It is not known when Florence started as a Volunteer with the VAD. In 1915 she was in Nottingham, possibly undergoing training, or possibly working in a hospital. In her autograph book there is a photograph of a group of men, underneath which Florence has wrote the caption: “Some of the Bagthorpe Boys” This may refer to men from the area of Bagthorpe in Nottinghamshire. It was here she was given the nickname ‘Henry’ by her nursing colleagues. At this time Florence was 24 years old.
On 29th September 1916 Florence joined HMHS Britannic Hospital ship with Queen Alexander Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). She was on board when the vessel was sunk.
QAIMNS were formed by Royal Warrant in March 1902 from the Army Nursing Service and the Indian Nursing Service. Queen Alexandra was the President until her death in 1925 and she also chose the motto and insignia of the service. During the First World War the nurses served in France, Italy, Russia, Salonika, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, East Africa and India. At the end of the war an estimated 10,000 women were in active service. On 1st February 1949 QAIMNS was renamed the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.
The Britannic was a White Star Line passenger liner and sister ship to the Olympic and the Titanic. On 13th November 1915 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted and repainted to His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic. The Liverpool Courier proudly reported that the biggest British ship, the Britannic had reached the Mersey from Belfast on 13th December 1915.
The vessel had successfully completed five voyages transporting wounded troops back to Britain. She was heading to Mudros to collect casualties from the Dardanelles, when she struck a mine off Kea Island in the Aegean Sea on the morning of 21st November 1916. At the time 1,066 people were on board; 30 were killed, the remaining crew were rescued.
Initially there was some uncertainty whether the vessel had hit a mine or been torpedoed. Newspaper reports in the days following the disaster expressed anger that a hospital ship could be attacked. Despite being fitted with the latest safety features including a double skin and watertight bulkheads the vessel still sank surprisingly fast, in just 50 minutes. However, electric lifeboat lowering mechanisms were also fitted and the crew were able to radio for help.
Two of the chaplain’s on board, Rev. J. B. Atkinson and Rev. John A. Fleming wrote accounts of the sinking and of the calm response of the nursing staff. These were later published in newspapers and magazines.
Florence would have been aboard the Britannic for less than two months. She was rescued and taken to the Greek mainland with the other survivors. After spending six days in Greece, the staff and crew were transferred to Malta, they spent a fortnight here before the next leg of their journey home. They travelled to Marseille via the troop ship H.S. Valdivia, spending Christmas on board, before travelling across France by train. Reaching the coast Florence would have finally sailed for England.
At home in January 1917 Florence would have received a letter with details of a posting to France. She was stationed at No.2 Stationary Hospital for an unknown period of time. She was granted leave between 16th September and 29th September. Florence later served at 14 General Hospital near Wimereux, France with just one period on leave from 25th March 1918 to 10th June 1918. She attended a Christmas pantomime put on by servicemen and nursing staff in 1918, the programme she kept for her scrapbook. Florence was in France until 21st February 1919.