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For King & Country: the heroes of WWI

If you’re a NESM fan or just an avid follower of our blog and social media you’ll know that in the last 18 months our team have pulled together four brand new exhibitions and revamped three additional galleries.

Our latest project has arguably being one of our most drastic transformations. For King & Country has taken a previously drab classroom and transformed it into an atmospheric, immersive trench walkthrough. Featuring interactive elements such as hidden doors, pulley games, a touchscreen and audio clips the exhibition celebrates the hidden stories of one of the most discussed conflicts in history.

Within the ranks of men who fought for their country were thousands of police, fire and ambulance personnel. Swapping out their lives at home for a different type of service most joined as ordinary soldiers, although some used their existing experience and fulfilled roles in corps such as the Mounted Military Police or the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Before and after of the exhibition space

From ambulance corps to designated ‘fire-pumpers’, even war would not stop the need for our emergency services and it wasn’t long before swathes of volunteers descended on the front determined to help. These men and women enlisted their services both on the front and at home, from ambulance drivers to volunteer coastguard crew, all played their part.

This exhibition champions the lost voices of all the men and women who performed great acts of bravery and service. The space highlights many amazing heroes, from nurses to firefighters and although picking a favourite is very much like picking your favourite child, I’ve chosen a few to share with you today.

Nellie Spindler

Born: 1891 Died: 1917

Nellie Spindler was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Her father was a police sergeant, and later inspector, in Wakefield City Police.

Spindler entered nursing in 1911 at the City Fever Hospital, Wakefield and trained at Leeds Township Infirmary from 1912 to 1915. She joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in October 1915. To join the QAIMNS it was necessary to be single or recently widowed, to have completed a three-year training course in a hospital approved by the War Office and to be over 25 years old; Spindler was only 24 at the time she signed up. On her application form, she said her year of birth was 1889 rather than 1891. It is possible that this was a mistake, but she may have concealed her true age so she would appear to be old enough to serve.

In May 1917 she travelled to France and worked in No. 2 General Hospital at Le Havre in the Somme before being transferred to No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) which moved to Brandhoek, Belgium, in July 1917. This CCS specialised in abdominal, chest and thigh wounds which needed urgent treatment and so was stationed relatively close to the front line. Though about seven miles from the frontlines, Brandhoek was within range of the larger German guns, and with its railway sidings and munitions dumps was the target of frequent German shelling.

On 21 August 1917 the CCS was bombarded and at 11.00am Spindler was hit by an exploding shell along with four other nurses who were concussed. She died 20 minutes later in the arms of Sister Minnie Wood, the sister-in-charge. In a letter home, Sister Kate Luard recalled:

Bits came over everywhere, pitching at one’s feet as we rushed to the scene. A group of stricken MOs were standing about and in one tent the sister was dying. The piece went through her from back to front near her heart. She was only conscious for a few minutes and only lived 20 minutes. She was in bed asleep. It all made one feel sick.”

She is one of only two British female casualties of World War I buried in Belgium and the only woman buried among more than 10,000 men at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

Lilian Wyles

Born: 1885 Died: 1975

From Lincolnshire, Lilian Wyles was one of the earliest female police officers in England. Originally studying law she eventually broke off the legal studies she had begun at her father’s instigation, to serve as a hospital nurse in the World War I.

Lilian Wyles started her police career in February 1919 as one of three sergeants in the Metropolitan Women Police Patrols, covering Central London and the East End but without the power of arrest. The patrols met with scorn from male officers and from members of the public and they were often given 'womanly' tasks such as escorting lost children. Largely thanks to her efforts, the patrols’ women were given attested status within the Metropolitan Police in 1923, i.e. with the power of arrest. As one of the first women in such a position, her relations with male colleagues were uneasy, although she enjoyed the confidence of the chief constable of the CID, Frederick Porter Wensley, until his retirement in 1929.

"Daunted at first, Wyles became accustomed to her visibility as another London sight, ‘along with the Tower and Westminster Abbey’. People stopped and commented within earshot: ‘How queer.’ ‘How unwomanly.’ ‘Not quite nice, do you think?"

Wyles was also instrumental in making it a task for women police officers to take statements from women in cases of sexual assault. Wyles was promoted to chief inspector before she retired to Penzance, Cornwall where she wrote her memoirs - 'A Woman at Scotland Yard: Reflections on the struggles and achievements of thirty years in the Metropolitan Police.'

Oliver John Smith

Born: 1886 Died: 1915

Lance Corporal Oliver John Smith was born in Thanet, Kent. He married Emma Grace Wrench in December 1911, in Camberwell, and they had a son called John Oliver Smith born 3 December 1912, in Southwark. In 1915 he was registered as living at Southwark Fire Station, Southwark Bridge Road. He eventually rose through the ranks of what was the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade and became a Lance Corporal in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the beginning of the World War I campaign.

Smith was struck in the head by shrapnel during the battle of La Bassee, on the road from Bethune to Armentieres. Despite the injury he made it back to England, and it was hoped he would recover at the third London General Hospital in Wandsworth. Sadly, aged just 28 Smith died from his wounds.

His death came as a tremendous shock to the women of Thanet, for whom he was the first of their men who they witnessed return from war. He was the first World War I soldier to be buried in Ramsgate.

His funeral procession was recorded in the Thanet Times, with descriptions of mourning and stunned women lining the high street. The prevailing expectation at the time was most husbands and sons would be likely to return victorious and in great numbers.

To find out more about the bravery of our emergency services in World War I come and visit the For King & Country exhibition at NESM!

Please note For King & Country runs until Nov 2022 and features sounds, smells and projections that relate to war and conflict. The space is also atmospherically dark and features an uneven floor.

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