Juliet and Marcia Mansel, two sisters from an upper class British family, were just over the age of 20 when war broke out in the summer of 1914. Along with thousands of fellow Britons, they soon joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) to serve the Allied cause by caring for wounded soldiers. The VAD system had been set up a decade earlier under the auspices of the Red Cross and the Order of St. John. It provided the British government with civilian aid in time of war and enabled women aged between 23 and 38 to learn nursing and other skills. After a few months of training (including first aid, hygiene practices and cooking), some were allowed to serve overseas in hospitals run by the British Red Cross in Allied countries.
The retreat of Allied forces in the early stages of the Great War left France’s Military Health Service in disarray and grappling with a shortage of qualified nurses. In May 1915 it formally asked its British ally for reinforcements.
| A regimented life
Born in 1893, Juliet, the youngest of the Mansel sisters, was the first to cross the Channel. Her brother Rhys had been mobilised at the start of the war and may have inspired her to volunteer. Encountering many injured soldiers during her training in England, Juliet was deeply stirred by the plight of the Tommies, as British servicemen were known. In February 1915, she wrote that she would never forget "the absolutely exhausted look on all their faces". As the war escalated, her letters provided a grim record of the many relatives and acquaintances slain or injured during combat.
By May 1915, Juliet had finished her training and was on her way to Dieppe, in northern France, for her first mission abroad. She was stationed at the Royal, a seafront hotel that had been converted into a hospital for the British Expeditionary Force. Like other VAD volunteers, Juliet wore a uniform – blue dress, white cap, white collar and removable sleeves, and white apron bearing the red cross – and led a regimented life. A month after her arrival, she wrote to her mother: “I thought of you and what you would think of me in my huge white cap, which we wear indoors and out here like nuns, taking out the French army.”
After a few months in Dieppe, Juliet asked to be transferred to Malta. But at 23 she was still too young and VAD authorities would make no exception to the rules. Pondering her limited options, she wondered whether to return to England to work at London’s Endell Street Military Hospital, the only unit entirely run and staffed by women. Perhaps she should join the cohorts of women enrolled at British ammunition factories to replace male workers who had gone to war? She turned down an offer of working with refugees in Corfu, and agreed instead to move to Limoges, in central France, where she joined a hospital housed in the local fine arts school, before taking up a string of assignments that took her ever closer to the frontline.
| Marcia follows her younger sister
Juliet’s older sister Marcia, three years her senior, was initially puzzled by her sibling’s move to France. “I am so interested about Ju and the French Red Cross, though rather anxious whether it would be wise to go to their hospitals. Things are so differently done,” she wrote on February 20, 1915.
The eldest of the Mansel sisters, known as Minch, had been widowed at the start of the war. Her husband and father of her two young girls, Captain Oswald Walker, had gone missing during the Battle of Mons in August 1914, the BEF’s very first engagement of the war. "If I stayed a fortnight at Bayford with the children and without work I know at the end of that time I should feel desperate. I must do something and nursing is something I can do.”
Six months later, Marcia decided to leave her daughters with their grandmother and cross the English Channel, following in her sister’s footsteps. Before her departure she wrote: “Not gone yet as you see! No Military Pass yet come, which is too maddening because they tell me at the French Red X again this morning that they are clamouring for nurses from Dieppe and the nurses are ready to start, but cannot move until the Military Passes come because Dieppe is now in the War Zone.”
The following four years saw the Mansel sisters move from one medical facility to another, returning to England only when they were granted temporary leave and security in the Channel allowed them to do so. The two young ladies shared one obsession: getting ever closer to the frontline, where the fate of their world was being decided, if necessary by leaving British quarters to join France’s Military Health Service.
While their paths often crossed in Dieppe and Zuydcoote, near Dunkirk, Juliet and Marcia followed separate courses, sometimes missing each other by just a few hours.
| 'How could we have stuck it here without each other?'
The Mansel sisters kept up a regular correspondence with their mother throughout the war. Their writing testifies to their mutual admiration, praising each other’s courage and determination. At no point is there the slightest hint of rivalry. Instead, the letters are infused with affection. “We both often wonder how we could have stuck it here without each other, though we see each other so little, still it makes all the difference,” Juliet wrote in September 1917.
