This Monday 11 November is Remembrance Day. I’ll be stopping for a minute’s silence at 11am, and I’ll be thinking of women. I’ll be thinking of a small group of Scottish doctors and nurses who set up a hospital in an old abbey north of Paris in World War I, and I’ll be thinking of my French great grandmother.
The women of Royaumont, as they came to be known, created one of France’s best war hospitals, and yet, until I stumbled on their story a decade ago, I’d never heard of them. When surgeon chief Miss Frances Ivens and her colleagues arrived at the 12th century Royaumont abbey in the dead of winter in December 1914, they found they had no electricity, no heating and no furniture, and the bombs were close. They faced a French bureaucracy that was at best indifferent, and they had little equipment and funds. And yet, in less than a month, with support from women in Scotland, England and the rest of the world, they opened a working hospital that quickly grew, providing surgical and medical services for the Somme region and 600 beds. The staff were all women.
The women of Royaumont were members of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Association, which set up centres in France and Serbia. They first offered their services to the British Red Cross and were told to “go home and sit still,” or so the story goes. Royaumont served France so ably that Ivens was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and other doctors and orderlies were awarded the Croix de Guerre. Brisbane doctor Lilian Cooper was among their number, serving a sister hospital in Serbia, along with distinguished Sydney bacteriologist Elsie Dalyell.
Some of the women of Royaumont were pacifists who joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom which started in Geneva in 1915. WILPF is still fighting for peace today, saying no to war, not in any circumstance. In Australia, the song ‘I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier’ was outlawed during World War I. Many women sang it anyway, just as many women joined the protests against the Vietnam war all those years later.
The women who served at Royaumont put their anti-war beliefs aside to focus on healing wounded men. They fed them, mended their clothes, worked harder than other hospitals to save their limbs, and gave them a safe place for as long as they could. The soldiers must have been glad to know they were there. While I was researching a novel set at the hospital, I stumbled on a photograph of one of those soldiers, my grandfather, who, at 17, left his parents in England and went to France to fight. He looks so young, a boy soldier. On Monday, I’ll also be thinking of his mother, my great grandmother, who watched her firstborn son go off to war. How must she have felt? How must any mother feel to see a child they raised go off to fight?
My grandfather came home forever changed by what he experienced. Like so many young men, he never recovered. Researching the novel, I was struck powerfully by the effects of war not only those involved and their loved ones but their children and their children and theirs, causing harm that pollutes the great river of life in every community the war touches. My great grandmother and her son, and also my grandmother, who married that son, and made the best life she could, and their son, my father, his four children, and our children.
I admire WILPF, an organisation which has been true to its values, but I don’t know if we’ll ever have a world in which we’ll have evolved beyond war. The opening sequence of Terrence Mallick’s film The Thin Red Line shows a strangler fig wrapped around a tree. The voiceover, the young poet protagonist, is reflecting on conflict. Is it innate? Is it within us and inescapable, or can we stop it? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I’ll stop for a minute’s silence at 11 am on Monday because at 11am on 11 November in 1918, the fighting stopped, leaving 16 million dead and millions more harmed. Lest we forget.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 8 November 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!