Friday 6 December 2019

'The gas fumes from the khakis were poisoning us'

Tom Rowley unearths the account of a remarkable and brave nurse who served very close to the front

Emily MacManus, the nurse from Co Mayo who spent more than three years near the front. Getty
Emily MacManus, the nurse from Co Mayo who spent more than three years near the front. Getty
An American nurse wearing a gas mask while working in the trenches near the front. Getty

Tom Rowley

Growing up in a rural part of Co Mayo in the 1960s and 70s I came to know her simply as "Miss MacManus". She was a small, wiry woman who was in her 70s by that stage. The upper-crust accent, the tweed outfits and her little green Morris Minor car bobbling along all added to her intrigue.

People spoke of her as having been a famous nurse who had been a participant, in every raw sense, in the theatres of two world wars. It was only later when I came across a book, 'Matron of Guy's' by Emily EP MacManus CBE, I discovered just what a remarkable woman she was.

Emily Elvera Primrose MacManus, born in 1886, came from a distinguished Mayo family. Although born in London, her roots, and her heart, were forever deeply embedded in Mayo, and especially the family's ancestral home, Killeaden, near Kiltimagh. She said her father had drilled into her young heart that, no matter where she lived or lodged, Killeaden was home. And for her whole life she would look on Mayo as the place to escape to, eventually retire to and, finally, be buried in.

In 1908, aged 22, she entered Guy's Hospital in London as a trainee nurse, starting a close association with the centuries-old hospital that would last almost 40 years, culminating in her becoming its Matron for almost two decades.

In the spring of 1915, as World War I began to disgorge its litany of maimed, she headed for France as a Nursing Reserve Sister. She spent the next three-and-a-half years there, working in eight military hospitals, and close to the front.

In her account of those years in her autobiography 'Matron of Guy's', published in 1956, her modesty, humanity and dogged determination seeps through the pages. She said it was the responsibility of the nurses to create for the wounded an atmosphere of homeliness in the "midst of the mud and blood, dust and death, in which they spent most of their days".

Emily was just one of hundreds of nurses from Ireland, or with close Irish connections, who volunteered to serve during the war.

Emily's first posting was to a tented hospital near Etaples and where, nearby, day by day, row by row, a vast military cemetery advanced across the countryside. She moved on to a hospital in Camiers. "As spring grew into summer, the thickets along the railway line rang with the song of many nightingales, and still the convoys of broken men came in".

The sunny seaside town of Dieppe was her next posting at a convalescent home for officers. "We saw all facets of the human spirit. The outwardly light-hearted and devil-may-care, in whose heart horror lurked, carefully concealed; the apathetic; the quiet, bitter type; the loud grumbler; the truly irrepressible youngster and the man of strong, serene spirit, in whose company other spirits found rest".

Early in 1918 she was sent up to a Casualty Clearing Station at Noyons. There, on March 21, "just before dawn from beyond the quiet fields, came a roar of gunfire, a continuous roar, stretching along the whole line – the thunder of guns loosed in the heaviest barrage that I had ever heard. Almost immediately down came the ambulances filled with 'light sick' – influenza, sore throats, septic fingers; the advance dressing stations were clearing out their flotsam".

Next came the seemingly never-ending convoys of ambulances "full with real wounded". The nurses span of duty was lengthened and they worked from 3pm to 8am. "We had 3,000 wounded on stretchers, on the grass, outside the huts. Going over to my tent after breakfast with a can of water, as I threaded my way among the stretchers, a man asked me for a drink, then another and another. I stayed, giving out drinks for an hour, and then I had to go to bed".

She was sent further along the line to a Casualty Clearing Station where even basic supplies such as bed linen and blankets were in short supply.

"The weather was cold and damp, and an icy wind blew through the camp. I inspected and sniffed my bedding issue, three stiff, dirty, brown-grey objects, foul with excrement and dried pus and blood, and reeking with decomposition. I was tired; I was cold". She went to sleep "trying to forget and to keep from inhaling the stench of vomit and the agonised breath of the last man who had died in my blanket".

In August 1918 she moved again, to a camp near Amiens. "Then up the road past our camp swung a French regiment, singing a gay song – going in. In three days they were down with us again, nearly the whole regiment – gassed".

More than 100 of the French soldiers, coughing, choking, temporarily blinded, had to be placed on stretchers packed tightly together on the ground. In a desperate effort to treat them, she filled a bag with liquid paraffin, caster oil, bicarbonate of soda, wool swabs, a bottle of water and a little dish.

"Then I began to crawl around on my hands and knees among the stretchers. Many lay passive and co-operative; some were dazed and the battle terror still encompassed them, so that they would hit out wildly when touched. But soon I found that I, too, was getting gassed. The fumes from the khaki clothing, removed but lying under each man on his stretcher, were poisoning us."

The nurses moved even closer to the fighting, and air raids became increasingly frequent. "We were very busy; the men of some Australian unit's band used to put themselves on duty every night to give out drinks and fetch and carry for the Sisters. They were invaluable, and their cheery strength of spirit lightened our spirits. Then, one night, they were no more – a direct hit on their band hut had finished them all".

Finally, one night, word filtered through that an armistice had been declared. Celebrations in her camp were short-lived. "The Fates were cruel. Threatenings of an influenza epidemic had reached us; now the scourge struck us with full force. In so many cases, nothing seemed to avail. They went under and died with the swiftness of black cholera".

The war was over but the dying did not stop.



See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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