IRISH SISTERS OF MERCY AT WAR

Nursing During the Crimean War 1854 - 1856

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Some religious orders of monks and nuns were traditionally involved with medicine.   Nuns often served as nurses in hospitals and in times of war, including the American Civil War (1861-65).  

In autumn 1854, press reports from the Times’ war correspondent highlighted gross deficiencies in British military hospitals dealing with the sick and wounded of the Crimean War, prompting the War Office to appeal for respectable women to nurse the wounded.   Three types of woman answered the War Office call – philanthropic ladies, paid nurses and religious sisters, both Catholic and Anglican.

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The first women to leave Britain for the Crimea were a group of 15 Irish Sisters from the Convent of Mercy in Bermondsey, London.   The Superior of the Convent, Reverend Mother Clare Moore, was asked by Bishop Thomas Grant of Southwark, in response to a plea for volunteer nurses issued by the British Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, to send a small contingent of Sisters to the East. Initially they were on friendly terms with Florence Nightingale, but soon problems developed between their leader, Reverend Mother Francis Bridgeman, and Nightingale.

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Reverend Mother Clare Moore was a dependable, intelligent, hard worker who was tolerant and understanding of others and had a calming influence on those around her.   Having become dangerously ill with dysentery and pleurisy, Clare left Scutari before all the wounded had returned home, arriving back in Bermondsey on the 16th of May 1856.

Florence Nightingale wrote to Clare on the 29th of April 1856, the day after Clare left Scutari to return to England,

“My dearest Revd Mother

Your going home is the greatest blow I have had yet.   But God’s blessing & my love & gratitude go with you, as you well know….   I do not presume to express praise or gratitude to you, Revd Mother, because it would look as if I thought you had done the work not unto God but unto me.   You were far above me in fitness for the General Superintendency, both in worldly talent of administration, & far more in the spiritual qualifications which God values in a superior.   My being placed over you in our unenviable reign of the East was my misfortune & not my fault.   I will ask you to forgive me for everything or anything which I may unintentionally have done which can ever have given you pain - remembering only that I have always felt which I have just expressed, & that it has given me more pain to reign over you than to you to serve under me….

My love & gratitude will be yours, dearest Revd Mother, wherever you go. I do not presume to give you any other tribute but my tears….

ever my dearest Revd Mother’s
(gratefully, lovingly, overflowingly)
Florence Nightingale”

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Various international groups declared 2010 to be:  ‘The Year of The Nurse’.   The year marked the centenary of the death of Florence Nightingale.   The story of ‘FN’, as her friend’s called her, is known because of her nursing during the Crimean war.

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The ‘Florence Nightingale Medal’ is a medal instituted in 1912 by the International Committee of the Red Cross.   It is the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve and is awarded to nurses or nursing aides for “exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster” or “exemplary services or a creative and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education”.

(there are no international distinctions named in honour of the Irish nuns at Crimea)

However, there were other nurses and hospitals involved in the war.   But these are rarely mentioned …

In October 1854, The Times (newspaper of London) reported that the wounded and sick of Britain’s Catholic allies — Sardinia and France — were being treated in efficient hospitals run by well trained nursing nuns.   It asked why nothing similar was being provided for British soldiers?   

The British government and nation were greatly embarrassed.   Nursing in Britain was not seen as a respectable occupation, so trained nurses were few.

Fortunately, the Catholic revival was taking place and the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ nursing order had been formed in Ireland.   Five Sisters from the Catholic Convent at Bermondsey set out for the war zone on the 17th of October, but the British government instructed them to wait in Paris.

A British government committee, under Mary Stanley, was gathering a party of 5 Catholic nuns, 8 Anglican (Church of England) nuns, and 38 hired nurses and ‘Ladies’.   Florence Nightingale was appointed as their leader and they left to join the Irish Catholic nuns already waiting in Paris.   The whole party reached Scutari in Turkey on the 4th of November, where they established two hospitals.

