South Holland’s women at war

Cheryl Arnold, researching women during the First World War. Photo: SG251012-128NG
Cheryl Arnold, researching women during the First World War. Photo: SG251012-128NG
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Cheryl Arnold wasn’t surprised we won the Second World War once she had met some of the women who served in it.

Those doughty women impressed Cheryl, but also made her think of the females who contributed to the First World War, but whose service frequently went unremarked, with no stained glass windows or memorials dedicated to their memory.

That is in stark contrast to the courageous men from South Holland whose bravery has been recorded, such as in the stained glass window in St Mary and St Nicolas Church in Spalding, dedicated to the memory of two of the town’s sons. Cheryl (67), who lives in Hallam Boulevard in Spalding, says the window was paid for by Sir John Gleed and bears the faces of his son-in-law Cpt Charles Lewis Harvey and his son, John Victor Ariel, who died two months apart in 1917, Charles aged 38 and John aged 20.

It was that window, and a list of fallen soldiers at Spalding Grammar School, that sparked Cheryl’s interest in historical research, and ultimately led to an invitation two years ago to join Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. “I am probably the least academic of all the ladies that belong to it,” says Cheryl modestly.

Cheryl has worked for the Royal British Legion for about 20 years, first selling poppies and later getting involved in welfare work, which is what brought her into contact with women who served in the Second World War, prompting her to think about that earlier generation of women and the ways in which they contributed to the First World War.

She says: “In Spalding, two ladies lost three sons, so they did their bit, but I was surprised by the contribution of women in that war as far as land work is concerned. Also, I knew nurses went out, but I hadn’t known of any from Spalding.”

Many of the long-forgotten women from this district have been researched by Cheryl since she came across the first rather surprising newspaper article referring to a military funeral held in Spalding in 1918 for a woman, an unusual event in those days.

The funeral was for 2nd Lieut Clara Mildred Hancock, of something called the ‘Forage Corps’, which raised further questions that Cheryl has still to research.

She explains: “All the men were away fighting at war and, just as we had the Land Army in the Second World War, these ladies did the same kind of work in the First World War.”

Clara, originally from South Africa, was a supervisor of the Forage Department at Long Sutton and, according to the newspaper report at the time of her funeral, “she was one of the band of noble women” who came to Britain at the start of the war to help win the war for her “mother country”. The article continued: “It is with deep regret we have to report that in carrying out her duties, she has fallen a victim to that dread scourge influenza.”

That piece of archive material led to further discoveries, such as a report from a 1917 newspaper referring to the introduction of female labour into “employment always previously sacred to men”.

It had fallen to Robert Cooke, of Spalding, but who farmed at Baston Fen, to initiate what was seen as “the latest innovation in agriculture” – a female threshing team, “a departure in farming never heard of lately”.

During those difficult years, Spalding appointed its first postwoman, Miss R Wilson, of Havelock Street, but a number of women from this district also volunteered to nurse overseas.

For instance, former school nurse for the Spalding district, Nurse Wilkins, in 1915 went to Serbia where typhus, typhoid and other diseases were said to be “raging on a terrible scale”. She died a year later when she and the other nurses and Serbian soldiers were forced to flee from invading Germans over mountains in snow and blizzards, unable to undress for seven weeks.

A letter from Spalding nurse Margaret Montgomery, carried in the Spalding Guardian of 1915, talked about soldiers in France suffering gangrene, leading to amputation and sometimes death, because they were left in the trenches for too long without medical attention. Nurse Montgomery later died of tuberculosis/consumption while on active service.

Cheryl has discovered the location of the graves of each of the people she has researched, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Once she discovered that Cpt Harvey had been in the Lincolnshire Regiment – as were her father and uncle – she made sure a poppy cross was placed on his grave each Remembrance Day.

This year though, she won’t be attending Remembrance services in this country because she will be in Belgium, joining in the Remembrance service at the Menin Gate at Ypres. At the service at Pinchbeck on Sunday, though, her ten-year-old grandaughter Madeline Arnold will be reading some of the sacred words from the Ode of Remembrance for the fallen: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’.