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Face to face with heroes

Our new World War I exhibition, For King and Country, is taking shape and we can't wait to open it to the public on Friday 12 November after the official unveiling on Armistice Day, 11 November. Although it's only a small exhibition in terms of space, we think it's mighty in terms of engagement, impact and interest! And it's completely different to anything else you will see in the museum.

Talking of mighty, as part of our research for the exhibition we have been delving into the history of some lesser-known war heroes you might not have heard of. For King and Country explores the role police, fire and ambulance personnel played during the conflict, both on the front line and at home, and the real impact the war had on the emergency services back in Britain. The stories that we've uncovered are fascinating and show how the war impacted in areas that people might not always imagine when they think of the Western Front. So in this week's blog, I thought I would introduce you to just some of the amazing people you can meet in our new exhibition.

Barnsley's finest: Constable George Wyatt

One of the many civilian police officers that answered the call to arms was George Henry Wyatt.

Wyatt enlisted in the Coldstream Guards in November 1904. After two and a half years serving in Egypt he left the army and joined the reserves.

Like many ex-soldiers, Wyatt joined the police force and became a constable in Barnsley. But on the outbreak of war he was swiftly recalled as a reservist and left for France on 14 August 1914.

Soon after arriving on the Western Front Wyatt took part in the infamous Battle of Mons and performed two acts of heroism that would see him bestowed with the Victoria Cross.

At Landrecies in August 1914, Wyatt twice extinguished a fire that had been started by the enemy close to his battalion. He ‘twice dashed out of the line under very heavy fire from the enemy, who were only 25 yards distant, and extinguished the burning straw’. His superiors said that had the fire raged on it would have been impossible to hold their position.

Then , during an engagement with the enemy at Villers Cotterets, he was wounded in the head. Despite this he continued to fire until he could no longer see due to blood pouring down his face. Once treated he ignored instructions to ‘go to the rear’ and returned to the firing line.

After the war Wyatt was interviewed about winning the Victoria Cross. He said, with a degree of modesty that is perhaps not surprising for his generation, “Well, there’s not much for me to say about it. I just did as I was told... Major Matheson shouted, “Put out that light”. So I did it...That affair at Villers Cotterets, I got hit on the head and went on firing. That’s all.”

After the war Wyatt returned to the police force in Doncaster and once even made the headlines for catching a runaway horse. He retired in 1934 and died on 22 January 1964.

Making experience count: Firefighter Tom Breaks

Tom Breaks is a well-known name to anyone interested in the history of firefighting or, indeed, anyone who has visited our museum and seen his impressive array of medals and other personal objects now in our care. In 1923 he became the chief of Sheffield Fire Brigade before moving to the Home Office, where he helped to establish the Auxiliary Fire Service; the army of volunteers who did so much to protect Britain from the onslaught of the Blitz. He was even honoured by the BBC programme This is Your Life.

What is perhaps less known is Breaks' wartime exploits. Already a serving firefighter when war was declared in 1914, he enlisted with the 7th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters and later transferred to the Army Service Corps, where he was promoted to corporal in 1916. A year later Breaks was recognised for an ‘Act of Courage’ whilst serving with the Anzac Corps in Hazebrouck, when he used his firefighting skills to tackle a factory fire caused by an exploding shell. Hazebrouck was a British rail centre that was crucial in the distribution of war materials for the battle of Ypres. Breaks’ quick thinking and knowledge prevented a much larger fire that could have been disastrous for Britain’s war effort. For this courage he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Following the incident at Hazebrouck Breaks was placed in charge of a team responsible for organising the fire defences of Calais, a key port for distributing arms and reinforcements to the Western Front. On 14 May 1918 he was injured whilst fighting a fire at the premises of an M. Lamy, for which he received the bronze ‘Medaille de Sauvetage’.

Breaking down barriers: Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson

With so many men joining up to 'do their bit' - and so many wounded or dying on the battlefield - World War I opened up huge possibilities for women. At home they stepped into the breach left by men in many roles, including the police force. And on the front line they were performing essential war work that belied the traditional view of what women could, or should, be doing.

It was in the field of medicine that women proved their worth on the Western Front. One of the most remarkable of these pioneers was Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson.

If that name seems familiar, you'd be right. Louisa was the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain. She was also the niece of famed British suffragist Millicent Fawcett; with a family history as stellar as that, it's no wonder she made her mark.

Like her mother, Anderson was drawn to medicine and, in spite of all the barriers for women pursuing that career, she qualified as a doctor in 1900.

When war was declared 41-year-old Anderson felt she had to act. By September 1914 Anderson and Dr Flora Murray – her partner in work and in life – were on their way to Paris with support from the French Red Cross. There they would set up the first in a series of groundbreaking women-run military hospitals in France and Britain.

Dr Anderson's all-female teams were so unusual that many had to see it to believe it. Her hospitals received countless visitors, and any hostility soon gave way to admiration and praise, garnering comments like '[the hospital is] all splendidly manned and equipped, by fully trained nurses and the most eminent surgeons of the day’. Anderson and Murray’s first hospital was eventually regarded as the best military hospital in Paris.

Anderson and Murray's history-making Women's Hospital Corps finally received official recognition from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). In 1915 Endell Street Military Hospital was established, run by on behalf of the RAMC with full support and funding. Despite predictions that it would fail within six months it became a first class medical institution and remains the only army hospital ever to be run and staffed entirely by women.

Around 26,000 injured soldiers passed through the expert hands of Anderson and Murray at Endell Street but the duo’s innovations didn't stop there. They conducted ground-breaking research into the treatment of wounds, trialling a new wound treatment called BIPP paste; a compound which reduced the need for dressing changes from daily to once every 7–14 days, saving time, money and hugely improving outcomes for the wounded.

The quality of care delivered at Endell Street and the development of BIPP paste made their achievements impossible to ignore. In January 1917 Queen Alexandra visited the hospital and later that year both Anderson and Murray were awarded the CBE for their war work.

Saving lives at sea: Andrew Noble

With the threat of German attack, and ships constantly in danger from enemy action, the lifeboat crews of the Coastguard and RNLI risked their lives regularly during World War I; not at the front, but guarding the coasts around Britain.

Andrew Noble was the longest serving and most decorated coxswain of Fraserburgh lifeboats, Aberdeenshire. As well as leading a volunteer lifeboat team he was also the local harbour master.

Throughout the war German submarines prowled the North Sea, attacking British ships and their crews. On 8 August 1915 Noble was on watch when he spotted a German submarine just off shore, close to two British ships. The lifeboat crew launched and came upon the stricken SS Glenravel; they were able to rescue her frightened crew of 14 who were adrift in a boat.

Noble continued to make rescues, saving the lives of both civilians and servicemen, but his bravery would eventually cost him his life. On 28 April 1919 the Fraserburgh crew launched their motor lifeboat Lady Rothes, following a call for help from the Admiralty drifter Eminent. In terrible conditions the lifeboat capsized and 10 of the crew were thrown overboard. Noble was pulled from the water alongside acting second coxswain Andrew Farquhar but despite medical attention it was too late; both lost their lives.

There are so many more stories to be told about those from the emergency services who played their part in the 'war to end all wars'. Come and meet them at NESM from Friday 12 November.

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