Groans and moans. Blood and pus. It must have been a shock swapping life in Surrey for a hospital tent in France. But that’s exactly what Peggy Arnold did during the First World War. Exactly 100 years after she died, we remember Peggy’s heroic work and the thousands of women like her who volunteered for the British Red Cross during the war.
Margaret Trevenen Arnold, known as Peggy, was the eldest of four daughters. Before the war she and her sister Ruth joined the Surrey branch of the British Red Cross. They attended lectures and practical classes in first aid and other useful skills.
In February 1915 Peggy went to Hilders House, a new Red Cross war hospital. Here she trained as a nurse.
Four months later, she was ready. On 5 June, Peggy set off for France. She was one of the first Red Cross volunteer nurses (known as VADs) to serve in a military hospital outside Britain.
She was sent to Number 16 hospital at Le Tréport, near Dieppe.
Hospital or tent?
The hospital looked rather different from your nearest A and E. Perched on top of 300-foot cliffs, it was entirely under canvas, exposed to the wind, rain and burning sun. The patients had to put up with tents but wooden huts were later provided for the VADs’ quarters.
The frontline trenches were about 60 miles away in the valley of the Somme. Hospital life was governed by the ebb and flow of the war, madly busy one week and quiet the next.
Peggy spent nine months at Le Tréport, recording the sights, sounds and smells of hospital life in her diary.
Groans and moans
She described the ward as a place of “groans, and moans, and shouts, and half-dazed mutterings, and men with trephined heads suddenly sitting bolt upright . . . nearly every sheet showing signs of the wound, and face wounds showing pus at the side of their dressing.
“It was awful, and I really know now what war means.”
Thankfully she and her fellow nurses had time off to look forward to. These precious days of freedom gave Peggy time to go shopping in Le Tréport, have a proper bath in a hotel, or drive into the countryside before heading back to the wards.
“Oh, why is there a war to spoil things!”, she exclaimed.
In February 1916 Peggy started nursing in an isolation unit for patients with “blue pus”, caused by infected wounds.
She soon developed double pneumonia, possibly as a result of this work, and became a patient in the Trianon hospital. Sadly, she died within two days on Sunday 12 March 1916. She was 31 years old.
Peggy was buried the following Wednesday in the English cemetery at Le Tréport, now a Commonwealth war graves cemetery. Her father and sister Ruth were at the military funeral.
A tribute to Peggy appeared in The Times on 31 March, written by someone “who witnessed her work and the enormous help and sympathy she gave to our sick and wounded men.
“Her spirit of fun, which helps Tommy more than anything, was unfailing, however tired she was herself. Men have told me that no one could help feeling happy when Sister Arnold was there.
“To those capable of appreciating her, her unselfishness, her uncomplaining fearless nature, Peggy Arnold will ever remain a blessed memory.”
The story goes on
In 2015, British Red Cross volunteer Viv was going through our First World War records. Along with 999 other volunteers, she was helping to put these records online for you to browse.
As Viv was typing up Peggy’s records, she was immediately intrigued.
“Margaret Arnold’s VAD index card was the first one I transcribed where the nurse had deceased,” said Viv.
“I was interested and did further research on her. I made contact with her family who have kindly given us permission to share these photographs.
“Today you can find Peggy’s name on the war memorial in Chiddingfold, Surrey. It is quite rare to see women on WW1 memorials.
“Having found out a lot about her, I am amazed how brave these VAD nurses were, caring for the sick and wounded at home and abroad. Some lost their lives in service.”
- Do you have a relative who volunteered for us during the war? Would you like to find out about WW1 hospitals in your local area? Browse the online records that Viv and other volunteers have put together.
- Discover more remarkable VADs – the potato peelers, sock knitters and moss collectors of WWI
- Find out how to leave a legacy to the British Red Cross
- This blog is the final in a series of inspiring stories for International Women’s Day.