At the outbreak of the First World War Miss Georgiana Fyfe joined Dr Hector Munro’s ‘Flying Ambulance’ Corps in Flanders. Dr Munro was an eccentric Scottish specialist. He wanted to send out a detachment of women daringly dressed in khaki breeches to scour the battlefields on horseback to collect the wounded. Using women in this way, especially in male dress, was disapproved of by the War Office and the British, French and American Red Cross who all at first rejected his Corps but eventually accepted it because under male direction.
Georgiana Fyfe worked in and near Ypres among the civilian population. Her scheme was apparently accepted by the Scottish Red Cross, perhaps because of her association with Munro, but the help she anticipated from them was not forthcoming. She ran three ambulances rejected by other relief organizations but in 1915 appealed for a new one ‘worthy of Glasgow and of Scotland.’ She wrote to her father: ‘I feel strongly that our Scottish Red Cross ought to have supported me to some extent and also our Lord Provost. Did he ever respond to my appeal?’
In January 1915 she became officially attached to Army HQ. When a town or village was under bombardment she rescued civilians who at first were taken to military hospitals. On 28 March, just prior to the opening of the Second Battle of Ypres, they
‘evacuated 1000 from Ypres which is now finally absolutely in ruins. The English Army gave me three big London Buses two miles from the town and a party of volunteers came with me to fetch the poor old infirm men and women and children. Such a scene of tragedy I have never seen. I brought away the last three refugees, two dogs and a parrot! … I ought to have five [cars] at my disposal as I am the only one allowed to do the work.’
Her letter to her father shows Ypres’ evacuation continued into April and gives insights into life in the war zone just prior to the official dates given for the commencement of a battle. She wrote:
‘I have been evacuating Ypres with the help of two cars from Colonel Depage, the head of the Red Cross and it is a matter of hundreds of poor old bed-ridden women and young mothers with babies and no one else to do it as the Army is not allowed to go to Ypres now.’
Her committee financed four hospices at different points along the front where the fighting was fiercest. The largest Refuge was at Hazebrouck, ten miles from the front, with another at Watou. About 3,000 Belgian and French refugees passed through one hospice in five months. She maintained a maternity hospital in the unconquered part of Belgium at Vincken, with 20 beds, nearly always full, and a children’s home. Her records include details of the births she attended, which are sometimes distressing. Many mothers named their babies George or Georgette, after her. Red Cross nurses and nuns helped her.
During quiet periods of warfare she persuaded mothers to allow their children to be sent to areas of safety. They were more willing when there was shelling and also when gas was used during Second Ypres in April and May 1915. Gas did not distinguish between civilians and military personnel. She evacuated 1,341 Belgian children from the war area into France and Switzerland, she and a nurse frequently escorting them, and kept very careful records as it was intended to restore the children to their homes when peace came.
In Paris, while she rested, a committee of four young men cared for the children and returned them to the station in time to catch the train. Once she took with her Mlle Widemaus, the daughter of ‘the Chief of the Belgian Army who died lately’ but the journey proved too much and the ‘desolate little girl’ was ill in Paris with a heart attack. The Army there was very helpful. ‘Even Hotel Edouard VII takes us at “Military Prices”.’ When in Paris, she spent two days seeing different Committees and was usually given free medicines, bandages, and other supplies ‘which our own Red Cross won’t send me.’
Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, was patron of her hospitals. On 7 September 1915, she made one of her frequent visits to Fyfe’s Hazebrouck hospital. She was also present to see each group of evacuees off on their journeys to safety, although this could cause problems. Once they
‘had to catch a night train at Calais at 7 o’clock and the Queen was still with me at 4 o’clock! Our cars tore along and we caught the train and did not get to Paris until next morning at 8.50 although we were due at 5 a.m.’
As well as donating personally to the Fund, the Queen helped with fund-raising, making a direct appeal to ‘the generous womanhood of America’ for the ‘unoffending civilian population – the aged, the infirm, the women and the children.’
In November 1917 over 4,000 refugees passed through Miss Fyfe’s hands. This was Third Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. In December a little girl named Suzanne was buried for 56 hours in the rubble of her home and dug out by six soldiers. The tale touched many people, including a Dr. Porter Smith ‘who helped me in my Hospital at Hazebrouck during the last stand there.’ He wrote in 1918 ‘Very few people in England fully realise the awful hardships and tragedies of the refugees in France and Belgium.’ Sir Philip Gibbs is even clearer, writing: ‘the soldier suffers less than the women and non-combatants. His agony perhaps is sharper, but the wound of the spirit is hardest to bear.’
Miss Fyfe was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Ordre de Leopold. Her work probably continued into the Armistice period in Cologne with the British Armies of the Rhine. Nonetheless, the British did not acknowledge her work, and her name is virtually unknown.
Dr Katherine Storr is a social and cultural historian and author of Excluded from the Record: Women, Refugees and Relief, 1914-1929, (Peter Lang, 2010)- in which Georgiana Fyfe features. Visit her website.