Claire Budd discovers the remarkable story of a Dorset nurse who worked on the battlefront in both W
PUBLISHED: 17:52 21 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:23 20 February 2013
Looking through the archives of the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, Claire Budd discovers the remarkable story of a Dorset nurse who worked on the battlefront in both World Wars
Looking through the archives ofthe Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, Claire Budd discovers the remarkable story of a Dorset nurse who worked on the battlefront in both WorldWars
Photos: Richard Budd
I am sitting in the front pew of the Church of St Mary and St James in the pretty the North Dorset village of Hazelbury Bryan. This is a place much loved by Violet Cross, a brave, modest and generous woman whose remarkable life story is surprisingly unknown in her home county.
I only came across Violets story because I had been spending quite a lot of time at the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, where I have been looking, with the help of the Museums Curator, Colin Parr, at some of the papers held within its archive. As you can imagine there are many extraordinary stories of bravery and sacrifice housed within the Museums turreted walls but Violets stood out for me; not just because shes a woman, but also because shes the only nurse featured at the Keep.
Colin told me her amazing tale and then dug out some of the paperwork given to the Museum after Violets death. Among these items was the transcript of a talk Violet gave about her experiences in France. I brought a copy of the manuscript with me to Hazelbury Bryan to read while my husband Richard sets about taking some photographs of Violets memorial stone on the wall of the church.
Violet Norah Cross was born in 1891 in Sturminster Marshall where her father was the rector. She grew up in the large rectory with her parents and four sisters. This idyllic life in the heart of rural Dorset would have continued but for the advent of the First World War. Everyone was expected to do their bit and by 1916, at the time of the Verdun attacks, the hospitals in France were crying out for nurses and 25-year-old Violet answered the call. As I turned the pages of Violets typewritten account I am quickly transported back to the grim and bloody battlefields of war torn France.
We were understaffed and under equipped, writes Violet. During the last big attacks of 1918 we were dealing with 700 arrivals and 700 evacuations a day. Ihave seen men queued up on stretchers for three days and three nights waiting for admission to the operating theatres; whilst many boys, whose limbs were amputated in the morning, offered to go on stretchers on the floor the same evening to give their beds to the newcomers. If that is not courage, well, I dont know what is.
Violet goes onto describe how the nurses worked around the shortage of beds for the wounded and dying in what must have been appalling circumstances. We had to cultivate Boy Scout minds to deal with the situation. Rolled-up overcoats became pillows, newspapers were used as sheets, hazelnut branches were made into bed cradles.
The French awarded Violet the Croix de Guerre medal in 1916 for her work and she remained in France for a further three years after the War ended, nursing prisoners of war too ill to return home. She returned to England in 1921 and resumed her life in Dorset: I thought I had done with nursing for the rest of my life. I cut up my Army caps into handkerchiefs and took up other work, she writes.
The French awarded Violet the Croix de Guerre medal in 1916 for her work
However, 25 years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the surgeon Violet worked with in France wired for her to join him back in the field hospital. Being free to choose, I was over in France almost as soon as the Expeditionary Force, she writes.
Arriving at the hospital, she found it was severely lacking bedding and so she went back to Dorset to ask for help with vital supplies. When I finally returned to France after an intensive 10 days begging, I had so many bales (of hay), that I had to commandeer a French Army lorry to convey them from the docks to the train I felt it was an example to the French of what warm-hearted British generosity means. It also benefited many of our own men.
Today I like to look back and feel that many a man suffering from severe shock after his injuries owes his life to the hot water bottles I brought out, the woollen covers knitted in obscure and out-of-the-way little Dorset villages; whilst others whom we were, alas, unable to save were laid to rest in the Military Cemetery in English garments made by English hands.
Many boys, whose limbs were amputated in the morning, offered to go on stretchers on the floor the same evening to give their beds to the new comers
Describing her experience of France during the Second World War, Violet, who by this time was nearly 50, paints a heartbreaking picture of the thousands of refugees pouring through the streets of the town where she worked.
Bicycles, hand-carts, perambulators and great farm carts piled high with bedding and household possessions, ontop of which old women and little children were perched precariously, began to stream night and day, fleeing before the German terror. Children were even crammed into hearses, whilst one old lady had been squeezed into an ice-cream cart, her husband pedalling wearily behind. On on on they knew not where as long as they were moving.
Spring came more incredibly lovely than ever that year or so it seemed to me. When I could lift my aching eyes occasionally from the unending stream of casualties pouring in, I could catch glimpses of that loveliest of all lovely sights, the shimmer of bluebells under the young green of beech trees, whilst the petals of a white cherry tree in full blossom drifted in at the windows as if trying to cover the horror within.
Soon after, Violet and her colleagues had to flee from the advancing German forces. She tried to get back to England by boat but it was impossible. So she had to attempt to escape via Paris, a situation fraught with danger as she recalls, when by a stroke of pure luck, she managed to fool a German officer who was distracted just as he was checking her identity cards.
My card was laid down and a second later my hand shot out from under my cloak and the card was back in my pocket whilst I continued to sit meekly in my chair looking the veriest milk and water nurse that ever stepped outside a hospital. By the time the German officer came back, he was in a rush and authorised her pass.
In Paris she was called before the German authorities. I sank into the chair, my heart racing with such heavy beats I thought it would break my ribs. And then, with my hand clenched together to steady me, I closed my eyes and prayed as I have never prayed on Gods earth before that I might be given my papers. Suddenly as if waking out of a dream, I felt that someone had approached me, and looking up I found a German officer bending over me. He handed me some sort of lozenge. In a flash it struck me that my white haggard face had aroused their pity and that seeing me with my eyes shut they must be thinking I was going to faint. Good I said to myself go on being sorry for me and with a feeble gesture I waved the lozenge away and put my handkerchief to my lips After about 20 minutes they returned, put my papers into my hands, stamped by the highest military authority in Paris, and told me all was in order. One of them conducted me to the lift and wished me Bon Voyage.
Violet travelled on through Spain and Portugal finally reaching Lisbon where she managed to get a seat on a seaplane leaving for England. The plane touched down in Poole Harbour, and from there she walked the 25 miles back to her home at Hazelbury Bryan.
Violet subsequently joined the ATS and,a few weeks after the invasion of Normandy, returned to the Continent to help reunite children with their parents in Belgium and Holland. On her return to Dorset she became a well-known benefactor in her local community as well as a Parish, District and County Councillor and continued to be part of the community until she passed away at the age of 98.
As I finish reading her typewritten account, the sun streams through the church window next to Violets plaque. Atthe bottom of which is inscribed:
I have fought a good fight I have finished my course I have kept the faith
Without doubt Violet Cross truly is one of Dorsets unsung war and peacetime heroes.
The Keep Military Museum
This is the museum for the regiments of Devon and Dorset. The 133-year-old landmark is home to thousands of original exhibits and is a regular port of call for researchers and genealogists. The Keep is on Bridport Road in Dorchester.
Open Tues Fri 10am4.30pm (also Sat & Mon from 29 March for summer)
Admission: Adults 6, Children (8-16) 2.50, Under 8s Free, Senior Citizens 4, Family ticket (2 adults 2 children) 14, Regimental Association and serving members of the Rifles (with ID) free.
For more information visit keepmilitarymuseum.org or call 01305 264066