and protection. Be ready to help us when we pray, and bring back to us the answers to our prayers. Make it your continual concern to pray for the people of God, foryou were blessed by God and were made worthy to bear the Redeemer of the world, who lives and reigns forever. Amen.              St Augustine of Hippo

Fernando Alves- Brazil

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


In the last episode of "Crimson Field" there is a passing reference of a nurse being executed for treason. At the end of this series, it mentions it is dedicated to the memory of EDITH CAVELL. Of course I had to look up who she was.

Edith Louisa Cavell  (1865-1915) was a British nurse. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage. Edith, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.
Edith (Center) with nurses she trained

There were posters all over Brussels warning that, "Any male or female who hides an English or French soldier in his house shall be severely punished." In spite of this warning, there were soon successful efforts to hide soldiers who were wounded or separated from their units, then given refuge and helped to escape to safety. In Edith's hospital, wounded Allied soldiers were tended and then helped to escape.

Soon Edith was persuaded to make room for some of the unfortunates who were not wounded but merely fleeing the Germans. They too were helped to get to places where they could rejoin Allied forces. The Germans became more watchful of the comings and goings at the hospital and Edith  was warned by friends that she was suspected of hiding soldiers and helping them escape. But her strong feelings of compassion and patriotism overruled the warnings and she continued to do what she thought was her duty.

On 15 August 1915, as was almost inevitable, she was arrested by the German police and charged with assisting the enemy. The Germans suspected that not only were she and others helping Allied soldiers but that the same communication lines were used to divulge German military plans - a serious charge indeed.

Edith was held incommunicado for ten weeks. Brand Whitlock, the American minister to Belgium, was refused permission to see her.
Even her appointed defense lawyer, Sadi Kirchen (a Brussels attorney), was not allowed to see her until 7 October, the day her trial began. Thirty-four others were accused of the same crime and were tried as a group. Several of the accused were friends of Edith's who had worked with her in helping the Allied soldiers.

The trial lasted only two days. Each person was accused of aiding the enemy and was told that, if found guilty, would be sentenced to death for treason. Edith's lawyer was eloquent in her defense, saying that she had acted out of compassion for others. Edith openly admitted that she had helped as many as 200 men to escape, who she knew they could then be able to fight the Germans again, and that some of them had written letters of thanks for her help. This was enough to cause her to be judged guilty and the sentence to be executed.

The final judgment was postponed for three days and during that time desperate attempts were made to save her. The American legation petitioned the German authorities in Brussels. A group composed of M. de Leval, the Belgian councilor to the American Legation; Hugh Gibson, secretary to the American Legation; and the Marquis de Villalobar, the Spanish minister to Belgium, made a hurried visit to the political governor of Brussels, Baron von der Lancken. He listened to their pleas but said that he could not reverse the court's decision. Only the military governor, Von Sauberzweig, had such authority. But even he, after being reached by phone, said that the sentence had to be carried out. In despair, the three men left ­ they could do no more.

On 11 October the prison chaplain, the Rev. Gahan, visited Edith and found her resigned to her fate. She told him. "I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me." Even the German chaplain praised her for being "brave and bright to the last." On the morning of 12 October Edith Cavell and Philippe Baucq were taken to the Tir National, the Brussels firing range. At 7 a.m. both lay dead in the morning sun.

Her death provoked international condemnation, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing: "Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood."

Edith, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium. But there is more to the story!

New evidence reveals Edith Cavell's resistance network was sending secret intelligence to the British.

Recent exploration of the military archives in Belgium show Edith Cavell’s organization was a two-pronged affair" and that espionage was the other part of its clandestine mission.

The Belgian archives contain reports and first-hand testimonies collected at the end of the First World War. In “Secrets and Spies: The Untold Story of Edith Cavell”, historian Dr Jim Beach said military espionage was in its infancy at the beginning of the First World War, and Cavell's associates were amateurs.

While we may never know how much Edith  knew of the espionage carried out by her network, she was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies.

According to Julian Hendy, producer of the documentary: "Cavell was certainly not a naive woman - her shrewd testimony before her German interrogators proved that. As so many leading members of the network were involved in espionage, it would have been truly extraordinary for her to have been completely unaware of the intelligence-gathering.

"The story we have always been led to believe – of a simple nurse just doing her duty helping soldiers – turns out to have been a lot more complicated, nuanced, and dangerous than we had ever previously thought."

She is well known for her statement that "patriotism is not enough". Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers.

She was quoted as saying, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved." The Church of England commemorates her in their Calendar of Saints on 12 October.

Brian Whelan for Exhibition of 100 Ann. of her death (2015)

Monument in London

Monument in Norwich

Friday, January 22, 2016


The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) referred to a voluntary unit providing field nursing services, mainly in hospitals, in the United Kingdom and various other countries in the British Empire.

The VAD system was founded in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and Order of St. John. By the summer of 1914 there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 VAD members in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls.

