Valentine volunteers: love letters from World War 1
Last updated 19 April 2023
From flirting soldiers, to a tragic marriage, indulge in some love stories from the First World War.
Red Cross nurses spent hours on the wards tending to wounded soldiers. The men's conversations, jokes and songs must have provided a welcome relief from all the cleaning, making beds and gangrenous limbs the nurses had to deal with.
Many patients took a shine to the women who cared for them. Soldiers gave nurses they liked photographs of themselves as a momento.
'A nice young lady'
Helen Beale, a VAD nurse (voluntary aid detachment) working in France, described the patients flirting with her in her letters home:
“Another such nice boy in the ward comes from Lincolnshire and is the most incorrigibly cheerful thing you can imagine considering that he has lost his leg and part of his left hand has been blown away, too. He nearly made me lose countenance the other day when I was washing him.
“I was diligently rubbing his back etc when the jolly old YMCA man came in to bring the men parcels of fruit.
“What must my boy say than ‘wouldn’t you like to be me, sir, lying here being washed by a nice young lady like this!’”
A wedding on the ward
At a time when many felt lucky to be alive, romance blossomed in hospital wards across the UK.
In Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, two staff at the Red Cross hospital fell in love. Mr George Reed, the pharmacist, married Miss Margaret Sharp Cuthbertson, the matron.
The whole hospital joined in with the celebrations. The bride was given away by one of the doctors. The Red Cross nurses and their patients joined them for the ceremony.
Some of the patients formed a guard of honour for the couple and bought them silver plates and flower stands as a wedding gift. The staff bought them an oak timepiece.
Gordan and May: a tragic tale
A soldier and a nurse fell in love at Gwy House Red Cross hospital in Chepstow – but theirs is a tragic tale. Australian trooper Gordon Edwards arrived at Chepstow hospital in October 1915.
Gordon and May: a tragic tale
A soldier and a nurse fell in love at Gwy House Red Cross hospital in Chepstow but theirs is a tragic tale. Australian trooper Gordon Edwards arrived at Chepstow hospital in October 1915.
Gordon described the events that led him there in a letter to his sister: "I got two bullets, one under the left arm, and the other through my left lung, so I can tell you what Turk's lead tastes like.
"Ripping up my coat and shirt [my friend Tommy] discovered where the wounds were and taking his own field dressing he bandaged me up, and called out to pass the word for a stretcher bearer.
"But I said 'I can walk.'"
"I must say I was very weak from loss of blood, as I was bleeding from the mouth and nose. But I didn't want to give in while Tom was there, so we set out for the dressing station […]
"We reached the station after a lot of stopping and dodging about in the dark, for it was about 10.30 at night, and there was no moon. The only lights were from the bursting of shells and bullets overhead.
"They put me on a stretcher and I said good bye to Tom. I didn’t remember any more until I got to Malta six days later. And now I am in England."
While Gordon was recovering, he fell in love with VAD nurse May James. By June 1916 Gordon was declared fit to return to duty and the couple got married in Chepstow.
The hospital staff clubbed together to buy the newlyweds a silver teapot, inscribed to remind them of their happy courtship at the hospital.
Sadly the marriage did not last long. Gordon returned to fight and survived for another two years until the Armistice was signed in 1918.
May, now with a young daughter, planned to travel to Australia to be reunited with her husband. But within a few days, Gordon had died from pneumonia. He was 26 years old.
In July 1919 May decided she still wanted to make the trip. She took her young daughter Joan to Australia. There she met Gordon's parents, and Joan finally met her grandparents.