Battling disease in Salonika: the story of Nurse Alice Emily Linfield
Alice Emily Linfield was born in Worthing in 1887, second daughter of Arthur George and Edith Linfield. Her father was a fruit grower, and the family lived in Chesswood Road at the front of one of their nurseries.
Allie, as she was known, had an older sister and five brothers. As a child, she was very much a ‘tom boy’, preferring to play with her brothers in the rough and tumble games they devised. A particularly dangerous activity involved hanging down from the nearby railway bridge and dropping green apples down the funnel of any passing steam engine!
Allie was a very determined young woman, and wanted to become a nurse, much against the wishes of her father. Needless to say, she got her way, and on 8 October 1912, she commenced training at King’s College Hospital in London, one of the premier teaching hospitals. She spent three years at King’s, where she received a thorough education in medical care and nursing.
A military nurse
Once qualified, Allie applied to join the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) on 4 January 1916. The QAIMNS was the regular establishment of military nurses within the British Army. Selection was strict: applicants had to be women aged between 25 and 35, with a good education and three years training in an approved hospital. Allie was educated at Lyndale College and the Steyne School, in Worthing. They must also have good social connections, and the application form requests the ‘name and address of one lady, not a member of your own family’ for a reference. Alice’s referee was Miss Louise Holbrook of Manchester, daughter of family friend Edward Holbrook, Wholesale Fruit and Flower Salesman. Another reference was to be obtained from the Matron under whom she trained, who was a Miss Ray.
As a staff nurse in the QAIMNS, Allie’s first posting was to the Lord Derby War Hospital on the Winwick estate at Warrington, Lancashire. Providing over 2,000 beds, it was one of the largest military hospitals in the UK. Alice was good at her job, which was reflected when she was promoted to ‘Sister’, the equivalent of officer status in the QAIMNS.
In 1917, Alice was sent on active service overseas to Salonika, sailing from Southampton on 19 April and arriving at Marseilles on 16 May. She was in charge of fifty nurses. They embarked from Marseilles on the hospital ship, HMHS Goorka, arriving at the port of Salonika on 22 May.
In many ways, the Salonika Campaign was something of a sideshow. Anglo-French forces started to land at the Greek port of Salonika in October 1915. Britain sent just one division, the 10th (Irish) Division, the aim being to support the Serbs against the combined forces of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria. Severe weather forced the allies back to the area around Salonika, where they started to build an extensive entrenchment camp, which became known as the ‘Bird Cage’. The allies then waited for the Bulgarians to attack, but nothing happened. At home, the British Salonika Force (BSF) earned the derisory nickname the ‘Gardeners of Salonika’ because of the lack of continuous military activity. But this was very unfair; the abysmal infrastructure required new roads and light railways, which had to be built in some of the most unbearable conditions ever endured by British soldiers.
The British continued to strengthen their forces and consolidate, and by 1916 they had an extra four infantry divisions. When Alice arrived in May 1917, some 600,000 French, British and Serbian troops were still fighting in areas infested with mosquitoes. Allie and the other nurses had little idea of the extreme conditions they would encounter. They lived in small tents, water was in short supply, and the winters were harsh and very cold, often with fierce winds blowing across the vast empty plains.
In the summer, the horrors and discomforts were much worse. At night all sorts of unwelcome visitors would get into the tents – mice, lizards, scorpions, the occasional snake – whilst the sweltering heat would make life very uncomfortable. But the most dangerous enemy was the dreaded female Anopheles mosquitos. Once infected, the familiar symptoms of malaria gradually took hold – weakness, fever, vomiting, headache, diarrhoea, aching limbs and trembling – and even death in some cases. What is worse, it would re-occur.
Quinine, veils and netting
Everyone was encouraged to use netting at night and take quinine. The nurses started to wear mosquito veils, gloves which reached their elbows and boots – hardly comfortable in the summer heat – to prevent being bitten. The effects on manpower were devastating – in total, the British suffered 162,517 cases of the disease, and in total 505,024 non-battle casualties. To put it into perspective, non-battle casualties were up to 20 times the level of battle casualties.