The sisters’ reciprocal esteem was heightened by their distinctive characters and convictions. The more combative of the two, Marcia would stop at nothing to ensure the Allies prevailed. War is ”about the real only passion of one’s life”, she confessed in a letter dated August 1917. ”Funny I should feel it for the war and yet never feel like this for a man.” In her mind, the fight against Germany was tantamount to a struggle between good and evil, between "ethics" and the "brute force" of Germany. "I personally thought there was something so much more alarming than death and more desirable than life and that was the complete victory of the ethics of the world," she wrote in August 1917. "War is more than a religion to Minch," noted her younger sibling, with more than a hint of admiration.
Despite her resolve, Marcia’s commitment to the war effort was seriously tested by the absence of her children. In the summer of 1917, she wrote about her longing for her daughters: "I have the most awful heartache about them and dream about them a great deal, which makes it worse, but I always think if I were a man I should be away like this, and I like to think I am a man!".
Juliet, a fervent humanist, had a very different take on the war, one steeped in horror. "Ju is oppressed by the war, darling thing, the horrors, the length, the sorrow, and is what we call ‘cafardé!’ She works too splendidly and conscientiously and with her whole soul, but her heart is not in it,” wrote her older sister on August 27, 1917, using the French slang for feeling blue.
| 'It all seems so purposeless'
Juliet’s letters betray the horror, fear and loneliness she felt during the long nights in Dieppe when the pounding sound of artillery fire made her windows rattle. They also reveal her qualms over the treatment of German prisoners who were taken to the hospital in Zuydcoote.
”I know one ought not to be sorry for the Boches, – but I simply can't help it. With no books to read, no cigarettes and so horribly wounded, several of them completely paralysed," Juliet wrote. Marcia, on the other hand, complained about having to look after them.
Letter from Juliet, Christmas 1917
Writing in June 1918, Juliet expressed her exhaustion and distress after three years of active service: “I have never lived through such an awful time as this last month. – I can't for a single moment pretend there was one moment of it I haven’t hated, – or that a single illusion is left to me over the war. It is intolerable that the suffering should go on for another year or two years, Mummy. I know you will say my morale is bad because I am tired, but I do believe you would feel what I do if you were here. It all seems so purposeless."
The summer of 1918 marked a decisive turning point in the war. Allied forces resumed their offensive and pushed back the Germans until the armistice, signed on November 11. Juliet and Marcia crossed the Rhine in the wake of the French army and remained mobilised until the winter of 1919.
© Mansel family archives
"Women at War - The British sisters who nursed the French Army"
A France 24 production in partnership with La Mission du Centenaire 14-18
Text Marie Valla, France 24
Translated from the French Benjamin Dodman
Edited Charlotte Wilkins
Director of publication Sylvain Attal, France 24
Graphic design and development Creative Department - France Médias Monde
Voice Lola Peploe
Sound recording Angélique Ballue
Camera Stéphanie Trouillard
Video editing Jean-François Vayer
Subtitles and mix Emmanuelle Blanquart ● Clément Chagot ● Florian Fernandez ● Aude Gourichon ● Jean-François Vayer
Archive photographs Mansel and Simon families ● Bibliothèque Nationale de France ● Musée du Service de Santé des Armées au Val-de-Grâce ● Croix-Rouge Française ● British Red Cross ● Société Française de Radiologie ● Office du tourisme de Châtillon-sur-Marne ● Mairie de Dieppe ● Mémorial de l’internement et de la déportation, Camp de Royallieu ● Collection de Christian Riboulet
Thanks to François and Anne-Marie Thibaux ● Philip Mansel, Smedmore House ● Christine E. Hallett, University of Manchester ● Joseph Zimet, Mission du Centenaire ● Virginie Alauzet and Audrey Le Gallic, French Red Cross ● Major François Olier, blog hopitauxmilitairesguerre1418 ● Captain Xavier Tabbagh and Master Corporal Kamara ● Françoise Hollman ● Stéphanie Trouillard ● Georges Diegues ● Sylvain Attal ● Hervé Fageot, blog Au fil des mots et de l'Histoire ● Christian Riboulet