Heroes of Adventure – Madge Greg – life as a VAD nurse in WW1

On Monday at 10pm the UK brought an end to a day of commemorating the centenary of the First World War by participating in the ‘Lights Out’ event, to remember the lives lost in the conflict. Our exhibition Heroes of Adventure commemorates the involvement of the Greg family, the mill workers and the villagers of Styal. In this post I wanted to tell you all about Madge Greg, whose bravery and commitment as a VAD nurse (Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment of the British Red Cross) meant that thousands of lives were saved and not lost.

Madge kept a scrapbook throughout her time as nurse, and it was an invaluable source to us when curating the exhibition, and we used the look of the scrapbook when designing the panels. It’s also invaluable as it gives us an in-depth look into the life of a VAD nurse in WW1.

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Madge had been training as a nurse since 1913, at the age of 21, but as soon as the War broke out she joined the British Red Cross and started training as  VAD nurse at the auxiliary hospital in Wilmslow. After 5 months of training in Cheshire, she was posted into No.2 Unit, and was sent to France on 3rd February along with eleven other nurses. They were immediately posted to the Rest Centre at the Gare Centrale, Boulogne.

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The dressing station consisted of eight luggage vans which were used as a kitchen, dispensary, Quartermaster stores, staff room, reserve store, workshop and orderlies room, as well as an improvised shelter. The VAD nurses had to be ready at any moment for an influx of casualties brought in on Ambulance Trains (A.Ts), to change urgent dressings, and provide a fresh change of clothes and refreshments. Madge and the VADs lived in a granary nearby, with furniture they made themselves from whatever they could get their hands on. Within a week Madge was appointed Quartermaster and cook.

Their baptism of fire came mid-March 1915, during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, when the dressing station dealt with 2,000 casualties in 4 days. This would be nothing compared to what she was about to face when the Second Battle of Ypres broke out in April 1915.

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April 24th Battle of St. Julian & Hill 60. Canadians coming down. Horrible gas attack at St. Julian broke up native French troops, nasty gap in our line.”

‘April 26th Improvised AT [Ambulance Train] of 830 cases in last night, another with 1000 went out, an evac AT to relieve pressure on HPs [hospital] here. Another improvised AT…has just left with over 1000 Indians…Gen Wilcox asked BRCS [British Red Cross] for VAD Unit to take over a rest station at ABBEVILLE.’

Two days later Madge and her unit were sent to Abbeville, which was almost in sight of the front line.

The dressing station was very under-resourced with ‘only a wooden table in a great draughty goods shed with little enclosure of droopy canvas. 3 boilers & a little office where the dressings are kept.’

The ruins of Ypres
The ruins of Ypres

On 9th May, Madge received news that her brother Arthur had been injured:

“Had wire from Glazebrook [Madge’s friend] last night that Arthur is wounded & at No. 7 St. HP. As car was going in from No.3 BCRS, Dr Aylwood got pass for me, got BOULOGNE 4p.m. & was with Arthur from 4:45 to 5:30p.m. He could not speak being hit in jaw but wrote, he has had a bad time on Hill 60 & no sleep the last 3 weeks.”

The damage to Arthur's jaw is visible here
The damage to Arthur’s jaw is visible here

The next day the dressing station tended to 1,750 casualties, but there was no rest, for the early morning of May 11th at 3.30am brought fresh wounded, and the nurses did not rest until 5pm that afternoon.

After Ypres, Madge dealt with a range of injuries, including soldiers who had been burnt in gas attacks. One day she tended to “a head case, an amputation, arm shattered etc., was kept going by a gassed mad Scots Greys man…the head case died, the amputation may do so at any time…my mad-man is a complete lunatic”.

She was afforded some respite when she was allowed sick leave to recover from an injured foot: “the foot and ankle are as large as ever again and a beautiful shade of scarlet but not painful..they got wound up about my foot and gave me a months sick leave“.

Soon after she returned, Madge and her fellow nurses found themselves roped into a completely different line of work:

August 12th: About 6.30p.m Major Meadows dashed in and said that all but one of us must go up to help at the smoke helmet factory, they had a big order on and every hand wanted.”

They spent their time checking that the mitre eye-parts in gas masks were properly fitted.

September brought the Battle of Loos and Madge’s dressing station dealt with 38 A.Ts with a total of 11,021 casualties, and 95 men staying behind; too badly wounded to be moved. The nurses also had to attend to 15 Temporary A.Ts which brought a further 14,332 casualties. Astonishingly the dressing station accomplished this within the space of 6 days.

