As war began, existing British nursing services such as the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) saw women enlisting for active service overseas whilst British Dominions formed their own services. In 1914 Australia created the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) and sent its first units overseas in Autumn of that year. Both Kate Luard and Nellie Spindler were in the QAIMNS and May Tilton was in the AANS. The nurses from Australia, New Zealand and Canada served with general hospitals attached to their country units.

Brandhoek Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS)

Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) were part of the casualty evacuation chain, further back from the front line than the Aid Posts and Field Ambulances. CCS's were generally located on or near railway lines, to facilitate movement of casualties from the battlefield and on to the hospitals. Although they were quite large, CCS’s moved quite frequently. At Brandhoek, just three miles from the reserve trenches, between Ypres and Poperinge an ‘Advanced Abdominal Centre was created with a group of three CCSs: No 32 and 44 were British and No 3 was an Australian CCS. The main railway access was at Poperinge and due to Brandhoek’s proximity to the Front Line and the railway siding the sound of nearby bombardment was constant. One of the horrors faced by these nurses was the deadly mustard gas shells, their contents being dispersed towards them.

Kate Luard, Head Sister of British CCC No 32 Brandhoek

No 32 Casualty Clearing Station was moved to Brandhoek at the end of July in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres (known as Passchendaele). Kate Luard from Essex, its Head Sister arrived with her team on 25 July. Kate was an experienced nurse by the time she joined the QAIMNS Reserve on 6 August 1914 as a Reserve Sister and was mobilised just 3 days later. She had started her First World War work on the Ambulance trains prior to working in the CCSs from September 1915, firstly in France. Towards the end of 1916, Kate was appointed head nurse of British CCS No 32 and remained close to the action throughout the Battle of Passchendaele. While she was at CCS No 32, Kate ‘went down the line’ to Poperinge and climbed the ladder to the Chapel in Talbot House, one of only eight women to do so. Talbot House, ‘The Everman’s Club, was set up by two British army Chaplains, Neville Talbot and Philip (Tubby) Clayton in December 1915 and was first opened to women in Spring 1917. Kate Luard was awarded the RRC (Royal Red Cross) and Bar (a rare distinction) and was twice mentioned in Dispatches for gallant and distinguished service in the field. After the war she returned to nursing, eventually retiring to live in Essex.

Captain Noel Chavasse, a medical officer and the only double VC recipient in the First World War, was brought into No 32 Brandhoek on 3 August 1917 being looked after by Kate and her team of nurses. He died around 1pm on 4 August 1917. He was awarded his second VC for his actions on 2/3 August. He is buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery and there is a Memorial to him in Brandhoek Church.

Nellie Spindler, Staff Nurse at No 44 Brandhoek British CCS

Nellie Spindler, born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, started as an untrained nurse in 1910, then becoming a nurse ‘probationer’ before enlisting with the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1915. In May 1917, she was accepted for an overseas post and was quickly moved up the line from France, eventually transferring to No 44 Casualty Clearing Station. She was on night duty during 20/21 August 1917, caring for very sick men during constant bombing raids. She came off duty and walked back to her tent to sleep. Not long afterwards, two bombs exploded close by with the third landing in the hospital compound between the sisters' tents at No 44 and acute surgical ward at No 32. Shrapnel and pieces of metal casing flew in all directions. 

Nellie was discovered still lying in her tent, bleeding profusely. A piece of shell casing had ripped through her body, causing her to haemorrhage. The doctors were unable to nurse in No 44 CCS at Brandhoek to save 26-year-old Nellie who died 20 minutes later and her body was taken to Lijssenthoek where she is now buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, the only woman to be buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Belgium.

May Tilton, Head Nurse No 3 Brandhoek Australian CCS

May was an experienced trauma nurse when she arrived in France in May 1917, having served in Cairo and Suez, then on the hospital ship Essequibo, before serving in a number of military hospitals in England.  On 15 July 1917, all the Australian nurses were brought together at the No 3 Australian General Hospital in Abbeville. The nurses were behind the lines and often visited nearby Poperinge, ‘known as Pops’, before moving closer to the front line.

May Tilton and 11 other Australian nurses arrived during the bombardment on 31 July. The three hospitals were set up close to the line so that they could deal with the most urgent cases as soon as possible.  On that first day, May described how she saw men being carried in completely covered in mud and they were treating men with gas-damaged eyes. May was also sleeping in her tent when the first shell exploded on 21 August, was woken and ran across to the trenches for cover. After this, they were evacuated to Saint-Omer, where May’s fiancé found her. They spent a few hours together before his unit was moved to the front line for an assault near Langemark. This would be the last time May saw him as he died just before the Battle of Polygon Wood.

May eventually left Flanders Fields in March 1918, accompanying convalescent troops home to Australia.

Lijssenthoek Hospital & Cemetery

Lijssenthoek was the site of the largest evacuation hospital along the Ypres Salient, today Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery bears witness to more than four years of warfare, with the graves of 10,784 soldiers mainly British but also some French and German soldiers too. The Visitor Centre, situated next to the cemetery, offers information on this unique site, including details about daily life in the hospital and the creation of the cemetery. Until 31 December 2017, an information point in the visitors centre next to the imposing Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery tells the story of the preparation of this hospital site in the run-up to the Third Battle of Ypres. Nothing was left to chance, resulting in a tangible sense of 'the calm before the storm'. The full ferocity of this storm, when it finally broke, is best evidenced by the sheer scale of the site, the number of casualties it dealt with and the growing size of the neighbouring cemetery in the terrible summer of 1917.

A self-drive tour around this small area of Flanders, allows you to explore the area behind the lines in Poperinge as well as where it happened, visit some of the cemeteries and find out about the Battle of Passchendaele in Passchendaele Memorial Museum 1917

The stories of Kate Luard, Nellie Spindler, May Tilton and many other nurses who were working in the area during the Battle of Passchendale are told in ‘Nurses of Passchendaele’ by Christine E Hallett.

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