On the 17th of December, Mary Stanley arrived at Scutari with a further 15 Irish nuns and 31 hired nurses and ‘Ladies’.   Florence Nightingale said she could not control such a large number and demanded they return home.

The army Generals intervened and asked Mary Stanley to use her party to open two hospitals (General and Lower) at Koulali, five miles from Scutari.   Stanley appointed Reverend Mother Bridgeman, Superior of the nuns, to share the running of these hospitals.

Scutari and Koulali were 300 miles across the Black Sea from the fighting which was taking place near Balaclava in the Crimea.   So, in October 1855, the army asked Reverend Mother Bridgeman to move her nuns to the Crimea.   She did this and established the ‘Balaclava Barracks and Field Hospitals’ on the 14th

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Florence Nightingale claimed she had the right to supervise these Crimean hospitals, but the British army preferred to work with Reverend Mother Bridgeman.   With the help of the British War Office, these generals found a technical way to exclude Florence Nightingale from having any influence in the Crimea.

Following the armistice of 29th February 1856, the hospitals gradually emptied.   On the 16th of March the British War Office granted Florence Nightingale authority in the Crimea, and she arrived there nine days later.   On the 28th of March, Reverend Mother Bridgeman entrusted the remaining few patients to Florence Nightingale before sailing home on the 12th of April.

Working conditions in the hospitals had been terrible and few of the hired nurses and ‘Ladies’ had stayed long.   So the nuns, being the most experienced and disciplined groups, came to form the hard core of the staff in all six hospitals.   From the 14th of October 1855 to the 25th of March 1856, the Irish Sisters of Mercy were in sole charge of the hospitals in the Crimea.

Two Sisters from the Order’s Liverpool convent died from cholera and typhus and were buried in the Crimea.   A memorial to them stands in the grounds of the Old Swan convent, Liverpool.   The others returned to their work in the diseased inner city slums of England and Ireland.

To understand why the British official history of this period omits to mention such a large part of the Crimean nursing story, we need to be aware of the sensitive political and religious situation in Britain at that time.   A large book would be required to examine in depth the reasons why the British official history of this period omits over half the story of nursing during the Crimean War …   

For generations the British had been taught how they lived in a progressive, Protestant country compared to people living in poor, uneducated, superstitious Catholic ones.   So, when newspapers compared Britain’s nursing provision with Catholic countries, there was national embarrassment.   If it had become widely known how much the British Government had come to rely on hated and feared Roman Catholic nuns, the embarrassment would have then become politically ‘sensitive’.

Civil rights had been granted to Irish Catholics in 1828, but it was against strong opposition and so some restrictions still existed.   For example, the nuns from the Bermondsey convent travelling to the Crimea were not allowed to dress as nuns in public until after they arrived in France.

From the 14th of October 1855 to the 25th of March 1856, Irish Catholic nuns were placed in sole charge of the hospitals in the Crimea.   There would have been a threat of political and civil unrest back in Protestant England, if it had became widely known that for six months British soldiers in Crimea were being cared for exclusively by Irish Catholic nuns.

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An indication of this danger occurred in Portsmouth on the 8th of May 1856.   Twelve nuns, including Reverend Mother Bridgeman, arrived home on a troop ship.   The officer commanding the British regiment asked the Sisters to share their triumph by walking at the head of the regiment from the ship to the railway station, a short distance away.   The English crowd began to hoot and pelt the Sisters until the soldiers lifted their rifles.

It is worth remembering that these Sisters of Mercy were part of the group of 15 Irish nuns who had gone out with Reverend Mother Bridgeman in the second party.   Two had died and been buried in the Crimea, and another was mortally ill and died the following year.

In the British government’s view was that it was ‘politically convenient’ if the Irish nuns quietly returned to their work in the disease-infested slums of cities in Ireland and England, while the authorities directed every eye and ear to the Scutari hospital and Florence Nightingale, its heroine.

