Scottish Women’s Hospital Units (SWHU) were set up and run by Elsie Maud Inglis, a physician and surgeon, who also championed votes for women. Inglis initially approached The War Office with her ideas for hospital units staffed entirely by women on the Western Front; she was famously told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.” Instead Inglis worked with the French Red Cross. The SWHUs were partly funded by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Frances Ivens was the Chief Medical Officer of the first SWHU, which was despatched in December 1914 to Royaumont, a 13th century Cistercian abbey north of Paris. This hospital treated French soldiers under the direction of the French Red Cross. Initially 100 beds were available, however, the authorities soon asked for the capacity to be doubled.
In early 1916 the hospital were asked to provide facilities nearby for the French military. The satellite hospital was at Villiers-Cotterets, but was later subject to heavy bombardment. When the French Expeditionary force were ordered to go to Salonika the Ministre de Guerre asked the hospital to accompany them. This was reported in the press as one of the few occasions when a voluntary hospital had been officially attached to an army. [Daily Record, Sat 15 January 1916]
Frances herself wrote to local newspapers highlighting the work of the hospital and requesting assistance when necessary. On 7th August 1916 the following letter was published in the Liverpool Daily Post:
“Sir – During the last three weeks the resources of our hospital at the Abbaye de Royaumont have been strained to the utmost by the sudden arrival of large numbers of badly wounded French soldiers passing through Croil from the Somme. Their condition has been so desperate that they could travel no further, for the incidence of gas gangrene in many cases necessitated immediate operation.
On July 2 we received 127 badly wounded men, and the strain continues with short intervals of calm. At the request of the French Army authorities we doubled our accommodation, and prepared 400 beds. Our ambulances, though continually on the road, have so far never failed, but the Argyll motor lorry (our sole means of conveying stores) has collapsed, and we are in difficulties about the transport of provisions. I appeal to my friends in Liverpool to help us, and through us the valiant French Army, by giving or lending us a light motor lorry ready for immediate use. – Yours etc.
Frances Ivens M.S., Lond.,
Surgeon in charge of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, Royaumont, France”
It is not known if this particular appeal was successful. However the Lord Mayor of Liverpool’s Fund made donations to the hospital in 1917 and in 1918.
By the end of the war Royaumont was the largest continuously operated voluntary hospital in France. (January 1915 – March 1919)
Frances received many letters from the French Authorities expressing their admiration and gratitude for the work she had done. In February 1917 she was awarded a gold Medaille des Epidemics, along with six other female doctors. Silver and bronze medals were also awarded to 31 nurses and orderlies at the hospital. Later that year in autumn 1917, Frances was the first foreign born woman to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour. Thirty other staff members who worked at Royaumont were awarded the Croix de Guerre.
In December 1918 Frances received the Croix de Guerre with palms for “having ensured, day and night, the treatment of French and Allied wounded during repeated bombardment at Villers Cotterets in May 1918. On the approach of the enemy she withdrew her unit at the last moment to the Abbaye de Royaumont where she continued her humane mission with the most absolute devotion”. [Liverpool Echo, Saturday 18 December 1918] In June 1918 a number of newspaper articles reported on the air raid and the ensuing evacuation. Frances was reported to have continued operating, performing amputations by candle light after the lights in the hospital had to be turned off as they could be seen by the German pilots, and she was one of a party who made repeated visits to the hospital while under fire to salvage vital medical equipment.
After the war Frances was awarded the Victory and British War medals. She returned Liverpool to practice medicine. In June 1919 the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) held a lunch for 140 colleagues and friends in honour of her outstanding contribution. On 25th July 1919 a Garden Party was held at Buckingham Palace for 10,000 war workers; Frances was among the guests. She had only recently returned from France.
Dundee Evening Telegraph
The History Company, The Women of Royaumont – a unique film, http://historycompany.co.uk/2011/11/29/the-women-of-royaumont-a-unique-film/
Liverpool Daily Post
Liverpool Medical Institution, Miss Frances Ivens,