May 1916: Somerville’s Parliament Debates Conscription for Women

In May 1916, a second Military Service Act extended conscription to married men. Inspired by this, on 31st May 1916, Somerville’s Parliament considered a bill to conscript women, so that more men could be released to the armed forces and women more efficiently organised to replace them.

It was proposed that women between the ages of 18 and 38 should be called up, using the National Register as the basis of the conscription. Those passed medically fit would either be considered for roles in agriculture or munitions, or for lighter duties. Women would be allowed to state what sort of work they preferred but the needs of the nation would be paramount and deployment would be organised through labour exchanges.Parliament Statute Book

A vigorous discussion conducted entirely by first years ensued, the motion being ‘violently’ opposed on the basis that conscription was unnecessary as women had already risen nobly to the cause.Fritillary

The records of Somervillian war work would appear to support this view-point. In the early years of the war particularly, much of the recruitment and organisation of the female workforce was in the hands of the women themselves. This enabled many to incorporate some form of national service with their other duties and the majority of Somerville’s fellows took this approach, as did many students.

For women with children, family responsibilities were not always easy to integrate with full-time war work. As with the Military Service Act, the proposed ‘Women’s Service Act’ was to have exemptions to conscription, including married women and widows with children, school teachers and medical students. The employment of domestic staff would also be limited to ‘1/2 in each household’. Even without conscription, some Somervillians recorded ‘care of young children’ or ‘care of family releasing other labour’ as their war-time occupation. Whether this was by choice or forced upon them by the departure of domestic staff is unknown!

Rosa Hughes The male labour shortage opened up many more professions to women, ostensibly for the duration of the war although the long-term effect was to defeat the argument that women were unsuited to or incapable of such work. Some Somervillians were specifically appointed as ‘substitutes for men’, mostly those who had taken up teaching roles in boys’ schools. Others took over family concerns – Rosa Hughes running a printing works and Vera Bowers taking on the management of the family estate and colliery. A significant number of Somervillians were members of the civil service, some such as Henrietta Escreet (one of HM Inspector of Factories and Workshops) continuing in their pre-war roles, others joining the Treasury, the Board of Customs and Excise, the War Office and the War Trade Intelligence Department (Ministry of Blockade).

The debated ‘Women’s Service Act’ was eventually passed by a majority of 25 to 14 but the question of which should take priority for Somerville students, war work or scholarship, continued to be a subject of concern and discussion for senior and junior members of the college throughout the rest of the war.

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April 1916: The Court-Martial of a Conscientious Objector

“I can’t tell you how glad I am about the fine spirit of the imprisoned COs. I never feared that many of them would give way, but I hadn’t expected that they would actually have an effect like this on the outside world. I thought that was past influencing, for the time.” Leila Davies to Joseph Dalby

'Pied Pipings' 1915 In 1916, Leila Davies was in her third year at Somerville, reading English. Her younger brother Philip (known as Tal) had gone up to Queen’s in 1915; an active socialist, he was also a conscientious objector (CO), incarcerated in the Cowley Barracks in East Oxford, which was used for the detention of COs from April 1916.

The Military Service Act had become law in March 1916, making enlistment compulsory for single men aged between 18 and 41, with certain exemptions, one of which was a conscientious objection to combatant service. Many thousands of men did object, on religious, political or humanist grounds and although some were prepared to take on non-combatant military roles or civilian work in aid of the war effort, there were also ‘absolutists’ who refused to do anything in support of the conflict. Conscientious objectors had to put their case for exemption before a local tribunal; if their case was rejected and alternative service refused, they could be court-martialled and imprisoned.

Conscientious objectors were judged harshly by the general public, condemned as cowards undermining the war effort by evading their duty to king and country. Their supporters were similarly vilified. For those awaiting court-martial, contact with the outside world was closely controlled, with correspondence censored and visitor access severely restricted. It was through Leila Davies that Philip was able to seek advice from Joseph Dalby, a family friend and member of the No Conscription Fellowship, regarding his absolutist stance. In Leila’s letters, she described the details of her brother’s detention and the wider issues influencing COs, also her own fervent support for their beliefs: “It’s a privilege for Tal and you and the others to be of that fellowship. You’ll be glad of it all the rest of your lives, and we shall be glad of it for you…. But meanwhile you’re having the heavy end to bear, and you’re paying the penalty for all of us, you few, because you happen to be young and to be men…. I feel half ashamed to be at large, when the only place fit  for decent people of my convictions is prison.”