At the outbreak of the First World War VAD members eagerly offered their service to the war effort. The British Red Cross was reluctant to allow civilian women a role in overseas hospitals: most volunteers were of the middle and upper classes and unaccustomed to hardship and traditional hospital discipline. Military authorities would not accept VADs at the front line.

Katharine Furse took two VADs to France in October 1914, restricting them to serve as canteen workers and cooks. Caught under fire in a sudden battle the VADs were pressed into emergency hospital service and acquitted themselves well. The growing shortage of trained nurses opened the door for VADs in overseas military hospitals. Furse was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the detachments and restrictions were removed. Female volunteers over the age of twenty-three and with more than three months' hospital experience were accepted for overseas service.

VADs were an uneasy addition to military hospitals' rank and order. They lacked the advanced skill and discipline of professional trained nurses and were often critical of the nursing profession. Relations improved as the war stretched on: VAD members increased their skill and efficiency and trained nurses were more accepting of the VADs' contributions. During four years of war 38,000 VADs worked in hospitals and served as ambulance drivers and cooks. VADs served near the Western Front and in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. Later, VADs were also sent to the Eastern Front. They provided an invaluable source of bedside aid in the war effort. Many were decorated for distinguished service.

BBC's recent series CRIMSON FIELD is the story of World War I’s front line medics and of their their hopes, fears, triumphs and tragedies. In a tented field hospital on the coast of France, a team of doctors, nurses and women volunteers work together to heal the bodies and souls of men wounded in the trenches. The hospital is a frontier, between the battlefield and home front, but also between the old rules, hierarchies, class distinctions and a new way of thinking.

Cast of Crimson Field
The girls who volunteer for duty are flung head first into a world for which nothing and nobody could have prepared them, but it is also an opportunity to break free of the constraints and limitations of their lives back home.

One certainly gets a sense of history during war time in these series, and while this one is not as exciting as the Anzac, it is worth watching.

Some famous women who volunteered their services as VADs:
Amelia Earhart, Agatha Christie , Enid Bagnold (author of the novel National Velvet), and Freya Stark, explorer and travel writer.

Olive Dent's memoir is a fascinating period piece, a rare first-hand account of this little-known story, which will resonate very strongly with viewers of The Crimson Field.

Monday, January 18, 2016


Soliloquy translation from "The Merchant of Venice" Act4 - Wm. Shakespeare:
The quality of mercy is not strained: it drops on to the world as the gentle rain does – from heaven. It’s doubly blessed. It blesses both the giver and the receiver. It’s most powerful when granted by those who hold power over others. It’s more important to a monarch than his crown. His sceptre shows the level of his temporal power – the symbol of awe and majesty in which lies the source of the dread and fear that kings command. But mercy is above that sceptered power. It’s enthroned in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute of God himself. And earthly power most closely resembles God’s power when justice is guided by mercy. Therefore , although justice is your aim, think about this: none of us would be saved if we depended on justice alone. We pray for mercy and, in seeking it ourselves, we learn to be merciful.

What is MERCY?  We need to delve a bit deeper into the etymology of this word to understand its full meaning. There are several Hebrew words that are associated with God's mercy:

Kapporeth – means "ransom," "propitiatory," or "the mercy seat."
Racham – means "to love," "to have compassion," or "to show mercy."
Hesed – means "goodness," "kindness," "mercifulness," or "loving-kindness. Hesed is one of my favorite Hebrew words, as it denotes the Convenant between God and His people.  From this comes the Latin translation by St. Jerome, misericordia, from whence we get the word piety.  So often people misconstrue piety as some sort of sweet pious nonsense, when in actuality it has a much richer meaning, one we all need to pray for. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016


ANZAC Square Memorial- Brisbane
Having watched the wonderfully done series by Australian TV ANZAC Girls (2014) I thought it a good story to follow on the heels of our religious nurses in the Civil War. 

The six-part series tells the rarely told true stories of the nurses serving with the Australian Army Nursing Service at Gallipoli and the Western Front during the First World War. The series is based on Peter Rees' book The Other ANZACs as well as diaries, letters, photographs and historical documents.

The action begins as the nurses arrive in Cairo in 1915, taking us to the senseless battle of Gallipoli, where Australian and New Zealand soldiers were caught in a month long stalemate with the Ottoman army. There is plenty of blood and gore and many scenes may be too much for some, but they certainly give pause to what these brave women experienced before the advent of antibiotics and modern technology in the surgery.

By the end of The Great War, forty-five ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) nurses had died on overseas service and over two hundred had been decorated. These were women who left for war on an adventure, but were soon confronted with remarkable challenges for which their civilian lives could never have prepared them.

They were there for the horrors of Gallipoli and they were there for the savagery the Western Front. Within twelve hours of the slaughter at ANZAC they had over 500 horrifically injured patients to tend on one crammed hospital ship, and scores of deaths on each of the harrowing days that followed. Every day was a nightmare but their strength and humanity were remarkable.

This is a very human story from a different era, when women had not long begun their quest for equality and won the vote. They were on the frontline of social change as well as war, and the hurdles they had to overcome and the price they paid, personally and professionally, make them a unique group in ANZAC history.