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THE “NURSES’ GENERAL”
DAME MAUD McCARTHY
OPENS THIS WEEK
6 November – 8 December 2019
Bethnal Green London E2 6HG
This is an exhibition of the life and leadership of a great Australian and one of the most remarkable and highly decorated womens’ leaders of the First World War, Dame Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, 1914-1919.
It brings together the ‘public’ side of Dame Maud McCarthy’s life with newly researched family and archive material from her early life in Sydney, Australia, seen for the first time. The exhibition has been prepared by Juliette Wilson, an experienced film researcher, and a descendant of Maud McCarthy’s, with images from Australia, New Zealand, the Library of Congress, Imperial War Museum and private collections.
Maud McCarthy helped bring up 10 brothers and sisters in Sydney, gave up her own chance to attend Sydney University, and came to England when she was 30. She undertook nursing training at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, at the time of its great reforms under Matron Eva Luckes and Sidney Holland, became a Sister, and was selected to serve, with distinction, in the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902.
On her return she was rapidly promoted to senior posts as Matron of large Army hospitals, and became Principal Matron at the War Office in 1910.
With the outbreak of war in August 1914 she was summoned to duty in France and Flanders, and shortly afterwards appointed Matron in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Arriving in France in charge of some 500 nurses, with a tiny staff, one highly effective assistant in Sister Isabelle Barbier, and a couple of typists, by 1918 she was marshalling over 8,000 nurses and VADs, from Britain, Australia, Canada, the Dominions and America, and responsible for all the nursing operations in the field, to the German advance and retreat of 1918, the Armistice in November 1918, and beyond, to the prisoner releases and great flu epidemic of 1919.
She was always in the field, inspecting hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations, despatching staff and requiring improvements, and one contemporary account describes such a visit with the Matron in Chief of the Australian Army Nursing Service Evelyn Conyers, sitting in a field at night with tin hats being shelled and bombed from the air.
Her responsibilities were almost unimaginable, given the scale and ferocity of the battles of the War and the vast casualty lists after each encounter. Her contemporaries marvelled at her administrative ability, tireless, dedicated hard work, attention to detail, and support for her nurses. She was highly decorated, and after the war went on to be Matron in Chief of the Territorial Army.