Academic work became an irritating distraction, as supporting her brother, and conscientious objection more widely, became the focus of Leila’s life. Letter to Joseph DalbyPhilip Davies considered the court-martial to be a foregone conclusion and decided to proceed without a solicitor or any witnesses. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison. On his release, he did not return to Oxford and, as with all conscientious objectors, was denied the right to vote for five years.

With thanks to Bridget Davies.

Visit for more family stories from the First World War.

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March 1916: Somervillians Sewing Shirts for Soldiers

During the academic year, students had comparatively few opportunities to do war work as scholarly and college pursuits took up most of their time.

The college meetings, held by the JCR, did provide a chance to muster volunteers for war work during the long vacation, such as the Board of Agriculture scheme to supply farm labourers, discussed at the meeting in March. The minutes also recorded the war work students were able to do during the academic year.

A number of Somervillians travelled to Didcot each week to help at the Military Supply Depot, unpacking cases of hardware and china; the Oxford letter noted that although the journey to and fro took up a large part of the time, much useful work was done. The Suffrage Society made bandages for the Scottish Women’s Federation Hospital and many students did what they could to assist the Somerville Section hospital, providing magazines and stamps for the comforts table and wheeling out recovering soldiers in their bath chairs.

Somervillians also set up a working party, which met every Saturday evening throughout the winter of 1915-16, to sew for the hospital patients. Such groups were a popular way in which women (in particular) could do part-time war work in combination with their other commitments. Many work parties were established in response to appeals by the Red Cross or the St John’s Ambulance Association, who needed clothing for wounded servicemen, such as pyjamas and dressing gowns, shirts and socks. Sewing parties would raise funds to purchase the necessary fabric and the Red Cross would supply the patterns.

The Somerville sewing party was funded from the Sunday collection, with a grant of £4 (worth over £350 today) put aside to buy material. They did not need all of it and at the college meeting held on 6th March, the students debated what to do with the left-over money, agreeing to use it to buy clothes for soldiers being discharged from Somerville Hospital.Minutes of the College Meeting 6 March 1916 The SSA Annual Report later revealed that the work party had been able to send a ‘substantial parcel of socks and shirts’ to the Matron – with the help of the College maids! Somervillians also knitted socks for Russian prisoners of war, in response to an appeal made to Miss Penrose for the students’ help.Knitting socks for Russian POWs

It had been decided that the funds from the Sunday collection should be used for Somerville Hospital, unless there was a special cause or the hospital did not need donations at that time. The collection was therefore put to a number of different uses included assisting a man left short of funds when the War Office miscalculated his pay, a contribution to the Serbian Relief Fund and a donation to the ‘Star and Garter building fund’, which was set up early in 1916 to pay for the conversion of an old hotel in Richmond into the first Star and Garter Home for Disabled Soldiers and Sailors.


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February 1916: ‘Women Patrols’: moral guardians and prototype police

Among the many varieties of war work undertaken by Somervillians, a small number of former students chose to join the Women Patrols organised by the NUWW (National Union of Women Workers). Janet Gulliver was one; she had come up to Somerville in 1907, at the age of 20, to read mathematics and had started her career as a teacher in 1911. By February 1916, she was a volunteer with the Swansea ‘Woman Patrol’.Janet Gulliver

These patrols were one of two types of prototype police force, emerging early on in the war, staffed by women. At the start of the conflict, huge numbers of young women had been affected by ‘khaki fever’ and there was widespread concern that war-time conditions could lead to a decline in morality and undermine society. Older, middle-class women responded by organising volunteers to monitor the behaviour of young women fraternising with young men in public places.

