Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Maud Has No Statue

By Dr John Little

In these days of falling statues we have a timely reminder that such public edifices are erected for a purpose.

The Romans put up statues of all of their gods, and just in case they had missed one out, they also bought insurance against divine wrath by erecting one to the ‘unknown god’. There are lessons to be learned as well, from those people that society did not choose to honour in such a way. The First World War was the cause of many statues being subscribed for, and many of the great commanders now stand in bronze, in marble and acting as rests for weary pigeons. In Whitehall we see General Haig on horseback, whilst Foch sits outside Victoria Station. Joffre has his statues, and Admirals Jellico and Beatty have their busts in Trafalgar Square. To complete the set of armed forces commanders the founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, has his own likeness towering by the embankment. It is ironic that perhaps the most successful commander on the Western Front from 1914- 18 has no statue, her contribution being marked solely by a blue plaque on the wall of her former home. Equally ironic is that whilst some of the others are still virtually household names, hers has been almost forgotten.

Dame Emma (Maud) McCarthy already had a distinguished career behind her as matron of large military hospitals before the War Office appointed her principal matron of the British Army in 1910. Born in Australia, she commenced a nursing career in 1891 but then left the London Hospital to serve in the Boer War in South Africa. To say that her service was outstanding would be a small understatement as her actions won her the King’s medal for nursing, the Queen’s medal for nursing, and the Royal Red Cross. She was also very active in the setting up of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. (QUAIMNS)

When she arrived in France in August 1914, there was no organization in place that could possibly cope with the rapid expansion  of the British Army from 200,000 to 2.5 millions within the space of eighteen months. The scale of the casualties and the accompanying medical requirements were gargantuan. To be sure the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) had doctors and began to set up hospitals, but as with so many things it could have been chaotic. A casualty on the Western Front would receive their first medical attention at a regimental aid post run by the RAMC. There were no women there as essentially they were on the battlefield. From the aid post they were stretchered to Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS); here were doctors under the command of the army surgeon general, and nurses who now came under the command of Maud McCarthy. There were fifty six CCS’s in France staffed by QUAIMNS and Red Cross nurses. Later in the war, selected and suitably trained volunteers from the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) were also allowed into the CCS’s.

From a CCS, casualties were taken either by hospital barge or train to a base hospital; each barge and train was staffed by nurses. The casualty would arrive at one of ninety eight general or stationary hospitals; some were Red Cross, some were QUAIMNS and some were funded privately by organizations such as City of London Guilds like the Drapers. Other hospitals were slotted into the organization as they arrived from places like Canada and Australia. All had to be kept up to numbers with staff, supplied, fed, billeted  and their comforts looked after. Procedures had to be standardized, standards had to be kept up and medical supplies had to be assured. The responsibilities attached to the task of coordinating all this were almost endless. From the Mediterranean Sea to the Western Front Maud McCarthy was directly responsible to the War Office in London and over this vast area commanded over six thousand nursing staff. She was everywhere and soon had a name for the most ferocious efficiency, though she herself was quiet and softly spoken.

One army general reportedly said of McCarthy: “She’s perfectly splendid, she’s wonderful … 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.” Her base was at Abbeville and many of the base hospitals were within easy reach, but she was no remote administrator. She toured the front and the back areas constantly and local matrons never knew when the Matron in Chief was about to descend on them. She was no shouter, but had her own quite standards upon which she insisted. She did not baulk at taking on authority either; she reported directly to the Secretary for War and regarded herself as being of equal rank to any general in her own field.

As she toured she carried on a practice which she was long used to, and kept a diary. This begins from when she was first posted to France and may be found here. It is a revealing testimonial to the ability and energy of the woman.

She did not choose to limit her visits to safe areas as this extract perfectly illustrates.

