First World War Head Nurse Honoured with a Blue Plaque

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Dame Maud McCarthy, the most senior nurse on the Western Front during the First World War, has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at her former home in Chelsea, London.

As Army Matron-in-Chief, Australian-born Maud McCarthy (1858-1949) was responsible for the entire nursing operation on the Western Front, from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. By 1918, she was in charge of over 6,000 British, Imperial and American nurses. The challenges McCarthy and her nurses met on those “crimson fields” were unprecedented in scale and scope: the huge number of casualties ranged from trench foot to injuries from air and gas attacks and mechanised artillery, including bombs, land mines and machine guns.

She is said to have been the only departmental head of the British Expeditionary Force to remain at their original post throughout the war. McCarthy conscientiously visited field units, casualty clearing stations and general hospitals, successfully raising the morale of her staff and working to maintain adequate numbers of trained nurses, in spite of constant shortages. She was not only an inspiring and indefatigable leader but an undaunted and highly skilled administrator.

Personally modest and unselfish, McCarthy dedicated her life to the provision of exemplary care, coupled with efficacy. She was created a Dame of the British Empire (GBE) in 1918 and was later awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international distinction a nurse can receive.

Credit : English Heritage
Credit : English Heritage

Helen Grant, Minister for the First World War Centenary, said: “It is almost impossible to imagine the task that Dame Maud McCarthy faced during the First World War. The scale of the challenge confronting her, and the calm determination and good sense she brought to it, can only be seen as heroic. So it is entirely right that her home in London should be marked with an English Heritage blue plaque, and all the more so for it to happen this year, the centenary of the outbreak of the war that saw her finest hour.”

Ronald Hutton, Chairman of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel, said: “This blue plaque honours a remarkable woman who brought immense care and medical relief to the unimaginable pain and suffering of the Western Front. I hope this modest blue roundel will serve as a reminder that amid all the death on those crimson fields, there were those who devoted themselves to preserving life.”

Colonel David Bates, head of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps and McCarthy’s current day equivalent, said: “It is fitting that such an inspiring and dedicated nurse should be honoured a hundred years since the First World War broke out. She helped to professionalise the service and to make it what it is today.”

The English Heritage Blue Plaque is at 47 Markham Square in Chelsea, where McCarthy lived for almost thirty years from November 1919 until shortly before her death in 1949. A five-storey terraced townhouse, 47 Markham Square was built by 1852 and is close to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a nursing and retirement home for solders. When out and about in London, McCarthy was regularly hailed by First World War ex-servicemen, who remembered her warmly for her hospital visits during the conflict.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Mary Seacole (1805-1881) and Edith Cavell (1865-1915) are among the other nurses to have received London Blue Plaques in recognition of their achievements and their association with buildings in the capital.

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl, the Blue Plaques Club, and members of the public.

HISTORY OF LONDON’S BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME –

The London-wide blue plaques scheme has been running for nearly 150 years. The idea of erecting ‘memorial tablets’ was first proposed by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863. It had an immediate impact on the public imagination, and in 1866 the (Royal) Society of Arts founded an official plaques scheme. The Society erected its first plaque – to poet, Lord Byron – in 1867. The blue plaques scheme was subsequently administered by the London County Council (1901-65) and by the Greater London Council (1965-86), before being taken on by English Heritage in 1986.

DAME MAUD MCCARTHY (1858-1949) –

Emma Maud McCarthy was born on 22 September 1858 in Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Her future career in a caring profession was prefigured, when, following her father’s death in 1881, McCarthy helped her mother to raise her younger siblings.

Credit : English Heritage
Credit : English Heritage

After spending three years in England, McCarthy enrolled at the London Hospital in 1891, subtracting several years from her actual age (then thirty-three years) and stating her previous occupation as ‘companion’.

Qualifying as a nurse in 1893, McCarthy was promoted to sister in January 1894. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, McCarthy was one of six from the London Hospital selected to become Princess Alexandra’s own ‘military’ nursing sisters in South Africa, in the Army Nursing Service Reserve. McCarthy served in this role with distinction and was awarded the King’s and the Queen’s Medals, the Royal Red Cross, and a special decoration by Queen Alexandra.

This achievement led to McCarthy’s involvement in the formation of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the forerunner of today’s Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC). She was promoted to matron in February 1903 and in 1910 she became Principal Matron at the War Office. McCarthy held this post until the outbreak of the First World War.

McCarthy’s role in the First World War was the supreme achievement of her career. She was responsible for the entire nursing operation involving British, Imperial and American nurses on the Western Front, from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. Her position was unique, in that as Matron-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) she reported directly to General Headquarters: principal matrons in other theatres were responsible to Dame Ethel Becher at the War Office. Becher also held the rank of Matron-in-Chief, as did Sarah Oram, who looked after the Mediterranean expeditionary force.

Arriving in France on 12 August 1914, McCarthy was installed at her Abbeville base in 1915, and proved herself to be not only an inspiring and indefatigable leader, but an undaunted and highly skilled administrator. Throughout the war, the number of nurses in her charge – both professional and volunteers – rose from 516 in 1914 to over 6,000 in 1918. The challenges they met in nursing were unprecedented in scale and scope: the huge number and type of casualties ranged from trench foot to the results of air and mechanised artillery, including bombs, land mines and machine guns, in addition to gas attack, influenza and shell shock. McCarthy conscientiously visited field units, casualty clearing stations, hospital trains, hospital ships and stationary and general hospitals, successfully raising the morale of her staff and working to maintain adequate numbers of trained nurses, in spite of constant shortages.

McCarthy was the leader of nurses on the Western Front during the First World War, and is widely regarded as the most important nurse of that conflict. She was responsible for huge developments in nursing, and for professionalising the service. Personally modest and unselfish, McCarthy dedicated her life to the provision of exemplary care, coupled with efficacy. A general with whom she served described her as ‘perfectly splendid’, adding ‘she’s a soldier! … If she was made Quartermaster-General, she’d work it, she’d run the whole Army, and she’d never get flustered, never make a mistake. The woman’s a genius’.

In recognition of her work, McCarthy was created a Dame of the British Empire (GBE) in 1918 and received a Bar to her Royal Red Cross. She was also awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Médaille Epidémies en Vermeille and the American Red Cross Medal, and became a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and a member of the Legion of Honour (Chevalier).

Sailing for England on 5 August 1919, following the close of the First World War, McCarthy continued to pursue her career in London. In 1920 she was appointed Matron-in-Chief of the Territorial Army Nursing Service. She retired in 1925 but the advancement of nursing remained McCarthy’s cause until her death on 1 April 1949, at the age of ninety.

On her death The Times stated that “All who came to her for help, comfort, or advice found a ready response”.

English Heritage

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