The patrols’ volunteers included suffragists whilst the other force, the Women’s Police Service (WPS) was founded by suffragettes. The NUWW saw the role of the patrols as providing a ‘steadying influence’. The volunteers patrolled towns and cities, acting as a deterrent to immorality; they had no powers of arrest but could give evidence in court. To the volunteers, these patrols provided opportunities for women to combine patriotic and moral duties and to further the cause of feminism, as both the Women Patrols and the WPS demonstrated what women could do as part of a professional police force. Khaki fever diminished as the war lasted beyond its anticipated duration and there were more war-time roles available to women, but concerns over public morality continued, as did the patrols.

Other Somervillians who volunteered included English teacher Alice Stainer, a member of the Women’s Patrol in NottinghamAlice Stainer, Eveline Edmonds who lived in Putney, and Anita Miles, a part-time volunteer with the Cheltenham patrol. Theodora Powell was a member of the Godalming Women’s Patrol, an area with a massive Canadian military presence as huge army camps were established on the commons nearby to accommodate thousands of troops. Janet Gulliver, at 28, was younger than her fellow Somervillian volunteers but was probably still considerably older than many of the women and girls she would have policed in Swansea.

Reports by Women Patrols working in Oxford noted that Carfax, George Street and Cornmarket were popular meeting places for young men and girls, their conduct attributed to foolishness as well as immorality. Indecent behaviour and ‘actual immorality’ were recorded as taking place near the canal; Somerville students had long been forbidden from walking along the towpaths, suggesting that the area’s dubious reputation predated the outbreak of the war.

As hoped, the potential of women officers in the police force was recognised and when the war ended, the Metropolitan police developed its own women’s police service, recruiting the first supervisor from the NUWW, whilst the WPS, with its suffragette associations, was disbanded.


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January 1916: “No ‘Flaire’ for Nursing”; roles for women in the Voluntary Aid Detachments

A Military Hospital

By January 1916, Vera Brittain had been nursing for six months. After her initial Red Cross training at home in Buxton, she had been posted to the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse (VAD). The death of her fiancé, Roland Leighton, in December 1915, brought about a profound alteration in her attitude; having previously sought out all the most onerous tasks, “Camberwell, and its demands had come to seem unspeakably hateful” (Testament of Youth, Chapter VI). However, over the following weeks, she also came to realise that she could not return to Somerville after a year’s leave of absence, as she had originally planned, whilst all those she loved “were sacrificing everything that they cared for in the world”.

Vera Brittain was one of 90,000 volunteers who joined the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments during the First World War. Many of the women who volunteered became nurses and from February 1915, VADs were permitted to work in military hospitals, assisting the members of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  From September 1915, the VAD ‘general service’ section supplied women to replace men of fighting age working in military hospitals in non-medical roles, such as dispensers, stores staff, cooks and clerks. Auxiliary hospitals, established for the care of convalescents, were organised and staffed by the Red Cross, and work parties were set up to make bandages and hospital clothing. For women who were unable to undertake full-time war work, there were many part-time roles available.On Quartermasters

Somervillian volunteers included Alice Bruce, the Vice Principal, who was a member of the VAD Joint Committee and Selection Board, working at their London headquarters, Devonshire House, during the vacations.

Lilian Faithfull, the Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, was also the Commandant of its VAD Hospital and Organiser of its War Workshop. Elizabeth PowellElizabeth Powell was the Commandant and Administrator of the Red Cross hospital based in her own house and Anne Muncaster became Commandant of the Cumberland VAD and was Quartermaster of the Worsley Hall Auxiliary Hospital as well as serving on the VAD Selection Board in Devonshire House. Her book On Quartermasters was hailed as a practical guide for those wishing to volunteer but with “no flaire for nursing” (SSA Annual Report, 1915).  Many other Somervillians served as VAD nurses and hospital workers such as clerks, orderlies and cooks, and as a consequence of their vacation work in VAD hospitals, at least two (Muriel Buckley and Florence Hodges) went on to medical school.

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December 1915: The ‘Chap. Rules’ Petition

Members of Somerville, concerned that the migration to Oriel would undermine the coherence and traditions of the college (see blog Oct 1915), had their fears realised when some of the students abandoned procedure (and potentially propriety) via a petition seeking a relaxation of the college’s chaperone rules.

