Three Red Cross nurses from the First World WarThere was no room for rebels in the field hospital at Etaples, France in 1915. The daily routine of Red Cross volunteer nurses was strictly controlled by rules and regulations. But in their own huts, there was no one to stop them giggling, munching cake or throwing a pyjama party…

During the First World War, Helen Beale volunteered as a nurse in Etaples. Her letters paint a vivid picture of life at No. 26 General Hospital – the hospital that inspired The Crimson Field.

The VADs woke up at six (“it’s cold and wet then, I can tell you” wrote Helen) to trek across a field in the hopes of getting a warm bath – it was usually cold. They ate breakfast at seven and work started at 7.30am. Shifts ran until 8pm but the women usually got around three hours off during the day for lunch and letter-writing or resting.

The VADs were expected to be professional at all times. In August 1915 Helen wrote to her sister: “Most tremendously strict rules have just been issued as to no motor rides with officers being allowed or dinner parties etc in uniform… nor may we go out into Boulogne without permission.”

No escape

In some ways the VADs were trapped. If they could get permission for a day trip they had to get a lift into town – and riding in a car with “khaki” was forbidden. Last week’s episode of The Crimson Field showed why, as Oona Chaplin’s VAD Kitty got into trouble on the ride into town with the flirtatious Captain Miles.

According to Helen, to get to town and avoid breaking the rules “the way to manage it is to walk along the road and board an ambulance that looks likely to be going there. On the backward journey (so to speak) one goes to the hotel where the Red Cross headquarters are and finds out if anything is likely to be coming here at a convenient hour – it seems casual but I suppose it is alright really!”

The chances of getting a lift back at the right time were slim and if a VAD returned late she had to explain herself to the Matron.

Helen’s friend Maud worked on a hospital train, transporting patients – and life for her was even more restricted. She “lived, slept and existed in” one compartment and could “never leave the train for long as it may always have orders and go off forthwith and of course they never know where they are going or when they’ll get there.”

A hospital in the desert

If you couldn’t drive, No. 26 General Hospital must have felt like the middle of nowhere. Helen described it as “just a sandy slope like a desert”.

It was either boiling hot or freezing cold and a brisk breeze would whip up clouds of sand: “it was really just like a desert sand storm. Dusting the ward with a feather broom was quite futile though of course it had to be done for form’s sake!”

During cold nights in her camp bed, Helen made herself comfortable by propping a life-jacket under her head, which she had worn on the crossing to France. She also swapped her flimsy nighties for pyjamas.

Pyjama party

Helen ordered two pairs of pyjamas in different colours from England. Nightwear was not subject to rules, and after weeks in the same uniform she seized the opportunity to wear patterns and bright colours.

She wrote: “Please don’t think me dreadful to want them. It may be extravagant […] but I do want different colours please – variety of costume being absent[…]one must seek it in nightwear!”

Nightclothes were also the party wear of choice: “Parties here consist of tea or cocoa in one another’s hut. Generally the dress is pyjamas and dressing gowns and your hair up or down as preferred – guests take their own cups with them.”

Slabs of cake

These parties “did not last long” but gave the VADs an opportunity to relax. The young women enjoyed a little light relief from the strict rules and hard work.

Sometimes there was relief in laughing at the rules themselves. Helen said: “We have orders for the day issued by the Commanding Officer (CO) stuck up in our mess just as the Officers’ mess has. The other day the order ran ‘that the CO directs that the practice of shaving the upper lip must cease!’”

Helen and her companions enjoyed each other’s company and would “hoot with laughter when well by ourselves”. They took pleasure from the numerous cakes, chocolates and “eatables” sent by relatives, which “filled the various gaps” left by hospital food.

Helen wrote: “We can’t help laughing to ourselves sometimes to think what folks at home would think to see us so meek and mild and doing what we are bid in the wards […] then again almost directly after dinner sitting on our camp beds in a rather half and halfish costume munching slabs of cake and biscuits etc. It’s a funny life! But really very enjoyable!”

An adventure to remember

Despite all the rules, Helen enjoyed the adventure of volunteering: “It’s a[…] thing to remember for always and I wouldn’t be missing it for anything though it is rather a strain on one’s nerves and temper sometimes!

“Here we really do feel in the thick of things. I do think it is real good luck to have been sent out here. Just fancy being at Manchester all this time when one might be out here!”