Nursing Notes & Midwives Chronicle, May 1915: Calls to Action amid Tragedy

This month’s post was prepared for us by archive volunteer, Autumn, as another instalment of our First World War centenary remembrances, and is taken from the May 1915 issue of the Nursing Notes – the month in which the passenger ship, Lusitania, was sunk.

The RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner of the early twentieth century, owned and operated by the Cunard Company. She was launched on 7 June 1906 and was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship in the world at the time of her launch, although she was soon eclipsed in size and speed by her sister Mauretania and in size and luxury by rivals Olympic and Titanic. Lusitania would make 101 round-trip voyages (or 202 crossings) during her career of almost 8 years. On 7 May 1915, Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine (or U-boat) U-20, sinking in 18 minutes.  Of the known 1,960 people on board, 763 survived and 1,197 died, a great number of which were American. Lusitania was also carrying war material for the British Army. The sinking of Lusitania is often credited with turning neutral American public opinion against Germany.

It is fitting that the Nursing Notes issue published in the same month that a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania features a piece on another German torpedoing of a passenger ship. The Falaba of the Elder Dempster Co of Liverpool was bound for Sierra Leone via the Canary Islands when she sailed on 27 March 1915. Early afternoon on 28 March, fifty miles west of St David’s Head in southwest Wales, where St George’s Channel meets the Atlantic, the Falaba was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Of the 145 passengers and 95 crew, 104 lives were lost, making Falaba the first passenger ship to be sunk during the war. The piece, entitled “Colonial Nurses on the Falaba” tells of how two of the passengers on the ship were members of the Colonial Nursing Association. Miss Julia Winchester died; Miss Linda Bell was saved and brought back to England.

This issue also addresses social issues arising out of the war, namely the campaign for abstinence and the increase in illegitimate childbirths and teenage mothers.

By this stage in the conflict, the Midwives’ Institute had approved a scheme called the Midwives’ Total Abstinence War League. The League had been formed by midwives who believed that national abstinence would aid the war effort. The leading article in this issue of Nursing Notes, “A Roll Call to Midwives” urges midwives to show their support for the national abstinence movement by themselves signing up for total abstinence for the duration of the war – although ordering alcohol as a medical preparation would obviously still be allowed!

The piece “A New Problem” tells of how a conference was called by the Women’s Imperial Health Association to discuss the connection between illegitimate childbirth and war conditions. During the meeting it was proposed that a committee be appointed to look into the issue and how to deal with it. Proving that the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy is nothing new is a reprint of the Daily Mirror article “Bishop on War Babies Problem”. During a sermon the Bishop of Carlisle spoke of reading that many of the country’s expectant mothers were under 16 years of age. He put this down to lack of discipline at home and bad parenting.

As if “A Roll Call to Midwives” was not enough of a call to action, later on in the issue we find an open letter entitled “Wake Up, Midwives!” Written by Rosalind Paget, then treasurer of the Midwives’ Institute, the letter rather sarcastically points out that the readers may not know this but they have an institute – the Midwives’ Institute – and a journal – Nursing Notes. In Miss Paget’s view, midwives are happy for the institute to do all the hard work in protecting their rights and sticking up for midwifery but when it comes to giving back to the professional union they are nowhere to be seen.

The issue ends by returning to the topic of War babies. “The Unmarried Mother” quotes a speaker at the Maternity and Child Welfare conference as warning against excluding unmarried mums from support systems for new mothers. “War Babies” reminds midwives that they need not judge war babies and their mothers but simply attend to them.

Of course, overseas refugees who had escaped to Britain were also having babies on these shores. The article “A Belgian Baby” features a photo of one of the first Belgian babies to be born in England, with an accompanying letter. Both letter and photo were sent in by Mrs. M Clarkson, President of the National Midwives’ Association, Rochdale and Matron of the Rochdale Maternity Home and Training School, where the baby was born.

Nursing Notes, May 1915
Nursing Notes, May 1915

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