The chaperone rules had evolved gradually during the first three decades of Somerville’s existence. As female students were granted admittance to the same lectures as the men, it became necessary to have chaperones accompany them and chaperones were obligatory until 1893 for groups of women attending lectures. It was not until the outbreak of the Great War that female students were allowed to attend lectures independently.

Emily Penrose on becoming Principal was acutely aware that the future of women at the University of Oxford depended on the conduct, both actual and perceived, of current students, writing in 1907, “We are anxious that new students…. realise how completely the reputation of the College passes into their hands. We have many privileges but no rights.” In 1907, even visits to brothers were chaperoned and by the time Vera Brittain went to Somerville, just seven years later, the ‘chap. rules’ still prevented her from visiting her brother Edward in his rooms and she had to clear her room of female friends should he drop by unexpectedly (he was in Oxford on an Officer Training Corps course for part of the Michaelmas term 1914).

In December 1915, some members of the JCR petitioned the College for a temporary relaxation of the rule for receiving gentlemen visitors – still chaperoned but allowed if the student had a separate sitting room. Whilst the content of the petition was of concern to senior members, the manner of its delivery was the JCR’s objection. Junior members of college held regular meetings, usually three per term, at which information could be communicated and requests reiterated – subjects such as noise reduction, the use of collected funds, war work or the need to economise over coal or electricity consumption were all noted in the minutes. Such meetings were also meant to be the channel through which students communicated with the College and were particularly useful in the light of Somerville’s fractured accommodation during the war. However, the minutes reveal the Senior Student’s frustration as notices were ignored, opportunities to vote on issues via the various college notice boards squandered (and drawing pins appropriated for unofficial use).

The petition circumvented procedure altogether, as it was sent directly to the Council without being passed first by the college meeting.

Council referred it to the Senior Student and at the next college meeting the matter was raised and an apology to Miss Penrose tabled. In February 1916, having gone through the proper channels, the petition was considered at Council and passed – only for the duration of the college’s residence at St Mary Hall. Miss Penrose and the Council were not prepared to allow a short-term gain to undermine their long-term aim, the admittance of women to membership of the university.


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November 1915: The ‘Munitionettes’: Women in the Munitions Industry

Ethel KerrIn November 1915, Ethel Kerr began her training at Armstrong-Whitworth’s in Newcastle to become a munitions worker or ‘munitionette’. She was one of a number of Somervillians, and hundreds of thousands of women, employed in munitions factories as a result of the Shell Crisis of 1915.

The inability of manufacturers to supply enough artillery ammunition led to Government intervention in the industry, with the creation of the Ministry of Munitions. The Munitions of War Act was also passed; under the Act, working conditions were closely controlled and wages regulated. The factories were forced to employ women, initially to supplement the remaining male workforce. Within two years, 80 per cent of munitions workers were women, receiving half the wage paid to their male counterparts.

Few women would have had any prior experience or instruction to equip them for such work. Ethel Kerr had read modern languages from 1896 to 1900 and had previously volunteered for the S & SFA (Soldiers & Sailors Family Association). However, she quickly progressed; after her initial training, she moved to the Woolwich Arsenal and in February 1916 she was appointed the Assistant Works Manager at the Scottish Filling Factory in Georgetown, Paisley. Dorothy Lyall had studied history and in 1915, she went to work in the Fuze Division of the Woolwich Arsenal, initially as a Fuze Examiner, then Forewoman and subsequently as the Deputy Assistant Inspector of Gun Ammunition.

Dorothy Arning, in contrast, was a chemist. A contemporary of Dorothy L. Sayers and Charis Barnett, on the completion of her 4 years at Somerville, she went to work at the No.21 National Filling Factory in Coventry where she became an Assistant Loading Chemist.

The hazards of working with such toxic materials required medical checks and a (rudimentary) workers welfare service and Nora Kessler, another Somerville historian, was employed as the Assistant Supervisor of the Women’s Welfare Department at National Ordnance Factory No. 2 in Hunslet in Leeds.

There are also records of Somervillians combining part-time work for munitions factories with their other commitments. Ursula Hopkyns, who was a training college lecturer, helped at the Army Ordnance Depot in Didcot in Oxfordshire during vacations. Eleanor PowellEleanor Powell, Somerville’s former Tutor in Modern History, spent six months working a Sunday shift in munitions during 1916, in addition to her committee work with the S & SFA, War Pensions Committee and Women’s University Settlement (WUS). Edel Moore combined her duties as head teacher with the role of agent for recruiting women munition workers in her district.

