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Étaples Reports Project Introduction

To mark the centenary of the First World War, the Museum of the Order of St John has received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to undertake a project commemorating the wartime efforts of over 45,000 St John men and women. The project will tell the story of Veronica Nisbet, a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse, who served at the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France. Through the scrapbook she created to document her memories, Veronica provides a unique insight into the important work carried out by the Order and some of its volunteers.

Working in collaboration with staff at the Museum, St John Ambulance Cadets (aged between 10 and 17) will learn new skills as they explore the charity’s wartime heritage and create an interactive learning resource based upon Veronica’s scrapbook. Once complete on 7th September 2015 (the hundredth anniversary of the first convoy of patients arriving at the Hospital in Étaples), the learning resource will be made available in the Museum as well as online. As part of the project, the Museum has also digitised and will be making available online, a series of weekly reports which document the condition of life in the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples. The reports will be published weekly on the Museum blog, accompanied by a summary and transcription.

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Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook

The modern role of the Order of St John really began during the Victorian era with the establishment of the St John Ambulance Association in 1877 to provide first aid training and supplies. The Order were also strong supporters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and invited the War Office and Admiralty to recognise the value of a Red Cross movement in Britain. It was against this backdrop in 1887 that the Order of St John formed the St John Ambulance Brigade: A voluntary civilian organisation for providing medical assistance in public emergencies, the Brigade would also act as medical reserve for the Army and the Navy.

When war broke out in Britain on 4th August 1914, it was clear that voluntary aid would be essential to the cause. Amongst the many valuable services provided by the Order and its volunteers, was the staffing and funding of the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples. Offered to the War Office in October 1914, it was proposed by the Order that the base clearing hospital of 525 beds would be operated and sustained solely at the Order’s expense. The War Office were quick to accept the offer with the agreement that they would supply the rations for personnel and patients, petrol and tyres for any transport, and the wages of the Brigade members who had enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Construction of the Hospital, which consisted of a series of single storied wooden buildings, began in April 1915 and by September, it was fully operational. The Hospital became known by many as the best designed and equipped military hospital in all of France and consequently, received many important visitors including Queen Mary. It was the largest of the voluntary hospitals serving the British Expeditionary Force receiving over 35,000 patients during the war.

The hospital at Étaples

The hospital at Étaples

The Hospital had a staff of 241 (all from the St John Ambulance Brigade) including: seventeen medical and surgical officers, fifty-three trained nurses and twenty-four VAD nurses.  As a Base Hospital, it received patients from the Casualty Clearing Stations which were situated a few miles behind the front line, and provided treatment, surgical support and some degree of convalescence to patients before they were evacuated to hospitals in the UK or returned to their units.

The Hospital was principally run and overseen by members of the Order of St John, including the Commanding Officer, Colonel Charles Trimble and the Chief Commissioner, James R. A. Clark, as well as personnel such as the Matron, Constance E. Todd. As part of his work at the St John Brigade Hospital in Étaples, Chief Commissioner, James R. A. Clark began sending back weekly reports of the condition at the Hospital to St John’s Gate. The content of the reports varied greatly, reporting visits from VIP’s, tales of Christmas festivities and arising problems the hospital faced. At times these included, financial and domestic issues over matters such as laundry and transport, as well as more serious difficulties such as hospital-wide bouts of sickness and air raids. The reports serve as an excellent source, helping to shed some light on the day to day life of those living and working within the Hospital.

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