When the First World War was declared a hundred years ago on August 4th, 1914, one group of women was ready for the call. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) came into being in 1907 as an all-women uniformed organisation, formed by a Boer War veteran, to provide the “missing link somewhere in the Ambulance Department ... so that [they] could ride onto the battle-field to attend the wounded who might otherwise have been left to a slow death.”
On January 1st, 1916, the FANYs became the first women to drive officially for the British Army. They were awarded many decorations for gallantry and service, including the Military Medal, Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre.
In spite of official resistance from the British War Office, the first group of FANYs arrived in Calais on October 27th, 1914. The Belgian Army, forced into retreat to the coast, welcomed them with open arms. In spite of often being met with hostility and male opposition to women being so near to the Front, for the next four years FANY ran hospitals and convalescent homes and drove and maintained ambulances, supply lorries and staff cars for the Belgian and French Armies.
Meanwhile, as the fighting raged along the Western and the Eastern Fronts, in France the contrast between the north and the south could not have seemed greater. It was quickly recognised that arrangements needed to be made for convalescence and rest outside the war zone, and the British Red Cross authorities took on the task.
On the Riviera, philanthropic ladies and their husbands appropriated large houses and hotels to serve both as military convalescent homes and nurses’ rest homes. The first convalescent home was in Cimiez. Funded by Lord Michelham, it was opened at the end of 1914 with Lady Michelham initially occupying herself personally with the running of the hospital. However, it was soon brought under the control of the British authorities, as reported in The Journal of Nursing, January 1915:
“The climate of Cimiez is an ideal one for patients on the road to recovery ... It is a happy arrangement, therefore, whereby the Grand Hotel has been opened as a Convalescent Home for British Officers, under the control of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and the British Red Cross Society, and with the approval of the King it is to be known as ‘Queen Mary’s Convalescent Home for British Officers’. The home, will accommodate 100 officers in separate rooms ... The hospital as described by a correspondent of the Times commands glorious views of Nice and the sweep of the coast border the Bay of Angels, those gardens, where the Bougainvillea will bloom, were the delight of Queen Victoria during her sojourns at the neighbouring Pavillon Victoria.”
From the start of the war, military nursing staff and VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) were only allowed to take leave in the UK or, if remaining in France, at appointed nurses’ rest and convalescent centres. These were opened in the vicinity of the base hospitals and also in the South of France. Villa Roquebrune at Cap Martin was put at the disposal of the military nursing services each winter.
“The generosity of Captain and Mrs Warre in placing their delightful villa and grounds so completely at the disposal of the nurses each year ... They left their beautiful villa with all its luxuries, the table appointments, and even their own experienced servants for the benefit of the Sisters. Many thanks are due for the great kindness and consideration which has been shown to the nurses. Leave spent at Roquebrune has been one of the factors which has helped to maintain good health and good morale among the largest body of women in France. One felt truly grateful for being able to accord to so many this leave spent in such luxurious surroundings.”
Together with Casa del Mare, also in Roquebrune, and the Hotel de l’Esterel at Cannes, they provided a haven for rest for hundreds of women. The Grand Hotel du Cap Martin became the eighth Michelham Convalescent Home for British Officers:
“Lady Michelham has taken over the hotel and pays all expenses for 200 officers, each staying for a fortnight or three weeks. It is run exactly like a hotel with civilian waiters.”
Muriel de Wend, attached to a FANY Convoy at St Omer, was one of the lucky ones sent down to Cap Martin to help. Letters home vividly convey her feelings:
December 27th 1917
Off to Cap Martin! It will be a wonderful experience … and we feel it will do us all good ... we are all tired & coughing & sneezing. The snow is lying here now & the thought of the sun & orange groves fill us with longing. I had to pick up a man I know the other night in a raid & he bled to death in my car. We had only gone about 5 miles when it began to hail & the wind was straight against us & I had no windscreen. It was most awfully painful & I had to slow up to about 4 miles per hour to be able to see at all. It got worse and worse until I thought my poor old face must be bleeding. Then the hail stopped & it came on to snow a blizzard so I stopped the car with the snow blowing into my eyes so I could not see at all. On the way to hospital he … was conscious but dreadfully hit in the stomach, arms. I’ve got kind of numb at hearing people in agony but I think one hates seeing (these) dreadful sights more and more.
Your loving daughter, Muriel
For recuperating soldiers of the Allied Armies and exhausted military medical personnel staff, being sent south must have seemed like paradise. John McCrae, the Canadian military surgeon turned poet, who wrote In Flanders Field, spent three weeks in 1916 at Cap Martin recovering from pleurisy. He died of pneumonia, complicated by meningitis, serving near the Front on January 28th, 1918, four days after being the first Canadian appointed as consulting physician to the First British Army.