Ruth HuttonWomen were also employed at the Ministry of Munitions. Juliet Ogilvie was a personal assistant in the Hours of Labour Section of the Ministry of Munitions from 1915 to 1917 before moving to the Canteens for Munitions Factories Department. Ruth Hutton joined the Ministry of Munitions after working at the War Trade Intelligence Department and Kathleen GardinerKathleen Gardiner, a Somerville historian, joined the Ministry’s Record Department in 1917 to research its history.

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October 1915: Somerville’s Scattered Community

“The darkened streets have added to the difficulties of our scattered community life and have made journeys to and from the lodgings – even with the aid of a torchlight – a service of danger.”  SSA Annual Report 1916, Oxford Letter

In Michaelmas Term 1915, there were 101 students in residence at Somerville, over a third of which were first years, newly arrived in Oxford. Until 1913, on the Woodstock Road site, students would have resided in one of two buildings, ‘House’ (Walton House, in which Somerville Hall was established in 1879) and ‘West’ (the first purpose-built addition to the Somerville site).House Students became closely affiliated with one house and enjoyed a friendly rivalry with the other. It was only from 1913 and the construction of the new Maitland Hall, that all the students had been able to eat together, helping to unite the college. After vacating the Woodstock Road site, St. Mary Hall Quad formed the nucleus of Somerville, accommodating most of the ‘freshers’ (with some lodged in nearby King Edward Street) and every attempt was made to promote collegiate coherence and a sense of belonging amongst the dispersed Somervillians. SkimmeryThe difficulty in getting to know students who had only arrived ‘since the migration’ was keenly felt, especially as social gatherings were now limited, out of a sense of duty as much as due to the disjointed living arrangements. In the longer term, there were concerns that college traditions, relatively newly formed but valued nonetheless, would be lost as those students with experience of college life before the migration completed their studies and left Oxford.

The opportunities for college gatherings were also affected by the air raid precautions put in place by the city council. Although the first Zeppelin attack on Britain had been in January 1915, Oxford had not been targeted and when the main electric street lights were switched off in August, it was more as a cost cutting exercise than as an air raid precaution. Further scares led to additional measures and from October, most of the street lights were turned off at 11pm in case of Zeppelin raids.  Somerville’s Council, meanwhile, was in negotiation with the War Office over responsibility for insuring the College buildings against ‘attack by hostile aircraft’; the War Office held firm and the College paid for the policy the following month.

By February 1916, Oxford had come under a Home Office Lighting Order, with a black-out imposed on street, shop and domestic lighting. The air campaign, when it finally began in earnest, largely bypassed the city, targeting London, industrial and coastal areas. The residents of Oxford were more likely to be injured by accident during the black-out, as pedestrians collided with trees, traffic or each other, than from an air attack.


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September 1915: By Steamer and Sledge: the return of Miss Czaplicka’s Expedition

In September 1915, almost 16 months after her departure, Marya Czaplicka returned to Oxford (see May 1914 blog).

The long and arduous trip, complicated by the outbreak of war, was an overwhelming success. The expedition, under the auspices of the Oxford School of Anthropology, was funded by a grant from the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Mary Ewart travelling scholarship and fundraising among Somervillians by Miss M.C. Scott. Primarily interested in shamanism, much of Miss Czaplicka’s research was ground-breaking; early on she encountered the Yurak tribe, ‘practically unknown in anthropological literature’ whose ‘exceedingly rich and varied folklore’ she described as ‘unsurpassed in its realism and simple directness of style’ (SSA Annual Report 1915).

