Sister Katherine Evelyn Luard (1872-1962)

An extraordinary Essex girl

Sister Kate Luard spent the whole of the First World War nursing sick and wounded soldiers on the Western Front. She worked on Ambulance Trains and in Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs), sometimes just a mile behind the front line. She was awarded a Royal Red Cross and bar for exceptional service in military nursing.

Katherine Evelyn Luard was born in Aveley in 1872, the tenth of 13 children, the daughter of a vicar. She grew up at Aveley Vicarage, and then Birch Rectory near Colchester. She trained as a nurse, and in addition to her work in civilian hospitals served as a military nurse during the Boer War.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Kate volunteered and was on the first boat to France she could get, arriving on 20th August 1914. Apart from short periods of leave, Kate remained in France and Flanders until the end of hostilities.

As a senior nurse Kate shouldered enormous responsibilities. As well as being on the wards herself, she was in charge of organising the nurses and orderlies and running the mess and keeping everyone fed. After long shifts she would stay up into the night writing to the families of the men she had nursed as they died.

Then you come to what was Gommécourt. It must have been, when it existed, full of orchards, and half in and half out of a wood. Now there is one wall of one house left. The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits… Here you get to see the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?
Sister Kate LuardFriday 23 March 1917

We are able to find out a great deal about Kate’s wartime experiences because she was a prolific writer. In 1915 her account of the war so far was published anonymously as Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, and many of her letters were published after the war as Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. Many more letters written home to her family also survive, and are held at the Essex Record Office.

Kate’s letters home contain some heart wrenching descriptions. In one letter written from the Hospital Ship Carisbrook Castle at St Nazaire she describes a night transferring sick and wounded soldiers from the hospital train she was then stationed with:

When you stand off for a few hours from the gruesome details & pathetic streams of broken, dirty, ragged bandaged cripples that one is occupied with all day it gets more & more unfathomable & heartbreaking. 1500 were disembarked from the trains yesterday & they are still streaming in. One train of bad cases yesterday took 8 hours to unload.
Sister Kate LuardLetter from the Hospital Ship, Carisbrook Castle, at St Nazaire

At the end of the war Kate returned home to care for her sick father. She later worked as matron of a house at a boys private school, and in the last years of her life she lived in Wickham Bishops with two of her sisters. She died in 1962 aged 90.

Find out more about her life on the Essex Record Office blog.