Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 1 September 2016
Cork Nursing at the Somme
In returning to describing life in Cork in 1916, one of the stories making the newspapers one hundred years ago this week was that of a Cork lady who had a long and eventful experience of hospital work at the front line of World War 1. Soon after the outbreak of the war Rose Georgina Murphy (nee Davis) or Mrs Albert St John Murphy of Tivoli House, Glanmire left Cork for France. With the assistance of another lady they established a hospital near the ever-extending firing lines. Her husband was a Doctor of Medicine and a Director of James J Murphy & Company. Rose was married to Albert since 1888. Originally she was from Kingston Upon Thames in Surrey and had four daughters.
During 1916, Rose made every possible effort to raise funds locally, which were to be applied solely to the purchase of ambulance outfits for the 16th Irish Division. The Division was a voluntary service raised in Ireland in September 1914 after the outbreak of the Great War. In December 1915, the Division moved to France joining the British Expeditionary Force under the command of Irish Major General William Hickie and spent the duration of World War I in action on the Western Front. In late July 1916, they were moved to the Somme valley where they intensively engaged in the battle. They played an important part in capturing the towns of Guillemont and Ginchy. However, they suffered enormous losses at the Somme, Passchendale and Ypres. For example between January and the end of May 1916, out of a total of 10,845 men, it lost 3,491 on the Loos sector arising from bombardment and a gas attack. Overall over 3,500 Irish soldiers lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme.
It was on the front line of the war that Rose Murphy met the 16th Irish Division. Her story is told in the Cork Examiner on 24 August 1916. It is here in an interview with her that a journalist highlights her work. Her story describes that the money allocated by Westminster for the War effort needed to be supplemented. Considerable sums were spent in the maintenance of medical sections, which were under financed. Through Rose taking an active part in a matronship role she noticed many aspects were required that private persons could potentially contribute to purchasing. For example large quantities of particular drugs were needed. The large centres or distribution depots were almost empty. Rose highlighted that these demands had not reached her home town of Cork. Here the drugs required could be purchased with private money and transported to the front. The newspaper records that “in her hospital was a most polyglot collection, ranging from Spahis to Munster Fusiliers, all getting equal care and still of a most competent surgical staff”. The running of the nursing staff was superintended by Rose and a co-worker.
The nursing staff was near to the battle area and at many times the sounds of the war were not far distant. Rose denoted the real need for more ambulances. The organisation for the removal of the wounded was great, but still more help was warranted. The nature of the removal work was difficult – the need for speed over the rough ground accounted for the short life of many vehicles. In very many instances only hand borne stretchers were possible to be used. There was a need to invent an appliance which would accelerate the removal of the fallen men and at the same time diminishing discomfort for those heavily injured. A Captain Furber at the Front saw the shortcomings of the types of ambulances and he invented a new type of one. It was manufactured in London and was called the Furber ambulance. It was a general purpose carriage – a push ambulance – it was a framework of light steel tubing mounted on wire wheels and pneumatic tyres. It had transverse springs for carrying the standard army hand stretcher, and a stretched waterproof sheet beneath, on which a second patient can be carried. Bearers could push it at a good speed, thus enabling them to do double the work, and hence conserving their strength and energy for further efforts in the fields of injuries and death. The Cork Examiner records the efficiency of the new ambulance in a letter from a Sergeant. He stated that he was able to bring in forty men in the same time as that which could convey twenty men. The newspaper records the high casualty lists of the 16th Irish Division.
Rose Murphy set about raising as much money to support the buying of medical supplies and the manufacture of Furber ambulances. Each ambulance cost at the works £17 10s 0d and plus packing carriage, and insurance, brought the costs to a total of about £19 0s 0d. This week, one hundred years ago, Rose Murphy is noted as planning and constructing delightful little Japanese gardens, all of which could be sold for charity. The larger ones were to be raffled separately, but smaller sized ones were to be sold in sets of four.
859a. Furber Ambulance Stretcher, c.1916 (source: Official History Medical Services, vol 4, p.586)
859b. Part of the 16th Irish Division arriving at the Somme, early 1916 (source: Imperial War Museum, London)