The War Room

THE MANSEL SISTERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Marcia and Juliet Mansel, born at Smedmore, in 1890 and 1893 respectively, both served as nurses on the western front. Their mother Mildred Ella Mansel (‘Mully’`) had typed out, as a personal war memorial,  a selection of their letters. They were recently found in an attic.  With 50 photographs, they form the basis of the display in the War Room at Smedmore House. It is arranged in six panels: Family, Nursing, Hospitals, 1918, 1919 and Later Life.

Marcia’s husband, Captain Oswald Walker, whom she had married in 1910, was killed in the early weeks of the war. After courses at St Thomas’s, Marcia and Juliet volunteered to nurse, first with the British Red Cross, after 1917 with the Secours aux Blesses Militaires section of the French Red Cross. They thought French hospitals more challenging than British ones, as nearer to the front.

The letters show the sisters’ pride in working for their country  and  advancing women’s rights (their mother had been a militant suffragette, sentenced to a week in prison for breaking windows of the War Office); the course of the war  , especially in 1918; and their love of France.  They are so direct that they need no commentary.  Here are some quotations:

27 July 1916 Juliet to Mully

It’s so glorious to be allowed to nurse them and to do “tout son possible” for these petits poilus, these little heroes of nowadays.

9 May 1917 Marcia to Mully

I must tell my Mum that it is a tremendous honour being taken on by the French Army. It is the first time since the very beginning that nurses (English) have been allowed to belong to the French Army as the stories about some most undesirable ones were so awful at first, Joffre refused to allow any more… we mean to do very well for the honour of our nation!

3 July 1917 Marcia to Mully

How glorious it was about the suffrage bill [giving women over 30 the vote after the war]. Of course, all my thoughts were with you and Grannie. Such as immense majority… I consider the 30 age limit very high, but of course they will soon find that is lowered.

It is wonderful, I think, to watch the women’s work in this war, the capability, the patriotism, the endurance, the courage of women has given them the vote. We have left the French far behind in this.

4 August 1917 Juliet to Mully

I worked from 7 a.m. on the 31st. till 3 p.m. the following day without a stop except about 1/2 an hour in all for meals!

We had 250 grands blessés in at one go. The doctors were operating for 36 hours on end. Since the 31st it has been a ceaseless flow. It was my turn to sit up the night of the 31st and I shall never forget it. We had 40 very bad cases in during the night on my floor, all just operated on.

Juliet witnessed the allied retreat and counter-attack in 1918, and the French army’s entry into Alsace, after forty-eight years of German occupation. She wrote from Metz on 20 November 1918:

We went and watched the soldiers and the Alsatian girls in their fascinating dresses dancing round by torchlight in the great square before the prefecture, so lovely that one felt one must be dreaming. In the middle we all went out and joined in a marvellous torchlight procession round the town with all the troops, nearly every Poilu carrying a torch, fuses going up, simply wonderful. …A riotous evening and such enormous fun. I never felt so elated in my life.

In 1920 Marcia  married a French officer, Francois de Juge Montespieu (d.1940), for 20 years world show-jumping champion. They lived in the family property of Seran at Lavaur in the Tarn, and  had four children. She died at Seran in 1973.

Juliet witnessed the allied victory parade through Paris in July 1919 (her ecstatic account is in the display),  went on the stage, taught at RADA, translated plays from French into English, and died, unmarried, in 1982. She is buried at Kimmeridge. For their services in the First World War,  both sisters won the Croix de Guerre.  Marcia won a second for serving as a nurse with the French army again, in 1940.

Smedmore House, with this display, will be open on 7 & 8 May 2016 and 31 August -1 September 2016 and to groups by appointment.

France 24 on Marcia and Juliet Mansel