The nursing heroines of First World War - Redbridge youth play remembers

Florence Tolson, Rhianna Schofield and Georgia Harding

Florence Tolson, Rhianna Schofield and Georgia Harding - Credit: Archant

Bullet-riddled bodies, blood-soaked bayonet wounds, and scorched skin from grenade explosions; these were the haunting sights which greeted volunteer nurses during the First World War.

Florence Tolson, Rhianna Schofield and Georgia Harding

Florence Tolson, Rhianna Schofield and Georgia Harding - Credit: Archant

Thousands of women who had previously led sheltered lives were called upon to work in casualty clearing stations and hospitals, suffering the heartbreaking reality that their care could not save many of the men. Others survived but were forced to live with life-changing injuries.

Serving near the frontline, these women worked in dangerous conditions and none more so than one Briton who found herself fighting as a soldier.

Flora Sandes saw action as a private in the Serbian Army, with her experiences leading to a grenade wound, a high rank and the award of the country’s most significant decoration.

Now her story is set to be told by the Redbridge Youth Theatre Workshop, in the form of play Frontline Heroines.

Writer Michael Woodwood said: “I didn’t just want to write something about the soldiers, as that is what many plays are about.

“There are a lot of strong and talented girls in the group and I could see them thinking that they were just going to play the women in the background. I wanted to do something that would involve them, so I looked at the volunteer nurses of the war and found Flora’s story.”

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Flora, Britain’s only official female soldier in the war, set off to work in Serbia with other nurses in August 1914 and within 18 months she had gained a place in the army.

She rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant and a sergeant major before concluding the war as a captain, remaining in the army for another 15 years.

However, she had to return to her occupation as a nurse in 1916 after being badly wounded by a grenade. She was awarded the Order of the Karadorde’s Star for her bravery.

Frontline Heroines, to be staged at Redbridge Drama Centre in Churchfields, South Woodford, is centred on Flora’s story, but also includes a variety of real and fictional First World War nurses, some of whom she met.

The backdrop of women’s rights during the conflict makes for an interesting element to the production.

“It is a good story for us as it happened at the time women were trying to get the vote,” said Michael. “The suffragettes had suspended their demonstrations as they felt it was right that they should help with the war.

“These nurses were all from different classes and had never really mixed before, so that was a big social change.”

The subject has proved to be rewarding for the actors in the group, who are all aged between 14 and 21.

Director Chris Bocking said: “It is a very valuable experience for them. It is quite a fantastic, little-known story which has a very different angle on life in the First World War.”

Through his research for the production, Michael has discovered the hardships the nurses faced. “There wasn’t any [proper] anaesthetic; they were still using chloroform, which had been used in the 19th century.

“A lot of nurses were set up in casualty clearing tents and expected to have 20 to 30 soldiers a day, but in some cases they had a thousand.

“There was also the problem of gangrene; they could deal with the injuries but they couldn’t stop infection. It was everywhere.”

But despite their more traumatic experiences, many nurses relished the opportunities that had been opened to them.

Michael said: “It was frightening, but a lot of the women wrote about how exhilarating it actually was to be doing something.”

n Frontline Heroines runs from March 26 to 29. To book, call 020 8708 8803 or visit the centre.