To mark the centenary of the First World War, twelve St John Ambulance Cadets* from the London region have worked in collaboration with Museum staff to produce a digital learning resource and commemorative display as part of a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The learning resource, which is available in the Museum and online, tells the story of St John Ambulance volunteer Veronica Nisbet who, during the First World War, served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse at the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France, from 1917 – 1919.
Maintained and equipped primarily at the expense of the Order of St John, the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples was the largest voluntary hospital serving the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. The hospital had a staff of 241, all from the St John Ambulance Brigade, and was considered by all who knew it to be the best designed and equipped military hospital in France, caring for over 35,000 patients throughout the war.
As a Base Hospital, patients received by the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital came from the Casualty Clearing Stations, which were situated a few miles behind the front line. It provided treatment, surgical support and some degree of convalescence to patients before they were evacuated to hospitals in the UK or returned to their units. During the course of the conflict, the hospital was expanded several times. Initially containing 525 beds, when it opened in September 1915, the hospital was able to accommodate 744 patients by spring 1918.
On the night of the 19th May, the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital was hit by a bomb which killed five members of staff. Shortly after, on 31st May, a second bomb hit the hospital, resulting in eleven deaths and sixty casualties. This second attack left no department undamaged and rendered the hospital incapable of continuing. The decision was taken to move what remained of the hospital up the French coast to Trouville, where it operated from October 1918 to 1st February 1919.
In addition to the learning resource, the below jackanory-style film has been produced, which is based upon real documents from the St John Archive, including Veronica’s scrapbook. The fifteen minute story recounts the wartime experiences of fictional St John VAD Charlotte:
*The St John Ambulance Cadets who participated in this project were: Shankari Gnanakumar, Thomas Karam, Vidthya Kadirrajah, Joanna Street, Amie Hampsheir-Gill, Shyr-nai Davison Thomas, Chloe Peyser, Daniel Squirrell, James O’Connell, Sean Welsh, Jessie Thorne and Phoebe Sweeney.
To find out about the Cadets’ experiences during the project, why not read Amie’s blog!