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Medals From The Collection of Hal Giblin

Hal Giblin

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№ 416


6 July 2004

Hammer Price:

A superb Great War R.R.C. group of five awarded to Matron M. S. Whitson, British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who served in France with the Liverpool Merchants’ Mobile Hospital 1915-18: an accompanying typescript of her wartime diary provides a unique insight into the daunting task of nursing many thousands of wounded and dying - and of the horrors of coming under enemy bombardment

Royal Red Cross
, 1st Class (R.R.C.), G.V.R., silver-gilt, gold and enamel, the end of the lower arm engraved, ‘M. S. Whitson, 1918’; Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class (A.R.R.C.), G.V.R., silver and enamel, the end of the lower arm engraved, ‘M. S. Whitson, 1915’; 1914-15 Star (M. S. Whitson, B.R.C. & St. J.J.); British War and Victory Medals, M.I.D. oak leaf (M. S. Whitson, B.R.C. & St. J.J.), contained within an old glazed display frame, with engraved plaque, ‘Margaret Shiress Whitson, R.R.C., Matron, Liverpool Merchants’ Mobile Hospital, France 1915-1919’, good very fine and better (5) £1800-2200

This lot was sold as part of a special collection, Medals From The Collection of Hal Giblin.

View Medals From The Collection of Hal Giblin


R.R.C. London Gazette 1 January 1918.

London Gazette 14 January 1916.

Mention in despatches
London Gazette 1 January 1916.

Margaret Shiress Whitson, who trained as a nurse at Brownlow Hill Hospital, Liverpool from June 1895 to March 1898, was appointed Night Superintendent of Nurses in September 1901 and a Superintendent in July 1911.

A Matron at the Liverpool Select Vestry by the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, she was granted permission by the local parish to join the British Red Cross Society’s newly raised No. 6 Hospital, the Liverpool Merchants’ Mobile Hospital, which was established with the support of Lord Derby and Dr. Haden-Guest, among others, at the end of that year.

The Hospital landed in France in March 1915 and opened its doors at the Grand Hotel, Paris Plage in the following month. A few weeks later a more permanent site was found at Etaples, where wooden huts were erected for a maximum capacity of 250 beds, rising to 350 beds in 1917. However, on account of enemy air raids that killed significant numbers of nursing staff and patients, the Hospital had to be evacuated to Trouville in September 1918, where, at the end of that year, it treated its final patients. Among the V.A.Ds to be employed in the hospital was one of the sisters of V.C. and Bar winner Noel Chavasse, Mary “May” Chavasse, who served with it throughout the War and was also mentioned in despatches.

While the odd published account of the Hospital’s work survives, few match the personal quality of Matron Whitson’s wartime diary, a moving record of the constant intake of “convoys” of wounded, more often than not in the early morning hours, after an already exhausting shift, and always with a horrifying mixture of compound fractures, gas-poison cases, multiple gunshot or shrapnel wounds, and much worse. Indeed it is quickly apparent through her diary entries just how stressful her responsibilities became, her health gradually failing with resultant periods of sabbatical in France and England, but always ending in her willing return to the fray, right up until the Armistice. The following extracts provide a glimpse of the horrors faced by the Matron and her dedicated staff and, inevitably, concentrate on the incessant arrival of new “convoys” - by the War’s end the Hospital had treated over 19,000 casualties:

15 April 1915: ‘At last we have got patients ... such a sight they were, poor lads, the sitting up cases came so weary and dirty and tattered, some with their boots in their hand, and some with precious treasures, such as helmets and sticks. They said, “It was hell they had left, thousands killed near Ypres” ... When they got into bed, each one seemed to be one broad grin, and I said to one, “Why?”, and he said it was the first time he had been in a bed since August ...’

23 April 1915: ‘ ... The wounds are so septic with bits of clothing, boot, etc., in them, and if there were not removed at once, the men would certainly loose their limbs. It all makes us feel so glad to be here and be able to do it.’

24 April 1915: ‘ ... Then at 6.30 p.m. we got 45 new ones, all very weary and done up - the worst cases we have had so far, a great many fractures (mostly left arms funnily enough), a great many head cases, some stone deaf, and many unable to speak for crying ...’

2 May 1915: ‘Got 56 wounded men today. Shocking wounds some of them had, one poor lad with his leg blown away, another with a very bad wound in his chest, shot through the lung, and of course septic pneumonia. Poor lad, I’m afraid he won’t linger long ... One poor lad is having his arm off today and already is wondering how he is to earn his living ...’

6 May 1915: ‘We have had such a number of men affected by those ghastly gas bombs, which are being used by the Germans. Eyes seem badly affected and their chests are sometimes very troublesome. Nerves completely shattered. One very wonderful case, a young Scot from Rutherglen was deaf and dumb for a fortnight, and we feared he would not recover, suddenly today he began to talk, we are all so very delighted. He cannot hear yet, but we trust that will return also ...’

9 May 1915: ‘Had a big take-in today - 56 cases, 19 of them stretcher cases - some very badly gassed, two with eyes completely destroyed. One had a very bad leg, complete compound fracture of both bones of lower leg, so there is nothing for it but amputation. One man told me he had two of his brothers shot beside him the day before, and he dug a grave and buried them himself. What tales they can tell! Heard of the loss of the Lusitania today. How dreadful! And there seems absolutely no chance of stopping it all.’

6 August 1915: ‘Had another convoy in last night ... all stretcher cases and very bad wounds - several compound fractures of the lower leg and one man with just half his face blown away ...’

12 August 1915: ‘ ... Got very disquieting news today - to hold ourselves in readiness to go off at any moment with all our patients in the event of the Germans breaking through the lines. We would only have 48 hours to prepare. How we will regret if we have to leave our hospital to them, but I expect we would set it afire ...’

