‘In the wound? Moss?’
‘Yes,’ the petite Englishwoman asserts. ‘Sphagnum. Four times more absorbent than cotton wool; antiseptic; abounds in Ireland’s bogs; a network of volunteers will harvest, send to our depot in Dublin to be sewn into dressings.’
Creating the Centena
Elsie Henry, Quartermaster of the Sphagnum Department of the Irish War Supply Organisation, Royal College of Science for Ireland, Dublin
Choose someone close to home, from Northern Ireland or Ireland; remember it was still one country in 1918.
A woman, who went to the Front? A nurse?
Stumble across an exhibition in the foyer of the Public Records Office Northern Ireland celebrating Nurses’ voices from WWI: The Northern Irish Connection: lists of those who trained and served; black and white photographs of unsmiling women wearing spotless, starched, ankle-length uniforms; letters and diary entries. On a white table pushed up against the wall a small, glass box containing a straggly clump of khaki-green, dried moss – genus Sphagnum. Collected from peat bogs across Ireland. Used in the manufacture of field dressings. Collected largely by volunteer women and children.
A cliché, no? The bogs of Ireland. Like the weather. But look more closely: almost one million sphag-num dressings made in Ireland during the First World War. One million dressings? Surgical pads, bandages, dysentery cushions; nothing wasted. What a plant!
“Can I write a centena about a plant?”
Who collected the moss?
Thousands of women trudged through freezing cold bogs to wrench the wet, slippery plant from its roots, wring it out, stuff it in a sack on their shoulders, carry it miles to the nearest collection depot, then head back home to get on with the day’s work. Unable to unearth first-hand account of picking.
Average life of a bandage at the Front: 18 months. What needlework technique to sew such robust dressings. Who sewed them?
Two hundred volunteer women in rooms donated by the Royal College of Science in Dublin. All done on a shoe string. In 1918 operating costs just £1,179 to produce hundreds of thousands of dressings. Even with inflation you’ve got to be kidding?
One in particular, Elsie Henry, Quartermaster of the Sphagnum Moss Depot, who decided to keep a diary “as a war record”: The World Upturning, an edition of Elsie’s diaries, by Dr Clara Cullen of Uni-versity College Dublin. A talk given by Dr Cullen, in which she expresses her wish that the women of the sphagnum moss venture be celebrated more widely for their extraordinary, barely lauded commit-ment. Spot on, Clara.
So, to Elsie Henry, a privileged, well-connected woman, who loved nature and botany and her garden in Dublin, who gave tea parties and dinner parties throughout the war, who was forthright and deter-mined and above all kind, and who led an army of volunteers across Ireland to harvest a lowly plant that saved thousands of lives.
About the writer
With special thanks
With many thanks to Evelyn Flanagan, Special Collections, University College Dublin who provided access to the Royal College of Science for Ireland’s sphagnum moss archives and to the Royal College of Nursing NI and PRONI for the initial stimulus.
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