AncestryProGenealogist, Simon Pearce, reflects on the contributions of those who served and returned from the war by telling the story of Nurse Constance Cundell, awarded for gallant and distinguished conduct in her field.
2016 marks the halfway point in the First World War centenary commemorations and is one hundred years on from a lively year in the British war effort. 1916 witnessed the final evacuation of forces from Gallipoli, the Siege of Kut Al Amara, the epic naval battle at Jutland and the infamous Somme Offensive, which saw the first use of tanks on the battlefield. By mid-November 1916 the Somme Offensive was grinding to a halt and the belligerent nations were digging in for another winter of stalemate on the Western Front.
This however was also the year that Nurse Constance Cundell was mentioned in Despatches for gallant and distinguished conduct in the field.
One hundred years on, it is still vitally important that we commemorate the casualties of the Great War, an act of remembrance emulated by millions across Britain every Remembrance Sunday and on November 11th, a date marking the signing of the Armistice and the ending of the war. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we spare a thought for those who served and returned, who made a contribution to the war effort in a variety of forms and whose experiences may, for a number of reasons, not be well known. One individual who comes to mind is Nurse Cundell.
Constance Laura Cundell was born in Tavistock, Devon on 7 January 1889, one of three children of George and Laura Cundell. By the turn of the nineteenth century the Cundell family were living in Portsmouth at the Imperial Hotel, where George was the hotel’s proprietor. A decade later the family had moved once more and were residing at the Royal Pier Hotel in nearby Southampton, where George was once more the hotel manager. It was during this time that Constance was employed as a physical trainer, a factor which may have influenced her future decision to volunteer for service in the medical field during the First World War.
In 1914, following the British declaration of war on Germany in August, Constance joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a Nurse; organised by the Red Cross and made up of both male and female volunteers, its members were involved in duties as diverse as knitting, cooking, administration, air raid precautions and nursing. It was the latter role that is perhaps the most synonymous with the organisation during the war. Over 90,000 individuals volunteered for the VAD during the Great War and provided a vital contribution to the war effort both at home and overseas. The release of the VAD service cards by the Red Cross last year has provided a fantastic insight into the service of VAD members and has broadened our understanding of this aspect of the British war effort.
Constance’s pre-war medical experience evidently stood her in good stead for a role as a VAD nurse and the skills she developed would have been crucial. The VAD nurses made a vital contribution to the medical field given the small number of professional army nurses available at the outbreak of the war, but there was inevitable tension between the two; the VADs lack of pre-war experience and perhaps initial idealistic view of war-time nursing would have frustrated their professional peers, not to mention the social differences.
By the end of July 1915 Constance was serving in France and according to her VAD record, was stationed at 83rd General Hospital, which was situated in Boulogne, on the northern coast of France. This was a busy base hospital situated at the docks and was where casualties would receive specialist care. Later in the war the facility was the home of a unit specialising in physical medicine and rehabilitation and was run by a staff of nurses trained in the administration of physical treatment and of masseurs; clearly it was no coincidence that Constance was stationed here.
In the final year of the war in which Constance would have been subjected to the horrors of modern warfare and its effect on the human form, she was recognised by King George V in His Majesty’s 1918 New Year Honours. Constance was awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross (Second Class) decoration by the king on the 9th March, the first British military order conferred purely to women and could be awarded to anyone who had been recommended for special devotion or competency while engaged on nursing or hospital duties with the navy, army or air force. According to the London Gazette, Constance was awarded in recognition of her valuable service with the Armies in the Field. After the investiture Constance and her fellow military and civilian nursing service awardees were received by Queen Alexandra at Marlborough House.
Constance served in France until 28 February 1919 when her service terminated and in April the hospital moved from Boulogne to Germany. According to her medal documentation, Constance was entitled to the British War Medal and Victory Medal and the 1914-15 Star for her services during the Great War.
What was next for this adventurous and distinguished nurse following the end of the war and the termination of her service? The Ancestry UK, Physiotherapy and Masseuse Registers, 1895 -1980 revealed that Constance returned to Hampshire and continued to work and seek qualification within the nursing field, becoming qualified in Medical Gymnastics Medical Electricity and a qualified masseuse, in addition to a whole host of areas in this field.
It must be remembered that women like Constance voluntarily offered their services to the VAD during the First World War. Undoubtedly there would have been a sense of excitement and adventure felt by many who volunteered, but life as a nurse was anything but a holiday; it was emotionally and physically draining and the danger these women put themselves in is epitomised by the 128 nursing members of the VAD who died during the conflict.
Constance died on 11 November 1986, aged 97, exactly 68 years after the signing of the Armistice and on the very day and month we stop and remember those who lost their lives during the First World War.
Sources and Citations:
• “About Us,” Who we are, History and origin, First World War, British Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org.uk/), accessed November 2016.
• “The Base Hospitals in France,” The Long, Long Trail (http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/), accessed November 2016.
• J. Harbison, “The 13th Stationary/83rd (Dublin) General Hospital, Boulogne, 1914–1919,” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 45, no. 3 (2015): pp. 229-235; digital image, “Journal,” Journal Archive, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/), accessed November 2016.
• “Dr. A.W.W. Baker. An appreciation,” Irish Times, Dublin, Ireland, 7 July 1924, cited in J. Harbison, “The 13th Stationary/83rd (Dublin) General Hospital, Boulogne, 1914–1919,” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 45, no. 3 (2015): pp. 229-235; “Journal,” Journal Archive, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/), accessed November 2016.
• “About Us,” Who we are, Museum and archives, Historical collections, Medals and badges, British Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org.uk/), accessed November 2016.
• “Awards of the Royal Red Cross,” The London Gazette, no. 30450 (1918): p. 55; digital image, “Notices,” The Gazette (https://www.thegazette.co.uk), accessed November 2016.
• “Nursing and the War,” The British Journal of Nursing 60, no. 1,563 (1918): p. 185; digital image, “Library and Archives collections,” RCN Archive, Historical nursing journals, Royal College of Nursing (http://rcnarchive.rcn.org.uk/), accessed November 2016.
• “First World War,” Volunteers during the First World War, VAD casualties during WWI, British Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org.uk/), accessed November 2016.