If anything, Sarah Bealen was early. She had walked, with her cases the two miles from the hotel to the training hospital. Despite the early time, there were four other nurses already there when she arrived. After a polite greeting, one of the girls informed her that, “They won’t admit us before 06.00hours.” They smoked to pass the time; Sarah trying to copy their elegant smoking postures. An orderly unlocked the door at 06.10 and invited them to follow him to the main assembly room. It was typical of large Victorian designs, with long slim windows and exposed gas ducting and pipe work. The assembly room was just an almost empty large hall, with insignificant seating for the people gathering there. Sarah kept to herself in such a crowd of strangers; she reckoned that there were about fifty people in her group, by the time a military officer walked to the top of the room and introduced himself.
“Ladies,” he waited. “Ladies, may I have you attention please, thank you. I’m doctor Winton and I carry the rank of Colonel in His Majesty’s Royal Army Medical Corp.” The girls quieted down. Theses like Sarah, that had failed to get a seat, stood behind those that did. “You girls will become Staff Nurses in The Territorial Force Nursing Service, known simply as TFNS. We have no time to lose and the corporal is handing you a form, as I speak; nothing detailed, just general information for our records. As I look at you, some have seriously young looks. That’s not a big problem, if you can remember that your date of birth must be before 1892. So, be careful filling that in, as we are keen to have you.” A few giggles reassured him that his message had got through. He continued with a brief history of the TFNS, and their Matron in Chief, Mrs Sidney Browne. He went on to explain that their life from now on would be similar to the soldier’s life. Although they would not be learning weapon training, they would be exposed to risks, looking after the men who did. When he had finished, he asked the recruits to hurry with the forms, and to get ready for their gear issue.
Sarah had no problem filling in her form and, after handing it over, was directed to another building across the yard outside. They had to queue for quite a while, with recruits that had been processed in other assembly halls across the complex. Now, each recruit had to be checked against their form, to ensure that they entered their specific branch of nursing. There was an Imperial Military Nursing Service, and a Royal Naval Nursing Service as well as the Territorial Force Nursing Service that Sarah was joining. Yet other girls were joining the Volunteer Aid Detachments and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, So Sarah had to stay alert to make sure that she stayed with the TFNS. She felt better once she got her TFNS blue-grey uniform. The process ended when she was allocated a bed and locker, in a room with three others. There they got a half hour to settle, before returning to the assembly room that they had started in. The girls introduced themselves to each other, and Sarah was the only Irish girl in their group.
“You’re Irish,” said Fiona Campbell. “So how did you learn French?”
“You must be joking,” laughed Sarah. “I’ve enough problems with English!”
“Well there’s obviously some mistake, Sarah. This is part of a group bound for work in Casualty Clearing Stations – in France and Belgium.” Sarah excused herself and was lucky enough to find the corporal who had processed her form still in the assembly room. She explained the mistake and he laughed before retrieving her form.
“No mistake, Miss Bealen,” said the soldier. “You speak French!” and he handed her the form so she could see for herself. She realised the error quickly.
“Oh my, Corporal. That’s not French, that’s Irish!”
“That’s good for a laugh, but we can still use you in France and we have your signature to prove it. We have plenty of work for an English speaker to do, even an Irish one. You will be embarking as planned next Friday, so you’d better be a fast worker. The military loves its paperwork, so I’ll take that form back, if you please.”
Sarah returned to her room in a daze. She explained what the corporal had said and they all laughed. “You’re in the army now,” they shouted in unison. She decided to make the most of it. It was certainly a long way from her family’s terraced house on Barrack Street, but it was what she had signed up for, and she was being sent to where she would be of best use. She slept well. The next few days flew by in a flash. Although they did not learn to shoot, they did a lot of square-bashing, capes blowing in the wind. There were stretcher races and obstacle courses; gas mask training, working in smoke-filled buildings and sheltering under live shell fire to familiar themselves with battle conditions. Then of course, there were the classes in medical assistance. The different bandages, pain relief medicine and the various wounds that a battlefield throws up. They hardly got a moment to themselves, with only twenty minutes for lunch and an hour at night before lights out, which was filled with washing and ironing for the next day and studying the notes that they had taken during class. Sarah got a postcard off to Carlow on Thursday, just to say that she had arrived safely and was studying hard. She was not allowed to mention France.
Then it was 04.00 hours on Friday morning and Sarah was on a train to Dover, with the other TFNS volunteers, with the destination of Calais, France. They were amazed and delighted to find themselves falling-in on the quayside, in front of Matron-in-Chief Sidney Browne herself. She viewed the group of sixty-eight nurses and ordered them to stand easy. Then she told them how important their work would be to the fighting men.
“I am so proud of you all,” she concluded. “In the grand tradition of Florence Nightingale herself, you are volunteering your lives to His Majesty’s service. Hopefully, we will all meet here again after this work is done, and the Empire is safe. Farewell and God bless you all.” A spontaneous three cheers rang out, and before they realised it, they were underway out into the English Channel. Sarah hoped that the blanket of dark grey clouds was not any sort of omen.
to be continued