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The dressing station at Abbeville

Madge’s entries for October and November 1915 are sparse, but it seems the nurses managed to make something of Christmas at the Abbeville dressing station. They spent the days before Christmas “decorating surgery for Xmas, orderlies have ‘souvenired’ the only fir tree in the wood on the hill… we had our Xmas dinner, turkey and plum pudding.” The soldiers at the dressing station were all given a present, magazines and cigarettes.

Early 1916 saw a quiet period for the nurses of Abbeville, and Madge was given leave from early February to late April. After spending some time recovering from German measles, she was sent to take over her own dressing station at Hesdigneul-Serquex, south of Amiens, where she would experience the Battle of the Somme.

Serquex dressing station
Madge’s sketch of Serquex dressing station

Madge and her staff of 15, (6 nurses, 1 cook, 2 sergeants, and 6 orderlies), were warned of the expected mass influx of casualties on 25th June when “Col. Russel R.A.M.C and Col. Gray came to see Aid Post to see if we were ready for a rush”. The 1st July 1916 has now become synonymous with the image of men going ‘over the top’, but Madge and her staff spent the day listening to the sound of artillery whilst they prepared dressings and restocked the stores.

On 2nd July, the first A.T. brought 830 men and had all urgent dressings changed and sent on their way again in 30 minutes. More trains arrived in the evening and Madge’s team worked throughout the night until 6.30am the following morning. In two weeks, Madge’s small, makeshift dressing station tended to 10,255 soldiers. She had proved she was capable of extraordinary work and determination and was sent to Buchy a few miles away to set up another dressing station from scratch.

Buchy dressing station
Buchy dressing station is indicated by the pencilled arrow

At Buchy, Madge and her staff lived in railway carriages and survived off bully-beef, biscuits and tea, she described the conditions as “very primitive”. Despite the primitive nature of the dressing station and their living quarters, the work they carried out over the next few months was recognised by Rachel Crowdy, Principal Commandant of VADS for the British Red Cross, and in December 1916, Crowdy wrote to HQ that “…369 treatments have been done… this is the largest number of treatments ever done at any Rest Station during a week, except in times of battle fighting…I put down the enlargement of this station great deal to Greg’s enterprise and energy”.

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In April 1917 Madge was surprised to see her younger brother Arthur walk into the dressing station. They went out to tea, and did some shopping for Arthur. Madge wrote home to her parents: “I felt so proud of him and when I walked through the town I was full of reflected glory besides so tall and fine a lad.” Five days later, on 23rd April, Arthur was shot down on a return mission from Germany, Madge was the last family member to see him alive. She found out days later, and her entry simply reads: “8.30p.m got wire from home that Arthur had been killed on 23rd“. There are no further mentions of Arthur or how she felt about his death recorded in her scrapbook.

Madge Greg
Madge Greg

Madge worked as a VAD until May 1917 when her contract ended, and she returned to England, where she worked at the Royal Infirmary Manchester in the outpatients department.

Madge was determined to get back to the front lines, and returned to France in March 1918 as member of staff at the temporary wooden hospital, Queen Alexandra. On March 23rd, she found herself in the firing line when the hospital was shelled and an emergency evacuation of the hospital was executed. She summed up the event as “no sheets, not enough blankets, no medicines, no headboards, no mugs, – pandemonium!

Madge's sketch of the entrance to the hospital
Madge’s sketch of the entrance to the hospital

In April 1918 the Germans renewed the efforts and the hospital worked non-stop, with all wards filled to capacity whilst listening to the ominous sounds of aeroplanes, artillery and shells; “the front ward shakes continually“.

The next month brought more personal tragedy to Madge, when she was “sent for by Matron, the “Times” had come at dinner time and there the announcement of Bob died of wounds, the wire from home arr. one hour after, everyone very nice offered to let me off but Sister Marshall very busy…so stayed on“. Madge at her practical, stoic best.

Madge's sketch of the ward
Madge’s sketch of the ward

By the middle of 1918, the Allies had gained the upper hand and the front line receded from the Channel ports where Madge was stationed. This allowed the nurses to enjoy more well deserved leisure time, and they were able to take trips to Malon and Calais with the patients.

As September of 1918 approached it was clear that the need for VAD nurses had passed, and on the 8th, Madge Greg packed her bags, said goodbye to her friends and set off for England.

Madge’s time as a VAD nurse had ignited a passion for medicine within her, and she trained to become one of the first female doctors in England, specialising in orthopaedics. Yet the war had changed her personality forever. Her niece Margaret remembers her as a very cold, hard and unsympathetic woman, whereas before the war she was remembered by the villagers of Styal as a warm, kind friendly young girl. The efforts and sacrifices made by Madge and her fellow nurses meant thousands of lives were saved throughout the First World War.

Our exhibition Heroes of Adventure is on until Sunday 16th November where you can look through reproductions of Madge’s scrapbooks.

Laura

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