Mary Howitt (1888-1983): War and Memory – Part 1

When being awarded the Red Cross Decoration, the Royal Warrant said that it can only be given upon any ladies, whether subjects or foreign persons, who may be recommended by our Secretary of State for War for special exertions in providing for the nursing of sick and wounded soldiers and sailors of Our Army and Navy.

Royal Red Cross


Mary was one of the few nurses who was awarded this award, which was established in 1883. The first person to ever receive the Red Cross Decoration (before it was even made official) was the famous Florence Nightingale. In the years leading up to the First World War, only 270 women were considered worthy of such an award, giving it a prestigious status. However, all this changed with the First World War, for as the nursing staff expanded exponentially in its demands, so too did the amount of awards given. From what I had read, it was actually given quite a bad reputation; women of high status and wealth grew to expect this award, since they had given their time and money. On the other hand, there were the working class, such as the majority V.A.D nurses, who had to actually work for this award, but the younger they were, the less like they were to be recognised. Thus, when I saw Mary’s recognition for her dedication, it simply stood out even more to me.

To begin with, Mary’s recollections of the Wars takes up nearly two pages of her memoir, being one of the longest chapters of her life. Mary was already 26 years old when World War One was announced. She threw herself into the war, taking a very active role in becoming a V.A.D nurse. To define exactly what this is, she was part of the Volunteer Aid Detachment that was created by St. Johns ambulance and Lord Keogh in 1909. V.A.D nurses were not actually trained nurses, but rather working-class people that were trained in basic care, such as changing sheets and bedpans, helping patients dress and shower, giving them food etc. and only helping with injuries under a trained nurse, usually called the Matron.

In Anne Powell’s Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War, she described Voluntary Aid Detachments being trained, ‘in the art of improvisation and in coping with emergencies’ (19, 2009). This proved more true for the nurses who volunteered to go to the front lines. Powell also went on to say that women who became part of the V.A.D included ‘suffragists, feminists, married and career women…and those who felt that serving their country was a release from the genteel role of a daughter destined to run the house-hold’ (19, 2009), even going as far to say that the latter of this list saw the V.A.D ‘as an exciting escape from boredom and drudgery.’ (19, 2009). I found this truly shocking, as I have heard many accounts of how gruesome the injuries were and how thousands of soldiers had come home haunted by what they had seen. I can’t see Mary having any such attitude when she became a V.A.D, which I believe it was punctuated by her almost deliberate lack of detail that went into caring for the soldiers that came back.

Mary’s younger sister, Edith,  also joined the V.A.D, but she made the courageous decision to be deployed to a military hospital in Boulogne, France as a cook, which you can see from her work slip below.

Mary not only received the Red Cross Decoration but also a medal that she simply called her ‘Bronze Medal’. At first I was thoroughly confused, having never heard of it, but after some scouring, I realised she had received this.

British Red Cross War Medal


This was awarded to V.A.D’s after they had dedicated at least 1,000 hours of unpaid service. As far as I can guess from Mary’s volunteer slip, she dedicated at least twice this between 1914-1918. At the time it was an unofficial award but was later instituted in 1920.





Here is the actual work slip given to Mary when she began working as a nurse in St.Gabriel military hospital in Sunderland. Mary devoted 50 hours a week to caring for wounded soldiers, despite still working part-time as a teacher. Many hospitals were set up in schools and churches–St Gabriels being one of many through England. They tended to 1044 wounded soldiers over the course of the war, and even set up a music band for the soldiers to raise their spirits which became something like a tradition every year. Their work was acknowledged by the plaque made for them after the war had ended, which still exists today.

I found it incredibly odd that despite devoting nearly two pages to her War experiences, only the first small paragraph addressed the First World War, making her mentions very small and very brief. At first, I thought perhaps, she didn’t remember it as well as WW2, considering it was 30-40 years prior to when she wrote her memoir, but I read that the Great War was also called the great ‘Sacrifice’. The amount of lives lost were almost too vast to deem it a real victory.

As I have mentioned before, Mary lost her brother-in-law, Thomas Percy Hammond, in 1917, who was killed by a sniper rifle. He was second lieutenant, of the Royal Garrison Artillery. I later found out that he had only been married to her sister Ethel for a tender three months before his death. I can imagine this made her recollections of the Great War particularly more painful. His grave now resides in a beautiful place in Northern Italy, the Asiago Plateau, Cavalletto Cemetery.

His grave is plot 1, row F, grave 13. Approximately 100 British graves.

And lastly, a picture of Mary, Percy and Ethel together.


Works Cited:

Powell, Anne. Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War. The History Press. 2009.

‘Mary Howitt’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:355


Images can be found at:

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