In 1883, Florence Nightingale was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria.   In 1904, she was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John.   In 1907, she became the first woman to be awarded Britain’s Order of Merit.   In the following year she was given the Honorary Freedom of the City of London.   Her birthday is now celebrated as ‘International CFS Awareness Day’.

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The Royal Red Cross is a military decoration awarded in the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth countries for exceptional services in military nursing.
(never awarded to the Irish nuns at Crimea)

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Order of Merit

The ‘Order of Merit’ is a British dynastic order recognising distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture.   Established in 1902 by King Edward VII, admission into the order remains the personal gift of the British monarch, and is limited to 24 living recipients at one time from the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth countries, and  plus a limited number of honorary members from non-British-Commonwealth countries
(never awarded to the Irish nuns at Crimea)

Margaret (Fanny) Taylor had been a member of the Anglican (Church of England) Sellonite Order of nuns until she opened a ‘ragged school’ in London.   She went out to Scutari as one of the ‘Ladies’ in the second party and assisted Florence Nightingale for some time before transferring to Koulali.   Fanny authored 16 books, and in Eastern Hospitals and English Nursing she described how she and Florence Nightingale used a lantern to see the sick when paying night visits to the hospital wards.   This led to Florence Nightingale being later idolized as:  “The Lady with the Lamp”.   Fanny Taylor became a Catholic at Koulali and later founded a new religious Order: The Poor Servants of the Mother of God.

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Mary Stanley, who had recruited and organised the groups of nurses going to the war zone, later became a Catholic and was very active in charitable work.    The St. John and St. Elizabeth hospital in London has a bed dedicated to her memory.

Mary Seacole was a self-taught, mixed-race nurse (3 parts Scot and 1 part African) from Jamaica, who independently travelled to the Crimea to provide the troops with care and nursing.   In recent years, Mary’s exploits have become known due to her autobiography being reprinted in 1984.   She is buried in the Catholic section of Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

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1869 portrait of Mary Seacole wearing medals (never awarded to her), including the British Crimean War medal,
the Turkish Medjidie, and the French Legion d’honneur

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Sepia photograph of Mary Seacole in old age

Revered Mother Bridgeman’s nuns were nearly all from Ireland but they obtained better conditions of service from the British War Office than had the nuns from the Bermondsey convent.   For example, they remained under the authority of Revered Mother Bridgeman when not nursing;  they were permitted to travel publicly in England dressed as nuns;  and Florence Nightingale was not permitted to open and read their private letters.

During her long period of work in the slum-cities of England and Ireland, Revered Mother Bridgeman had developed a detailed system of nursing practice.   She used it at Koulali.

Evelyn Bolster wrote,  “Her [Florence Nightingale’s] attitude to the Koulali system was one of vigorous opposition:  but the superiority of the system is attested to by the fact that she began to revise her own methods to such an extent that the scheme for military nursing she submitted to the British War Office after her Crimean experiences, was in many ways identical with that introduced by Mother Bridgeman.”

Evelyn Bolster’s statement should mean that the position of Reverend Mother Bridgeman and the poorer parts of Irish cities would loom large in any unbiased history of the origin of nursing practice in modern times … but this is not the way the British  write their history.

When Florence Nightingale was made superintendent of the nurses being sent out to the war zone, the War Office used the term:  ‘in Turkey’, which included the Scutari area.   The Crimea, was part of Russia not Turkey.   This enabled the Generals, with the agreement of the British War Office, to excluded Florence Nightingale from holding any nursing authority in the Crimea until after the armistice.

While the British Government had political ‘sensitivities’,  its total lack of recognition of the heroic services provided by the Irish nursing Sisters, did not go unnoticed within the Catholic Communities of Britain and Ireland.

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the jewel awarded to Nightingale by Queen Victoria, for her services to the soldiers in the war (never awarded to the Irish nuns at Crimea)

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Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria;
24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901)

Margaret Taylor, (who had made known the night hospital visits with Florence Nightingale) was now editor of her magazine: The Lamp.   She wrote:  “it behoved the aristocracy of Victorian England to erect a monument which would prove to future generations that Anglicanism in the space of three hundred years had produced one truly great and charitable daughter.”

