Book: ‘Trenches and Destruction’. Letters from the Front 1915-1919

First World War letters written by Pleasance Walker
Compiled and edited by Caroline Roaf

When war broke out in 1914, Pleasance Edith Walker (1882 -1965) was in her early thirties, living at home with her parents in 30 Norham Gardens. Little is currently known about her life before the war. From her letters we know that she taught in the Sunday School at St. Giles’ Church, that she played the violin and was the secretary of a local orchestra. Some pre-war family photos, now held in the Museum of the City of Oxford, provide evidence of a well educated, closely knit, middle class family. Her father, James Walker, was a University Demonstrator in Physics. Her bother Robert, about 18 months older than her, had joined the Armed Forces as a career. As an Engineer Lieutenant in the Navy, he survived the war and was promoted to the rank of Engineer Commander in 1918. Her younger sister Rosalys lived locally, as an Anglican nun, with the Society of the Order of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. As a family, the Walkers appear to have played an active role in the community, with many friends. Pleasance’s pre-1914 life was serene. She helped her mother, took pleasure in the garden, music, reading, family holidays in Wales, and her cat.

In 1914, all that changed. We know that Pleasance wanted to join the war effort and to serve abroad, as her brother Robert was doing. It is not yet clear under what auspices she left for a French hospital in January 1915, probably as part of a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Certainly it was a VAD nurse who came to inspect the work she and some other English women were doing in a French hospital in Caen in May 1915. Of this visit Pleasance reported:

We had an operation to-day and she (the visiting nurse) went into the Theatre with me as a spectator only and I am pleased because she told the others afterwards that not only was my training excellent but I deserved a Victoria Cross for my nerve and calmness. All this sounds horribly conceited but I am so desperately keen on the work that I am frightfully pleased that my amateur ways are not utterly condemned by the professional. M.Fortin (the French surgeon) told me to-day that I am not to give up the Theatre work to anyone.’

This passage marks the transition of Pleasance the stay-at-home daughter, to Pleasance the indispensable nurse in a war zone. It was a dramatic moment. From then until early February 1919, Pleasance, having been persuaded, it seems, by the French surgeons to stay with them, was employed by the French Red Cross, moving from Caen to Bourbourg, near Dunkirk, in March 1918.

With only occasional visits home on leave, Pleasance wrote to her parents regularly, two or three times a week, over the whole war period from wherever she was stationed in northern France. After the Armistice in November 1918 the letters continued as her work took her into areas previously under German occupation. During this period her work became similar to that of a health visitor. She checked on the health of children and elderly people, often lying helpless, starving in their ruined houses. She inoculated local people, several hundred a day at times, against the diseases, such as Spanish ‘flu, to which everyone living in those devastated areas was prone. And she explores the battle grounds, wanting to see for herself where her patients had received their terrible injuries. Late in 1918, she mentions the possibility of being nominated for the Croix de Guerre. This was an honour created by the French government in 1915, specifically to honour exceptional long term conduct over the period of the war. While her letters confirm her eligibility for this honour, she was not actually awarded it: few women were and in her case, slow communications between the authorities in England and France to secure the necessary character references didn’t help. In February 1919, not without some misgivings, because she had been offered further work with the French Red Cross in the Near East or North Africa, she returned home and we lose track of her. We know that she married Herbert Lister Bowman, Waynflete Professor of Mineralogy and Crystallography in 1921, and that she died, aged 83, in 1965, in the house she had lived in all her married life, 8 Fyfield Road. A small collection of family photographs, and her letters home from France during WW1, were found in the house after her death.