War Stories: A Nurse’s Life Rediscovered

If an old chest in the attic of a Hove family home had not been discovered, we would know nothing about Sister Florence Holdgate. The family discovered that the chest had been left there by their great aunt and they gradually uncovered the story of a military nurse in the First World War.

Inside the chest, they found the nurse’s dress and apron which is now on display in Brighton Museum’s War Stories exhibition. It was the uniform of a Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) sister. With the dress and apron were some medical implements in a spare uniform pocket that presumably could replace a dress pocket once it had fallen into holes.

Sister Florence Holdgate
Sister Florence Holdgate

The QAIMNS nurses were a select group of professionals employed by the War Office for military hospitals. There were strict entry regulations for becoming a military nurse in 1914 and successful applicants were required to be unmarried, of good family, well-educated and already trained at a listed hospital. Their terms of service were in line with the other branches of the military.

In the chest there were some small black and white photographs that show nurses, patients, British troops in pith helmets and those in the slouch hats of the Australian army. The landscape is dry and dotted with palms. One postcard identifies a large institutional building as being the 15th General Hospital, Egypt, and an online search places this as being in Alexandria. Here casualties will have crossed the Meditteranean from the campaign against the Turkish army at Gallipoli.

15th General Hospital, Egypt
15th General Hospital, Egypt

To find out exactly where Florence was serving, her family turned to the QAIMNS records held at the National Archives. Those that survive can be found online and can be downloaded for a small fee.

From the records, the timeline of Florence’s nursing career could be established by references to personal details from official correspondence and reports. They reveal that Florence had started her training in 1904, aged 27. She was a probationer nurse at the Princess Alice Hospital in Eastbourne and four years later, she joined QAIMNS as a Charge Nurse. Serving in the army often included a posting abroad and in 1911 Florence was sent to Malta. It was here that she started to show signs of ill health and resigned from the service the following year.

War was declared in 1914 and the records show that Florence did not wait long before she re-enlisted with QAIMNS on 19th October of that year. At the beginning of the war only 300 nurses were on active service, but many like Florence rejoined as the war progressed and more nurses were needed. By the end of the war 10,404 nurses had joined the military nursing reserve (for more information visit QARANC.

In 1915 Florence is recorded as being posted to the Kitchener Indian General Hospital in Brighton which is now better known as the Brighton General Hospital before being transferred to Egypt. For the first few months, she is likely to have taken pride in her work as the photographs she had kept with her uniform for all those years date from this period.

A report from a Royal Army Medical Corps officer (The National Archives: WO/399/392) reveals that Florence’s health was soon to start suffering again in the climate and after a few months she was reported to be ‘run down’. It was felt that a sea voyage may improve her health and so she was posted to His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Oxfordshire.

The HMHS Oxfordshire was put on the Basra to Bombay run which at this time treated and transported those who were injured or fell ill during the Mesopotamia Campaign. However, Florence’s health worsened, yet in spite of daily pain, sickness and headaches, she remained on duty until November. She was eventually hospitalised with a gastric ulcer at St George’s Hospital, Bombay, and from there transferred to Poona but her condition worsened. The medical officer diagnoses the cause as from ‘duty and from effect of climate.’

By March she had recovered enough to return home and was put on sick leave for six months while she waited for further instructions. By the autumn she signed a form agreeing that she was fit for service and started work at the Wharncliffe Hospital, Sheffield, where she was a Sister in charge of medical and surgical wards. The Matron described her as ‘an excellent Ward Sister, gets on well with those working under her and is tactful with patients.’

Florence returned to civilian nursing after the war. She eventually retired to Hove where many years later her old trunk of treasured possessions was rediscovered, and the story of a nurse who served despite ill health can now be told.

Jo Palache, Oral History and Life History Research

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