Cardinal Wiseman in his Lenten Pastoral of 1856 wrote:  “The charity which springs up suddenly in the world and reflects credit on itself, the world will take care to requite, to honour by loud praise, to exalt by exclusive applause, to commemorate by lasting monuments” but the charity which, “long nourished in the secret of the cloister, had been for years exercised amidst the infected and plague-stricken lanes of English and Irish cities, was denied even the passing tribute of one generous word from those whose mouths were open to private charity.”

From February 1975 till May 1994 a British £10 Currency Note was circulated with a drawing of Florence Nightingale and a separate portrayal of a hospital ward at Scutari.   Catholic and Anglican nursing nuns formed more than a third of the staff and were the most permanent throughout the war.   They were permitted by the British generals to wear their distinctive habits.   However, apart from Florence Nightingale, the head covering of four nurses may be viewed working in the ward.   Yet not one is distinguished as a nun.

In 1854 the camera was in its infancy, so the public had to mostly rely on paintings and etchings to portray events abroad.   Artists limited themselves to depicting the lay nurses at Scutari.   This may have been viewed as justifiable at the time so as not to antagonise the anti-Catholic public at home in England.

When, over a century later, the Bank of England issued their £10 Note, the scene depicted was based on an old etching, not reality. 6,493 million of these notes were printed and, if reality had been portrayed, the nuns would have finally received their recognition …

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Reverse of the British 10 Pounds Bank Note

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Obverse of the British 10 Pounds Bank Note

The nuns may not have been deliberately omitted — probably no one thought about it.   But if members of the Salvation Army, or Indians wearing sarees, or Muslims in hijabs, or coloured people, had been involved — would they have been forgotten?

Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish discrimination can show itself in two forms:  by making allegations of bad things done by Irish Catholics; and by hiding good things done by Irish Catholics.   The second form of discrimination is not so easy to detect as the first.

The total exclusion of the Irish Catholic nuns from the ‘history’ of Britain’s war in Crimea is an example of how anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice from the past intrudes into the present day.   It is so ingrained in British culture that it is often unnoticed.

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Irish Sister of Mercy

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British Crimea War Medal
(never awarded to the Irish nuns at Crimea)

The Crimean War

Britain, allied with France and Sardinia, attacked Russia to secure British trade with Turkey and access to India by supporting the Muslim Ottoman regime in its conflict with Christian Russia

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The Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) was a conflict between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia.   The war was part of a long-running contest between major European powers for influence over territories of the declining Ottoman Empire.   Most of the conflict took place on the Crimean Peninsula, but there were smaller campaigns in western Anatolia, Caucasus, the Baltic Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the White Sea.   In Russia, this war is also known as the ‘Eastern War’ (Russian: Восточная война, Vostochnaya Voina), and in Britain it was also called the ‘Russian War’ at the time.

The Crimean War is known for logistical and tactical errors during the land campaign on both sides (the naval side saw a successful Allied campaign which eliminated most of the ships of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea).   Nonetheless, it is sometimes considered to be one of the first ‘modern’ wars as it “introduced technical changes which affected the future course of warfare”, including the first tactical use of railways and the electric telegraph.   It is also famous for the work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, who pioneered modern nursing practices while caring for wounded British soldiers.

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The Crimean War was one of the first wars to be documented extensively in written reports and photographs:  notably by an Irishman, William Russell (for The Times newspaper).   News from war correspondents reaching Britain from the Crimea kept the public informed of the day-to-day realities of the battlefield for the first time.

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Detail of Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud’s panoramic painting The Siege of Savastapol

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The Thin Red Line, painted by Robert Gibb

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Charge of the Light Brigade, painted by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr

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William Russell, the Dublin photographer & War Correspondent

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