‘Left for Ypres – thawing and fearfully muddy. Arrived at about 11 o’clock and drove and walked all round the town, inspecting the ruins and all the terrible desolation. We were constantly stopped and asked whether we were in possession of steel helmets and gas helmets. We tried to visit the cemeteries and see the graves of some of the officers and men who fell at the First Battle of Ypres, but it was not considered safe to do so as the bombardment was considerable. ‘

Her inspections included hospital ships, laundries and facilities of any kind that were concerned with the care of the wounded, and she was determined to impose the highest possible standards wherever she went. This was especially so in the well being of her nurses, who were not always given the attention they deserved. One ongoing problem was the distance her staff were expected to walk from their quarters to their work.

‘The same difficulty exists as always here and that is the long distance the nursing staff have to go to their quarters. I asked the OC to see if it could not be arranged to transfer the huts on the top of the hill to the open space in the compound left vacant by No.30 CCS.’

Some of the abuses she had to deal with were more blatant and she did not hesitate to ring General Haig to complain in person. This was in January 1918 and the nurses must have been frozen during their mealtimes.

“The nursing staff are accommodated in small rooms at the ends of the big wards and their mess and ante-room was in a single-lined marquee in the grounds, badly lighted and with not even suitable or adequate heating conveniences, whereas the Medical Officers had a large hut, with kitchen, scullery, ante-room and mess, with fine big open brick grates in each room. Here we had lunch. I reported this matter to the General later as it is one of the exceptions in all the Armies where the Medical Officers have failed to consider the comfort and actual necessities of the nursing staff.”

She did not scruple about what she thought either and if necessary said it; this of one hospital,

‘The sick officers’ accommodation at this unit is not satisfactory. The division is at the top of the hotel and is not in any way up to the standard of other hospitals in France. There is a lack of interest and a want of knowledge of what is really required for officers.’

Of another, 

‘There is a great deal which requires improvement in this unit. The few wards I went into were not up to the mark. I pointed out that the Matron must do more inspections and must look into cupboards, etc. The Officers’ equipment had been certainly neglected and the femur wards were not satisfactory in any way.’

Sloppy nurses were interviewed and grilled as to their reasons for not doing their job properly. Dancing was forbidden, as were bicycles. Nurses were in France for a serious purpose and the job came first.

Maud was not above a touch of professional pride either. The Harvard Medical Unit was an American outfit which did some cutting edge and pioneering surgery, but it fell under Maud McCarthy’s aegis when she inspected it at the beginning of 1918. Her exchanges with the American nurses are quite revealing.

No.13 General Hospital (5th Harvard Unit, USA). The difference in the organisation and management was remarkable, and the American ladies kept whispering to me why was it that our units were so different to those run by American personnel. I explained that they had all to learn and get into the ways of military and active service conditions, which it had taken us many years to accomplish.’

The organization of the nursing force in France and Belgium from 1914-1918 stayed in Maud McCarthy’s hands almost the whole time save for one bout of illness when she had to take time to recover. The formidable administration she built up simply kept functioning. There can be little doubt that hundreds of thousands of wounded men, whose lives were saved because of the efficient medical care she organized and ensured, owe their survival to her. A general, as Ambrose Burnside said in the US Civil War, wins battles by getting there fustest with the mostest. That is exactly what Maud McCarthy did; as much a soldier and a warrior as Haig or any of the others, her enemies were infection, wounds, pain, suffering and disease. In a hard campaign she won many battles against them, her final struggle being against the great flu epidemic that gripped the armies in 1918 and even in this she had some success, one of hospitals even producing its own pioneering vaccine.

Maud ended the war in 1919 and went home to Chelsea; she was seen off in a ceremony where representatives of the French government and medical services did her honour. She also had a chest full of medals and had been created a Dame. It does seem strange that there are so many statues to men who organized the mass slaughter of thousands, yet a woman who organized and enabled the saving of hundreds of thousands does not have even one. Maud McCarthy never married and died in 1949 at the age of 89.

Perhaps on this one we need to examine what society’s parameters are for meriting such a thing?


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. Maud McCarthy features in his book, The Light Over The Solway


  1. Thanks, John, for introducing us to Maud. She sounds like an incredible woman!

  2. She was, as her diary is a strong witness to. The casualties of WW1 would have been much larger without her organisation, ability and determination.

  3. What a fascinating article about a fascinating woman. Thanks for sharing John.


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