Allie and her nurses arrived in Salonika soon after the finish of the British offensive attacks at Lake Doiran on 9 May 1917. From 3 June, they were stationed at the 1st Canadian Stationary Hospital in Salonika to relieve staff shortages. With heavy Allied casualties, some 12,000 men killed, wounded or captured by the Bulgarians, and vast numbers suffering from malaria and other endemic diseases, Allie and her team would have been rushed off their feet. This was to be the last major offensive until September 1918, and the BSF remained more or less static in their front-line trenches.
Being a Ward Sister, Allie’s duties were not only to supervise staff, but to fully involve herself in every task – preparing wards, applying dressings, feeding meals to the sick and wounded, talking to the patients, comforting the dying, and writing letters of condolence. ‘Shell shock’ would have been another challenge, and Allie had to ensure that her staff were always professional and empathetic in the hardest of conditions.
On 4 August 1917, Allie was transferred with other personnel to the 49th General Hospital (GH) at Hortiach, before being sent a month later to the 48th GH at Eurendjik, a few miles north east of Salonika. This hospital mainly catered for malaria and dysentery, so it is hardly surprising that only eight days after arriving, Allie herself became seriously ill with both diseases. On 17 September, she was admitted to the 43rd GH in the Kalamaria area, which had a special department for ‘Sick Sisters’. Dysentery was particularly nasty, especially when combined with malaria, and was extremely serious. The bacterium was easily spread and resulted in severe diarrhoea accompanied by abdominal pain and stomach cramps. After a month of treatment, Allie was sent to recuperate at the Red Cross Convalescent Home in Salonika. Returning to the 49th GH on 10 November 1917, she remained until 16 March 1918 when she was transferred to the 2/1st Northumbrian Field Ambulance (FA) at Stavros. Yet again, another probable recurrence of malaria saw her return to the Red Cross Convalescent Home.
On 28 September 1918, Allie was transferred to the 28th GH at Salonika, where her services were required to help with a large influx of casualties after the British attack on Doiran on 18 – 19 September. The Allies were finally achieving some success, and with the surrender of the Bulgarians on 30 September 1918, the military campaign was nearly over.
Another bout of disease saw Alice returning to the 43rd GH on 27 January 1919, and from there to the Red Cross Convalescent Home on 19 February. She was discharged on 22 February, and sent back to England for demobilisation, embarking at Salonika on 12 March. Her demobilisation form described her as a ‘most capable & efficient Ward Sister’.
Throughout her time in Salonika, Allie had a very good friend in Sister Sarah Wheeler, whom she first met at the Lord Derby War Hospital in March 1916. They were sent to Salonika together, and appear to have spent much of their time at the same medical facilities. Emotional connections between nurses were quite common since it helped to sustain morale and keep work bearable in extreme situations. They were officially demobilised on the same day, 23 March 1919, having shared the journey home to Southampton.
Regrettably, Allie said little about her experiences during the war, not surprisingly after enduring such unrelenting hardship. She probably wanted to try and forget it all. For the single woman returning to England, it was hardly appropriate for them to return home as they had experienced considerable independence, even if it were under military control. Former nurses often set up home together, and Allie was no exception. She and her close friend Sarah Wheeler lived together near Billingshurst for many years, until Sarah died in 1933. After her father’s death, she moved in with her widowed mother at Worthing where she lived throughout the years of the Second World War.
Allie was a lively and interesting person, and she would sometimes tease her brother Arthur for being too serious. After her mother died in 1953, Allie moved to a house in West Chiltington where she lived with a companion. She died on 3 March 1962 in her 75th year.
About the researcher
This article was supplied by Malcolm Linfield, great-nephew of Alice. Malcolm is a Social Care Manager with a passion for family and local history. He has written dozens of articles for various history publications. His interest in the wartime exploits of his great-aunt was kindled when he discovered her nursing service record at the National Archives and some old family photos. He wanted to try and find out as much as he could about her time in Salonika and the terrible conditions she would have faced. Sadly, Malcolm doesn’t remember Alice at all since she died when he was very young. However, older relatives remember a kind, interesting and fun-loving lady with a great sense of humour. Malcolm remembers a story his father once told him of how she asked him if he would accompany her while she took out her ‘shooting brake’. Having not driven for many years, Auntie Al wanted someone to assess how safe she was on the roads. All went very well until she stopped at a junction, and wrenched up the handbrake. Unfortunately, it came off in her hand!