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Forgotten Heroes: Volunteer Nurses from England

November 30, 2021

As one peels away the layers of time, we discover some of the most interesting events hidden close to the surface, waiting for us to rediscover them. Some forgotten histories are linked to family stories and snippets of dialogue that drift about untethered to any known historical context. Sometimes a family member leaves behind a few random documents, sometimes in a foreign language, and in some very few exceptions an unlabeled picture or two is added to the mix, all searching for a backstory to their meaning.

That is exactly the story of one English granddaughter, Ms. Anne Briggs. Her beloved “Nan,” Miss Helen M. Bell, was an English nurse that had a gap in an otherwise well-researched and documented past.

Ms. Briggs had searched the normal sources and had official documents translated, in hope of completing her grandmother’s story, but could not properly reconcile a small gap of time in her grandmother’s past. There was a void between 1912-1914.

Ms. Briggs remembered her grandmother telling her she had served in Greece by royal invitation to help establish hospitals in Salonika during the war, but not much else. From her Nan’s documents, it was obvious she had something to do with Greece and maybe the Balkan Wars, but it seemed so foreign and not easily comprehended. She determined she would need additional help from outside sources, and that is how our paths crossed. She respectfully reached out and asked for insight into the wars of 1912-13 and very specifically the Hellenic request for medical assistance during the war period. Ms. Briggs had a substantial amount of information in her possession, but no context regarding the Balkan Wars.

In most situations a little knowledge can go a long way, and this quest is no exception. Ms. Briggs had inherited her grandmother’s war documents and medals, but they were all out of historical context. The Balkan region alone conjures different opinions and feelings depending to whom you speak. Its deep history is weighed down with controversy, bitter rivalries and conflicts going back thousands of years. With some new insights and additional research, Miss Bell’s story took on a sharper image.

What was previously known was that Miss Bell participated in the Red Cross during the Balkan Wars and had served the Hellenic Kingdom. In 1912 she was certified as a nurse and had some experience working in local hospitals. Later that same year the Greek Royals let it be known that medical help from the west would be appreciated. By November 1st 1912, the British press announced that six nurses from the London Hospital would voluntarily enter into Red Cross service and leave for Greece. It is unknown if Miss Bell is one of the six nurses mentioned since names were absent in the article.

By July of 1913 a local British paper announces that Miss Helen M Bell has already left for service in Greece as a volunteer nurse. The article features a picture of Miss Bell in her nurse’s uniform and mentions her parents and her previous address, confirming that she is no longer in England and is highly skilled in her profession.

During the month of June of 1913, Bulgaria, Servia and Greece were at war. Hostilities ended by July and a treaty ending the conflict was signed by August. The fighting had been brutal amongst the belligerents and the medical professionals had their hands full with wounded, sick and dying. Miss Bell was in the thick of things. Pictures in the family’s possession show Miss Bell dressed in her nurse’s uniform caring for wounded Greek soldiers during the war of 1913.

Miss Bell earned two medals from the Greek Kingdom, the Greek Red Cross in gratitude for her care of the wounded, bestowed by the Queen Mother of Greece for service in the Balkan Wars, along with a signed photo of Queen Sophia, and the commemorative medal and diploma of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 for service in the Bulgarian War of 1913, bestowed by Royal decree. Both certificates were dated 1914 since the medals were minted and presented the year after the wars ended.

Further searches discovered a list of British nurses bestowed with Greek medals published in an American Nursing journal in 1914. The names are: Miss Davidson, Miss Cowie, Miss Scott, Miss Gordon, Miss Green, Miss Bell, Miss Jackson, Miss Sloan, Miss Gorseman, and Miss Masson.

Miss Bell returned to England and by August of 1914 was again caring for wounded soldiers, this time British soldiers of WWI. Miss Bell treasured all her awards and accomplishments, and by doing so we were able to rediscover her story.

No one will ever know how many lives were saved by those volunteer nurses, but the gratitude they deserve is immeasurable. For their sacrifices and help during a great time of need, may all their memories be eternal!

Next time we look at some of American memorabilia of the Forgotten Heroes of 1912-13.

Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913. Follow him on www.Facebook.com/1912GreekHistory/

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