During war-time, soldiers blessed the hospitals. The clean walls were heaven to them; they called their nurses angels of mercy. And they thanked god that they had been taken away from the fields of torn wire, mud and upturned, staring faces.
After the regional wars, the civil wars, there came a World War. World War I had its share of commissioned officers as well as young men – ignorant, adventurous – volunteering. They were expected to step forward, to fall into war’s scissor-like embrace. Their enthusiasm made them deaf to the whirring of blades. And the hospitals were ready, with weary anticipation.
Should these havens be located at the frontline, wreathed with the smells of phosgene and blood, they are no more than shelters pocked with shrapnel – though the scarlet cross painted on their roofs was supposedly a shield against attack.
These were the Casualty Clearing Stations; where triage was performed without pause, where surgeries were performed without rest, and bodies were gathered without count. When there is no more room, the wounded slept on the ground, when there is no more hope, they would wait.
A few miles beyond the guns and the shivering earth were the large houses. Formerly the homes of the wealthy, still cloaked in the metallic allure of the gilded age, they were prepared for new careers. Stairways as sweeping as a debutante’s gown became pathways for gurneys. Empty ballrooms were crowded with beds filled with khaki uniforms and nascent hygiene. Perhaps before death, the soldiers saw visions of ghostly dancers and heard the pale, sentimental waltzes.
But even farther away, there would be relative quiet. The large, country houses were still enlisted into service, this time as convalescent hospitals. Here, as in all hospitals during the first world war, young polished ladies who were not content to sew socks or write letters had taken themselves off the marriage market to choose a different stage. In every theater of war: France, Belgium, Russia, Egypt, the Dardanelles – their dainty hands became seamed and calloused as they ‘did their bit’: far away from tea dances and satin gloves.
The great ladies who commandeered these convalescent hospitals did so as completely as their husbands ruled their regiments, in distant, unidentified lands. Margherita van Raalte married the 8th Baron Howard de Walden in 1912. At the time the name was over 300 years old, granted to Lord Howard by Elizabeth I in 1588, supposedly in gratitude for his bravery in battle against the Spanish Armada. Margherita possessed the aristocrat’s structure – her neck was long, and took its languid time to meet her body. Her fingers were slim and graceful: designed to dangle jewels or to barely hold a fan of feathers. And her eyebrows rushed downwards: the titled lady’s suffering, hooded glory.
After holding the ancient name for only a few years, she too was fighting. She defied the Director General of Army Services who refused to give her permission to take on a Matron and eleven private nurses and establish a convalescent hospital in Egypt. It became the Convalescent Hospital No. 6, in Alexandria. A newspaper article from January 10, 1916 read:
“A visit was paid to Lady Howard de Walden’s British Red Cross hospital which was formerly a palatial residence. Much marble has been used in its construction, and it stands amidst beautiful grounds. Among the patients were 36 New Zealanders. Lady de Walden’s husband, who is serving with the Forces in the Dardanelles, is one of the richest men in England, and both husband and wife have been generous and indefatigable to a degree. New Zealanders who come to this hospital are indeed fortunate.”
This patient is wearing his ‘hospital blues’. Smoking a pipe, smiling broadly – perhaps the war is over for him – a ‘blighty’ wound lurking beneath his beaming exterior – and he is bound for home. The men flanking him might be mates from his battalion, if it weren’t for the red crosses winking from their biceps. The marble fountain, suddenly masculine, that they rest upon might have been giddy and romantic once. The grounds extending behind them are vast and manicured, flinching at the new voices, jovial and therapeutic.
Margherita’s efforts did not go unnoticed. She was named Commander, Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) as well as Dame of Grace, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. During peacetime, she might have been brushed off as a society doyen. But with the outbreak of war she was among the many women who turned their attentions from linen tablecloths to linen poultices. They gained the approval of writers, doctors, their husbands – and the blessings of their jaunty blue-clad patients.