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Coseley nurse Tilly held a soldier's beating heart in her hands

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 14, 2014

By Dr John C. Tate

  • Staff Nurse Matilda Goodhall Tate, photographed in Salonika, January 8, 1916

  • Tilly Tate at a camp in Salonika

  • Sketch of Tilly Tate by one of her patients

  • Tilly Tate in later life

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DID you watch The Crimson Field, the recent hit TV series about front line nurses in the First World War? Many women volunteered to serve in field hospitals within the range of enemy guns and among then was a woman from Coseley whose dedication and bravery received royal recognition.

In the October 13, 2005, edition of the Bugle a story was told about Quartermaster Sergeant John Tate of the 29th (Sedgley) Rifle Volunteers. The following is the remarkable story of one of his daughters who served with distinction as a nurse on the front line.

Matilda Goodhall Tate was born in Albert Street, Wallbrook, Coseley, on September 26, 1871, the fourth child of John and Sarah Tate (née Lewis). Her father was a stock-taker in a local iron works and Sarah went on to produce a further five children, one of whom was the writer's grandfather.

Tilly, as she was always known, seems to have been a strong character from the start and decided to enter the nursing profession in her mid/late 20s. She was educated at Christ Church and St Chad's Schools and did her initial training as a probationary assistant at the City Infirmary, Bow, London, between 1898 and 1901, moving first to the General Hospital, Ramsgate, then to the Fever Hospital, Atherstone, and finishing at Miss Storer's Nurses Co-operative and Private Hospital at 70 Newall Street, Birmingham.

Following the outbreak of war, on October 21, 1914, she volunteered for service with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), stating on her application that she "would prefer to serve abroad". For a single woman this is remarkable enough, what followed would be exceptional, even by today's standards.

It should be remembered that she was not exactly young at this time, being 43 years old at the outbreak of war. Her first posting was to the Queen Mary War Hospital, Whalley, Lancashire, in November 1914 and it was not until a year later that she embarked on Cunard's Aquitania for Malta and Alexandria. She was initially based for a short time at the 19th General Hospital, Orwa el Waski, Egypt, from where she left for Salonika in Greece, arriving in December 1915.

"The fighting on this front is not well known, given the horrors in France and Belgium, but involved an Anglo-French landing in October 1915 designed to help our allies, the Serbs, repel Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian aggression.

Tilly arrived at the time of the Battle of Kosturino which had seen the Allies driven from Serbia and she must have been plunged into the thick of things right from the beginning, since the Serbs had taken a terrible beating and there were many casualties. She was attached to the 28th General Hospital in the main base. Salonika at the time was virtually a fortress – nick-named "The Bird Cage" due to the amount of barbed wire used in its defence. Put bluntly, she was a nurse effectively in the front line, with the Bulgarians and Austro-Hungarians dug in to their north and a not-too-friendly Greek population in the south (many Greeks supported the enemy – their king was the brother-in-law of the Kaiser). Add to battle casualties a virtual epidemic of malaria, typhus and dysentery, together with many frostbite cases, and her situation would have been extremely unpleasant, to put things mildly. The nurses were, of course, themselves vulnerable to disease, especially given limited rations and heavy, stressful workload.

Massive reinforcement took place in early/mid 1916, the British force now including four extra divisions, with Russian and Italian units joining the fray as well. At this time, with the fighting in something of a lull, Tilly managed to get her photograph taken on January 8, 1916.

October 1916 saw Tilly serving close to the fighting at the 40th Casualty Clearing Station. A story told in the family is that at one stage she was in an operating tent holding an injured soldier's beating heart in a warm towel while a surgeon removed a bullet or piece of shrapnel from under it. At this point there was incoming enemy artillery fire with chunks of red hot shrapnel coming through the sides of the tent. Despite this she had to keep perfectly still while the surgeon carried on working – some woman!

Later, she moved to the 29th General Hospital, transferring back to the 28th in September of 1917. By this time she must have given pretty distinguished service and the London Gazette of November 28, 1917, announced she had been Mentioned in Dispatches. This had been a year of continued fighting with more Allied gains, culminating with the (abortive) battle of Tumbitza Farm. Tilly was now 46 years old and had been in the thick of things for almost two years without leave.

It is clear that by this time she was pretty well worn out and in October 1917 she placed herself in "Sisters' Convalescence", suffering from what she euphemistically described as "debility". This seems to have meant that she was technically classed as a casualty at that time. Reward was to follow with the announcement from Buckingham Palace on January 1, 1918, that she had been awarded the Royal Red Cross (Second Class) by George V. This decoration was awarded for either: "special devotion and competency in performance... over a long and continued period" or to someone who "has performed some very exceptional act of bravery".

Tilly, being Tilly, soon bounced back, and by November 1917 she had rejoined the 28th General Hospital. Relief was at hand and on November 8 she embarked for Italy to serve with 29th Stationary Hospital, in Cremona. Disembarking at Taranto in the south, she would have first faced a long train journey nearly the length of the country.

In February 1918 she was granted 14 days' leave, after 28 months of continuous overseas service. Some might think this leave period both long overdue and rather mean!

Nursing in Italy would have been Italian soldiers plus remaining casualties from the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign (there is at least one local man buried at Cremona, James Sanders of Tipton, who died on June 18, 1918 – I wonder whether she nursed him?). She was not in Italy long, however, and in June 1918 she left for France with 30 Ambulance Train, going into the thick of things on the Western Front at a time when the outcome of the whole war was very much in the balance following the great German offensive in the spring of that year. At this time, a second Mentioned in Dispatches was announced, again for her work in Salonika (London Gazette June 11, 1918).

Arriving in Calais on July 21, she was based on 30 Ambulance Train until October 23. At this point something seems to have gone very wrong for Staff Nurse M.G. Tate ARRC. On this day she left 30 Ambulance Train and reported for duty to 83rd General Hospital. There seems to have been some sort of dispute with a Sister L.P. Dixon over Tilly's appearance rather than her medical skills, with the good sister using words like "careless" and "untidy". Tilly had been away from home now for three and a half years, was 47 years old, and during that time had, by and large, been at the cutting edge of the action, with only two weeks leave during the whole time. One would guess that she was not over-concerned about her appearance at this stage! She had vast experience and one wonders whether there was a personal issue here between the two women. Things must have been bad as soon afterwards she submitted her resignation stating that "I am feeling very tired and require a rest" though adding "afterwards I may rejoin with your permission".

On December 5, 1918, with the war over, Tilly's resignation became effective and a week later she was at Buckingham Palace to receive the Royal Red Cross from the King.

At this juncture, Tilly returned to civilian life and to general nursing, moving to the USA to live with her sister Sally in Lorain, Ohio, and work as a private nurse. She returned home in the early 1930s and finished her career working as a sister back at the Newhall Street Private Hospital, Birmingham.

Tilly Tate died in August 1946, of throat cancer, at her own house, 5 Barnett Street, Tividale, but not before she had intervened to potentially save the life of the writer. That, however, is another story.

The author would like to express deep thanks to Andrew Johnson of the Western Front Association and to cousin Mike Sampson for help in providing material for this article.

On page 1 we asked for your help in tracing Tilly's missing medals – her Royal Red Cross and her 1914-15 Star. If you have any information as to where they could be contact editor@black countrybugle.co.uk, call 01384 567678 or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

Did any of your female relatives serve in the First World War? Tens of thousands of women gave valuable service, be it on the front line or the home front; have you a story and pictures of their heroic work to share with Bugle readers? Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to our editorial address.

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