Lest We Forget:
Kate Carruthers was born in Patrick in Glasgow along with her twin Margaret, in May 1887. Daughters of a Marine Engineer and Surveyor for the board of trade, Kate was the elder by 5 minutes and had two brothers. One of their brothers had died from a brain tumour in 1907, aged 22 which may have induced the sister’s future professional roles. Their remaining brother, Lieutenant William Carruthers, 154th Field Company, The Royal Engineers, died during the Arras offensive, also 22.
Both Kate and her sister Margaret became nurses in 1913 and both enrolled in the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS). the TFNS was formed in 1908 as a sister organisation of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps and in support of the reserve units. Just as regulations were professionalising nursing and ensuring high standards of patient care, so too, military nursing units were selective in their intakes. To qualify, the Carruthers sisters would have completed three years’ approved training, and have had impeccable personal records. Between 1914 and 1918, 8,140 women had joined the TFNS, of whom 2,280 served overseas (there were over 21,000 in the two other similar military nursing services)
The TFNS’s purpose, mobilised at the beginning of the First World War, was to supplement the regular service in emergencies and all its members worked as nurses in civilian life. The twins therefore worked as nurses at the 4th (Scots) General Hospital based at Stobhill, Springburn Glasgow. The hospital still serves the community as an ambulatory care and diagnostic centre in Scotland.
On Christmas day 1914, Kate Carruthers was transferred to France, she arrived before her sister who was sent out in May 1915. Margaret joined the British Expeditionary Force at Boulogne in May, 1915, thereafter spending two months on night duty, in charge of a surgical division, before transferring to Hospital Ship Stad Antwerpen (a former Belgian cross-channel ferry). She was promoted to Sister in 1916, her conduct being recorded as ‘thoroughly satisfactory’, quite an accolade at the time, and she was sent to Camiers, near Etapes. The Channel coast here saw ‘immense concentrations’ of medical facilities, being accessible to the main battlefields, yet remote from attack. ‘In 1917, 100,000 troops were camped among the sand dunes and the eleven general, one stationary, four Red Cross hospitals and a convalescent depot [here] could deal with 22,000’ patients. Margaret ended the war at Varennes, in the Somme district.
On November 15, 1916, the hospital was attacked by aircraft. Kate was working at No 56, Casualty Clearing Station where many patients and staff were killed. Although having head and leg wounds herself, Kate refused to leave her station and continued in post for another 24 hours, treating and supporting the wounded. Kate was the first women to be honoured with a British Military Medal (MM) for bravery from King George V. Kate had further been mentioned in dispatches by Field Marshal Haig himself on November 25th.
Being the first women to receive such an honour, it opened a pathway of recognition for female recipients thereafter, who showed devotion to duty under fire. Confusion over the twins’ identity led to three different medal records being created for Kate and an enquiry was held, but her recognition was well deserved.
Kate was ‘gazetted’ (her awards officially listed in the London Gazette) on 4 January 1917 as ‘Carruthers, Miss C, Staff Nurse’, for Sir Douglas Haig’s ‘Mention in Despatches’, and again on 6 January as ‘Staff Nurse Catherine M Carruthers’ for the Military Medal. Her exasperated father, now living in Rathmines, Dublin wrote to the War Office ‘I wish respectfully to ask if you can…make arrangements for the Christian name of my daughter to be corrected…Kate Carruthers… as it will probably be put on the medal’.
By now, the War Office was involved and Kate was unfortunately being referred to as ‘K M Carruthers’. Consequently, three different medal records were created for her. Kate attended her investiture at Buckingham Palace in February 1917 (‘wear alpaca or serge dresses and the small shoulder capes, no aprons, and white kid gloves’).
She also received the Royal Red Cross in 1919, by which time several thousand Military Medals had been awarded to men. Only 135 women received the MM during the war, 55 of them being military nurses. After she was awarded the Military Medal, The British Journal of Nursing offered “hearty congratulations”, and described how she attended to surviving patients despite “suffering much”. This was a great professional accolade of the time.
The Military Medal
The Military Medal, instituted on 25th March 1916 (and backdated to 1914), was awarded to British Army and Commonwealth Forces. It was an award for gallantry and devotion to duty when under fire in battle on land. On the reverse of the medal is inscribed “For Bravery in the Field”. Recipients of the medal are entitled to use the letters M.M. after their name. The Military Medal is the British Army equivalent of the Distinguished Service Medal (D.S.M.), the Distinguished Flying Medal (D.F.M.) and the Air Force Medal (A.F.M.).
To be “Mentioned in Despatches” is when an individual is mentioned by name and commended for having carried out an noteworthy act of gallantry or service. A Despatch is an official report written by the senior commander of an army in the field. It would give details of the conduct of the military operations being carried out. From the time of the Boer War the Despatches were published in the London Gazette in full or in part. The phrase “Mentioned in Despatches” was used for the first time in a newspaper article by Winston Churchill (Morning Post, 6thOctober 1898). In 1920 Army Order 3/1920 authorized the issue of an emblem to signify that an individual had been “Mentioned in Despatches” between 4th August 1914 and 10th August 1920. A bronze oak leaf was issued and could be worn on the ribbon of the British Victory Medal.
After the War
After the war, Kate and Margaret continued to work as nurses, with Kate maintaining a notable post-war career active in nursing professional bodies. She was passionate about working to improve standards and conditions of service. Kate and her sister retired together to Largs, where first Margaret, and then Kate sadly died in 1969.