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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Gertrude Mary Powicke, Friends War Victims Relief Committee

William Henry

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Gertrude Mary Powicke has been mentioned on the forum before but as history repeats itself in Ukraine I hope you will agree that her work with Ukrainian refugees and resultant death in Warsaw is worth another post.

The plaque to her in Hatherlow United Reformed Church, where her father was Minister, summarises her career - “Born at The Old Manse, Hatherlow, on December 19th 1887. Giving up her position as a mistress in the Manchester Girls High School she devoted herself to voluntary work with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee for nearly five years, first in France, and then in Poland where she died of typhus at Warsaw, on December 20th 1919.”

In her last letter home, dated December 1st 1919, Gertrude identified that most of the refugees she was working with had “come in to be out of the way of [the White Russian General] Denikin's army, as the Ukrainian army is entirely broken up and he is overrunning Ukraine”, Denikin’s being another of the forces fighting in a war between Poland, Ukraine and Soviet Russia.

Then, as now, this was a refugee crisis, with Gertrude and her three colleagues working around Lemberg facing ‘Ukrainian prisoners and refugees pouring over the frontier, all of them in need of disinfection’, but without “soap to wash them, or their clothes, or the rooms they are in”, or “wood or coal to heat the barracks where they are put.” Gertrude also recognised the dangers of not being able to quarantine those with typhus, reporting for example that “One man died with the rest, and nobody knew he was ill.”

In her obituary Gertrude was described as someone who “showed a marvellous power of self-control and remarkable capacity for carrying things through” but these conditions were too much even for her and she admitted that “I'm glad we're going back, for I've reached the point when I feel as if I couldn't bear to see any more misery.” Unfortunately when Gertrude did go back it was with the typhus she had contracted and from which she died in Warsaw the day after her 32nd birthday.

In the Cemeteries and Memorials section of the Gallery I have posted an album of photos of Gertrude’s grave and of local memorials to her.  One of them is of the plaque on her childhood home which mentions her suffrage activities, which give rise to one of the inaccuracies you will see and hear about her – she was not a suffragette, but a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who described themselves as “law abiding suffragists” using debate, discussion and persuasion rather than the militancy of Mrs. Pankhurst’s followers. Nor was she a nurse, but what we would call an aid worker, and as previously mentioned, she died of typhus, not typhoid.

I once gave a little talk to some work colleagues about Gertrude in front of the World War One memorial plaque at Manchester University, on which her name appears.  I made this emphatically clear but need I have bothered?  The next day one of those who’d been there came up to say how much she’d enjoyed what I’d told them…about “the suffragette who was a nurse.” People really do only hear what they want to hear.

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There is a story that the local Warsaw priest was upset that church doctrine forbade her being buried in the local churchyard. She was not a Roman Catholic. Instead she was buried "on the other side of the fence" as close to the cemetery as possible. On the morning following the funeral her colleagues discovered that the fence had been moved to include her grave within the cemetery's consecrated ground. I spread a small shadow of doubt on the story as the church is the Evangelical Reformed Church which, as far as I know, is not Roman Catholic but a nice story nevertheless.

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Thanks Jim, I have had another look at Gertrude's biography and it makes no mention at all of this fence story, or of the Catholic authorities being involved in her burial, only that Gertrude's death was reported to the Pastor of the Evangelical-Reformed Church.  The biography was written by Gertrude's great-niece Susan Pares, who has access to family documents, so you would think that if anybody knew about it Susan would. It looks as if you're right, a nice story but no more than that, much as I would like it to be true.

If anyone is interested the title of Gertrude's biography is "Displaced by War: Gertrude Powicke and Quaker relief in France and Poland 1915-1919." Written by Susan Pares and published by Francis Boutle Publishers, it's still available via their website. 

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