28 August 1915: ‘Convoy in during the night. 20 very severe injuries, three very bad gas gangrene cases, compound fractures of femur. One young officer [Walsham], aged 20, with a fractured spine - the saddest thing I have seen for many a day, such a baby. I do hope his mother will be here soon. We put him on a water bed first thing. One can only hope he will not live, it would be the kindest thing. Poor lad, he smiles so bravely, says he feels comfortable - it breaks your heart to see such a thing and be powerless to do anything.’

[Postscript: ‘Little Walsham died at 8.30 this morning [18 September 1915]. Poor little lad, it was much the best he should not linger and he did not suffer any pain. He was so brave and good all the time ...’]

14 September 1915: ‘Got a convoy of 50 at 11.30 p.m. last night - a great many serious cases I’m afraid - one man with both his eyes and one arm gone, and the other so badly injured that it will be no use - only 21. He does not know that his eyes have been removed.’

3 November 1915: ‘Another convoy last night, and another this morning ... It is just a constant coming and going. We have a very interesting man who had his heart opened and stitched-up again. He has been recommended for the V.C., and we are hoping very much he will do well. But I don’t suppose he will ever be fit for work again.’

12 November 1915: ‘Has been very busy the past few days with large convoys of medical cases, a great many frost-bitten feet. Some are very bad, and the men tell us they have stood as long as 12 days in water up to their knees. Several nights we had some sleepers on the floor, but an evacuation in the morning would put numbers right again ...’

1 January 1916: ‘ ... In the papers today, I find my name mentioned in despatches. I just wish I could feel I deserved it; all the staff have been so kind in congratulating me over it, but I feel it is the Hospital, not me.’

14 January 1916: ‘Have today seen in the Times that I am to have the decoration of the Royal Red Cross. Nothing could have possibly ever given me such pleasure and satisfaction. It is the one aim of every nurse’s ambition to secure it, but so few are fortunate enough to get it ... The Matron-in-Chief wrote me such a delightful letter when ever she saw it and that has pleased me as much I think as the medal!’

28 May 1916: ‘We had the largest convoy we have had yet in last night, 93 in all, and such very bad cases most of them are - many men with both an arm and a leg gone, several who have lost both eyes, three shot in the spine and paralysed ...’

1 July 1916 [First Day of the Somme]: ‘Last night we had a large convoy mostly very badly wounded - no sick at all ... Some of them said they thought the Germans had retaken trenches we took yesterday, but they said it was a perfect inferno, and they seem to have had little idea of what was going on except that we were advancing all the time. In the afternoon they filled up the remaining beds with a company of Sussex men who say their Battalion was wiped out ...’

6 July 1916: ‘Had a big convoy at 4 a.m. Very bad cases who had been left out in the open for two or three days and could not be got in. Wounds in a terrible state with maggots again ...’

18 September 1916: ‘ ... The officers’ wards are in a terrible rush and one could spend one’s whole time with one case but there are too many of them to get much attention ... We had two officers die today, one shot through the head who never recovered consciousness, the other had to have a leg amputated but gas gangrene had set-in too high up to be able to do anything ...’

25 September 1916: ‘Another big convoy in last night. The officers’ wards are appalling. The Colonel Commanding the Middlesex is in with a very badly shattered leg. His wife is coming out today as the leg is to be amputated. They have tried hard to save it but the infection is very severe. He is a man of 46 so I do hope the shock won’t be too much for him ...’

6 July 1917: ‘The Queen came this morning and stayed for an hour. We were presented to her in the hall, and then we took her entirely round two wards where she spoke to every patient ... She was so simple and unaffected, and seemed very pleased with all she saw ...’

Inserted note on returning from leave to the German Spring Offensive in 1918: ‘ ... Our heavy work began again on 21 March with an air raid over the camp, evidently with the intention of cutting the bridge and railway, but without success. From 22 March on to the end of May, we had a terrible time, and there was little chance of keeping a daily record of it all. The wards were full of the most appalling cases, and so many arrived dead on the stretchers as the C.C.Ss had been, many of them, captured by the Germans ...’

19 May 1918: ‘No one in the Liverpool Hospital will ever forget this night as long as they live ... I had just got one sleeve out of my dress when I heard the hum of an aeroplane, and almost at once, the crash of a huge bomb ... one crash followed another in quick succession ... every crash brought everything that hung on the walls or on the shelves on to the floor, and the whole building rocked and shook and each moment we thought to be our last ... several times it seemed as if it were over and the raiders had made off but they returned about five times in all. All this time besides the crash of the bombs, and the Huns’ machine-guns, our anti-aircraft guns were roaring and the shrapnel fell like hail on the wooden roofs, and in some cases came right through ... there were 216 killed and 700 wounded ...’

28 May 1918: ‘Since the 19th we have had many warnings ... but last night they came again in great force, and we had two hours in the dug-out ... The Huns lit-up the whole neighbourhood with magnesium lights and they utterly threw their bombs through the red crosses which mark the hospital huts ...’

11 November 1918: ‘What a wonderful day this has been. The armistice is signed by Germany ... The men went simply mad and we just allowed them to do as they liked ... We have been such a very happy family and it will be very difficult to settle down to home hospital life.’

The undoubtedly brave and dedicated Whitson ended her engagement with the British Red Cross Society on 31 December 1918, her address at that time being given as c/o J. G. Whitson, Southesk, Blundell Sands, near Liverpool. And by 1920 she was the only B.R.C.S. Matron noted in the
Army List as having been awarded the R.R.C.

See Lot 358 for her brother’s awards.