“Wiry and energetic with a well-chiselled nose, pale piercing eyes, slight and graceful and a love for everything militaire.”
Katherine ‘Katie’ Mary Harley, nee French, sister of Sir John French, leader of the British army at the outbreak of World War 1 and of Charlotte Despard, was born on May 3rd 1855 less than three months after the death of her father. Her childhood was blighted by her mother’s ill health and by the age of ten she was an orphan. Katherine was sent to boarding school and then travelled to India to stay with her sister Maggie. There she met and married Col. George Ernest Harley, of the Buffs (East Kent Regiment). A little over a year later, still in India, she gave birth to her first child Florence. They returned to England, where their son Julian was born, followed by a daughter Edith. Katherine was a typical army wife and mother. Ultimately the family settled in Condover, near Shrewsbury.
Following her husband’s death in 1907 Katherine’s approach to life changed radically. Like her sister Charlotte, who changed direction following her husband’s death, Katherine became politically active. By 1910 she was a Poor Law Guardian and leading member of the West Midland Federation of The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Within three years she had become President of the Shropshire Society of the NUWSS and was also involved with The Church League for Women’s Suffrage.
Katherine was the originator of the 1913 Suffragist Pilgrimage, a march from seventeen cities across the country by women to Hyde Park in London. The idea was to promote their ideals and make clear that they were non-militant and peaceful in their campaign. The Pilgrimage was considered to be a great success and early in 1914 Katherine was one of the founders of the Active Service League intended to build on the achievements of the march. Katherine organised a women’s camp.
With the outbreak of the First World War activities changed. Within seven days of Great Britain declaring war the League became a relief body processing women who wished to assist in the war effort sending them onto organisations within which they could serve. Katherine offered her own personal message to the women of Shropshire asking them to volunteer to take over men’s jobs enabling them to go and fight “I ask this in the name of my brother, who so sorely needs the able bodied men in the country.”
Through her work with the Active League Katherine became involved with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which formed units able to set up hospitals in the field. The driving force behind these units was Dr Elsie Inglis supported by the Active Service League and Newnham and Girton, both women’s colleges at Cambridge University. The first unit was posted to Royanmount Abbey in France. The administrator had to return to England due to ill health and Katherine offered to take her place.
After only a few months, Katherine was posted to Chanteloup near Troyes, also in France, to assist in establishing a second hospital. Initially conditions were harsh and a lot of work had to be undertaken to get the hospital ready. Most patients were accommodated in tents as part of an experiment to see if fresh air helped wounds to heal without infection. Their time in France was short-lived. In October 1915 the unit was posted to Salonika. They travelled to Marseilles by specially commissioned train before which Katherine hosted a farewell dinner; from there they sailed to Greece.
The Salonika campaign engaged 500,000 allied troops against some 300,00 from Bulgaria, Turkey, Austro-Hungary and Germany. The hospital unit first established itself at Ghevgeli about fifty miles from Salonika. They were allocated a disused silkworm factory, tents were erected in the compound surrounding the factory. Within two weeks the hospital was ready to receive the wounded. The winter was bitterly cold and soldiers were often admitted suffering from frostbite. Under threat, the unit was forced to retreat to Salonika. The area allocated was knee-deep in mud. Wounded started to arrive before they were ready. With help from the Royal Navy, tents were erected and order created. For her dedication and services to France, Katherine was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
In Spring 1916, following a dispute, Katherine resigned and returned to England. She was determined to return. The Serbian government’s request for two more hospital units supported by a motorised flying corps of ambulances was her opportunity. Accompanied by her daughter, Edith, the unit opened in September 1916. It was the nearest Allied Hospital to the front. Katherine was in command of the Transport Column: six ambulances, two delivery vans, a mobile kitchen and the staff. Attached to the Serbian Expeditionary Force, billeted in tents, they transported the wounded from the dressing stations to the hospital, journeys which took anything between ten and thirty hours.