Miss Czaplicka was accompanied by the American anthropologist Henry Hall and, for the first five months, by the painter Dora Curtis and ornithologist Maud Haviland. They travelled by river steamer when they could and, once the river froze, she and Hall journeyed over 3000 km by reindeer sledge across the tundra. They spent the winter living amongst the Tungus people, studying their political and religious institutions and way of life. They both collected artefacts: Marya Czaplicka for the Pitt Rivers Museum and Henry Hall for the Philadelphia University Museum. Their finds included bones from a woolly mammoth, discovered in the ice.Letter to Miss Penrose 6 Sept 1914

Although communicating with the outside world was extremely difficult, post having to be carried sometimes hundreds of miles (passed from one tribesman to the next), letters were exchanged with Somerville and she was even sent a copy of her recently published book Aboriginal Siberia. Marya Czaplicka’s replies to Miss Penrose revealed her anxiety for her family in Poland, under threat of German occupation, and her ever-present concerns about money, as the war caused delays in transferring funds as well as inflated prices. She rarely wrote about the difficulties encountered on the trip, making just a passing reference to illness or the need to buy more furs before the ‘great cold’ began. It was her travelling companion Dora Curtis who, on her return, wrote to Miss Penrose describing Miss Czaplicka’s illness and exhaustion caused by over work, her sea sickness, so severe that she brought up blood and the absolute necessity for costly new furs if she was to survive the Siberian winter.

The return journey took weeks, the only route open being via Stockholm and Christiania to Newcastle. At one point, concerned that she would not be able to get her collection of materials back to England due to baggage restrictions and the cost, she considered leaving the cases in Moscow, to collect after the war. Letter to Miss Penrose 22 June 1915Once back in Oxford, Marya Czaplicka received further assistance from the Mary Ewart Fund to enable her to ‘prepare her valuable material for publication’ and in 1916 she published her account of the expedition My Siberian Year. She was also appointed the Mary Ewart lecturer in Ethnology at the Oxford School of Anthropology.

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August 1915: The Amazons of the SCR

“The summer vacation has been a busy time for many of us. Miss Penrose, with the co-operation of Miss Darbishire and Miss Walton, undertook to organise the National Registration in Oxford” SSA Annual Report, November 1915.

Miss Emily Penrose, Somerville’s Principal from 1907 to 1926, was as renowned for her administrative abilities as she was for her academic achievements and in the long vacation of 1915 she utilized those skills in a very particular form of war work.

In July 1915 the National Registration Act was passed, its purpose to provide the Government with accurate statistics on those available for military service, those doing essential work and those who might be able to replace enlisted men. All adults of working age (15-65), not already serving in the armed forces, were required to register on 15th August 1915.

The task of registration was the responsibility of local authorities across the country and Miss Penrose was asked to organize it in Oxford. St Mary Hall was conveniently central and the SSA Annual Report noted “Old students will probably have seen with pride the numerous press notices which commented on the uniquely efficient manner in which the business of the Register in Oxford was conducted.”

Alice BruceMildred Pope

Somerville’s Vice Principal, Miss Alice Bruce, spent the summer in London working for the Red Cross and Mildred Pope, the Tutor in Modern Languages, was in France with the Friend’s War Victims Relief Expedition.

The most unusual form of war work was probably that undertaken by Hilda Lorimer, the Tutor in Classics who, along with members of the other women’s colleges, set up and ran Shenberrow Camp in the Cotswolds from 5th to 18th August.

Shenberrow was the first collective undertaking of the Belgian Sub-Committee of the OWSSWS (the Oxford Women Students’ Society for Women’s Suffrage), its aim to equip applicants for relief work in Belgium with practical skills (cooking, washing and sanitation, first aid and Flemish).

The site, an ancient British fort with level ground and an excellent water supply, ‘fell into the hands of the Amazons’. Forty-four women attended, including four young Belgians who looked forward to ‘taking a share in the reconstruction of their land’ and gave instruction in Flemish. The women lived under canvas; lamb, delivered by the half-sheep on horseback, was roasted over trench fires. The daily routine included Swedish drill, tent inspection, chopping wood, collecting brushwood and digging sanitary trenches as well as lessons in first aid and how to cook economical, wholesome food. They were joined for the first couple of days by Violetta Thurstan, a Red Cross nurse, who had gone to Belgium at the start of the war, been a German prisoner and had served with a ‘Flying Column’ on the Russian front. Reactions to the camp varied, from the good humour of its occupants to the friendly assistance of the local farmer and the declaration by one baker’s delivery boy: “I wouldn’t live ‘ere, not for three pound a week!”


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