On Saturday 2nd July 2016 I’m going to be leading a walk called Love, Life and Loss, Colchester in the Great War. The walk will be about life on the Home Front for the residents of Colchester. It will start at 2:30pm from the War Memorial, and tickets can be bought from the Colchester Visitor information Centre
As part of my research I attended a talk at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford on the life of Kate Luard, a professional nurse from Essex who worked on the Front Line in France during the First World War.
The talk was given by John Stevens, the great-nephew of Kate Luard. Along with his cousin Caroline Stevens, John Stevens has edited and republished Unknown Warriors, the Letters of Kate Luard, RRC & Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. The collection was first published by Chatto and Windus in 1930, and was republished by the History Press in August 2014.
John knew Kate in her later years as one of his Great-Aunts, who lived together in quiet retirement in the Essex countryside. As a child he know of her work during the Great War, but it held no interest to him until he was himself an adult and she had long since died.
John and his wider family were aware of the letters that Kate and her family had written to each other throughout their lives. They also knew that the letters Kate had written and part of her diary had been published during the 1930’s. With the centenary of the 1st World War, they decided to re-publish them as a way of remembering and commemorating not just Kate but all the nurses who had worked in such dangerous conditions during the war in France.
Kate was born in 1872 and was one of 13 children born to the Rev. Bixby Garnham Luard and Clara Isabella Sandford (nee Bramston). Her Father became the vicar of Birch near Colchester, and the rectory there was to become the family home for over 50 years.
Kate, along with some of her sisters attended the Croydon High School for Girls. On leaving school she took what was for the time the unusual decision to train as a nurse. She was a very independent person, and travelled to South Africa to work as an army nurse during the 2nd Boar War. There Kate found the treatment and the conditions in which the soldiers were cared for very poor, and as a result became a strict enforcer of high standards in nursing throughout the rest of her career.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Kate joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. She then spent the war working on the Western Front, often in Forward Dressing Stations. This was as close to the front line and the trenches as a nurse could be. It was to these stations that the stretcher bearers first took the wounded soldiers after they had been rescued from the battlefields.
Kate’s’ letters home talk movingly of the soldiers she treated, of the terrible wounds they suffered and the treatments that she administered. As a professional nurse, Kate believed it was her duty to remain calm and compassionate at all times, but her letters are an insight into the horror that she saw all around her. They are also very funny at times, and in them you can see the love that Kate felt for her family.
When the war ended, Kate left France almost immediately. She returned to Birch for a short time, but continued her nursing career first in hospitals, and then finally at a boys public school. She died in 1962.
Kate’s story, like that of so many of her contemporaries could so easily have been lost, but the letters and diaries that she wrote are a window into her life and her reaction to the horror, but also the compassion and humanity she experienced during her time on the Western Front.
I also visited the Essex Regiment Museum on the same day