The role of the unit was to operate near the front line to collect Serbian casualties and bring them to the SWH hospitals for treatment. The seriously wounded were evacuated with light ambulance cars ‘Fords’ which would come every morning to the prime-aid locations to take the seriously wounded. Thanks to them, the evacuation was performed without delay.
Within eight weeks of opening they had dealt with over four hundred wounded. The unit operated in difficult conditions and worked tirelessly to keep their fleet of ambulances on the road. The Transport Ambulance Column worked non-stop to keep their vehicles roadworthy on the especially poor roads. The woman drivers were often too enthusiastic about their work and even insubordinate. The unit also had a reputation for ignoring orders in their enthusiasm to help the wounded – even operating at night, close to the battlefield, despite explicit orders not to do so. They were criticised for lack of discipline, smoking, drinking and short haircuts. It was felt Katherine did not have a firm enough grip on their activities. Following an inspection by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Katherine and her daughter agreed to resign.
In November 1916 Monastir (today Bitola) was occupied by the Allied Forces. With the Bulgarian and German armies located on the surrounding mountains, it was subject to enemy artillery fire and bombing daily. The population in suffered from diseases, illnesses and the ravages of war and was in especially bad condition. Katherine moved with Edith to the town to help the women, children and elderly. She rented a house in the town; funding the establishment of an orphanage. On 7th March 1917 Katherine Harley was taking tea with her daughter and with Miss Mary L. Matthews, head of the American Girls’ School, when a shell hit the street, shattering the window glass, which pierced her head.
March 7, Wed. 1917 A fine warm day. Mrs. Harley, sister of Field-Marshall Sir John French of the British Forces in France, and her daughter Edith, have been here some weeks, giving proper food to little children. In the afternoon, I went to invite the ladies to tea tomorrow. They were living in a house near the Government Headquarters. It was about half past three. Shelling often began about that time. I should have remembered and suggested that we go downstairs.
Miss Edith was serving tea and had just gone to get another cup when a shell burst in the street and shattered the windows of the room where we were sitting. I looked across at Mrs. Harley whose body had stiffened and her face was very white. Then I saw blood trickle down her face. We laid her on the floor and I had to run to the Government to ask for an Ambulance to take Mrs. Harley to the Hospital.
The Governor and his staff were down in a sub-cellar, waiting for the firing to cease. After quarter or half an hour, it was considered safe to come up. Mrs. Harley was taken to the hospital, but as they laid her on the operating table she died. A bit of glass had ended her useful life. Miss Edith (her daughter) said they knew the danger when they came, but they wanted to feed babies and small children. Mrs. Harley was laid out in a shirt of the British Red Cross and her uniform jacket. She looked very peaceful. General Sarrail (French) at Salonika arranged for a military funeral and burial there. The Governor and the Mayor called on Miss Harley and were sympathetic. It was strange that Miss Harley and I escaped harm.
Katherine was buried with full military honours, her grave, considerably more splendid than the other graves.
The grave, marked by a large stone cross, bears a moving inscription chosen by Officers and men of the Serbian Army. The inscription, in Serbian and English, reads, “On your tomb instead of flowers the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there. For your wonderful acts your name shall be known from generation to generation.”
Following her death a memorial fund was established in her honour. Part endowed a cot in the Royal Salop Infirmary (RSI) and the remainder was invested to fund the annual award to the two nurses who achieved the highest marks in their exam finals – the Katherine M Harley Medal for Efficiency. The RSI closed in 1977 and was converted into a shopping centre but the memorial plaque to Katherine remains.
Katherine Mary Harley is remembered in Shropshire with a small plaque at the left hand side of the entrance to the Shrewsbury’s Parade Shopping Centre, the old Royal Salop Infirmary building, on the war memorial in St Mary’s church, Shrewsbury, on the Portland stone tablet on north-east wall of nave to “the eighteen (sic) men” of the parish who died serving in World War I in the church of SS Andrew and Mary, and in Harley Road both in Condover.
By Keith Pybus