The Abbey of Royaumont is a charming, peaceful and beautiful thirteenth century building thirty kilometers north of Paris. Now it serves as a museum, a hotel and a cultural centre but during the first world war it was transformed into a hospital for wounded soldiers.
I came here to film a story about the women of world war 1 and whether their services and sacrifices helped or hindered them in the post war years. What makes the story of the hospital here particularly interesting is that it was staffed entirely by women.
At the start of the war the Scottish women’s hospital had offered their services to the British war office but had been turned down. Undaunted they made the same offer to the French who accepted. After taking over the Abbey they found it to be filthy, bitterly cold and short of every amenity. Through sheer hard work the women eventually got it up and running.
A sense of the difficulty they experienced can be gained from this description of conditions by Dr I. Hutton:
“It was bitterly cold. The patients who were not in a raging fever shivered and tried vainly to adjust their tattered uniforms to gain a little warmth. Their clothing crawled with maggots and bugs and their bodies with lice. Dying men lay huddled so closely together on the floor that they touched each other. Others sat up gasping and blue in the throes of pneumonia. Blood and pus oozed from the wounds. A few of the patients feebly extended their hands but most of them were too ill to care what happened. Seventy-odd soldiers, in the last stages of dysentery lay crouched along the walls, emaciated, dying. They crawled outside from time to time. There were no sanitary arrangements and the grass plot was foul.”
Travelling with the team and I to the abbey was the great great niece of Frances Ivens, one of the surgeons. Evelyn Benson, herself a nurse, said of her relative: “She wanted to use her skills to help the war effort as well as using her personality and that force to push women to the front and show that they had an important role to play.”
After filming at the abbey we visited Etaples military cemetery. It is a vast place that contains 10,771 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, the earliest dating from May 1915. 35 of these burials are unidentified. There are also a number of women. Like Betty Stevenson – Betty was killed by an air raid and was given a military funeral she was also posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by General Petain, for courage and devotion to duty. The personal inscription on her headstone reads simply, ‘The Happy Warrior’.
This trip was eye opening for me. I had been vaguely aware that some women had served as nurses in the first world war but I had underestimated the tough conditions they experienced and the sacrifices that they had made. I hope our film helps to tell their tales and bring to life the story of women on the western front.
Follow this link to watch our film on the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28321729