Just one woman’s name is to be found amongst the 755 names commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial in Londonderry – that of Laura Marion Gailey, a nurse who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment of World War 1.One of the first nurses to volunteer, Laura was a past pupil of Victoria High School in the city which later amalgamated with Londonderry High School to form today’s Foyle College.
That connection proved the starting point for a fascinating journey into the past by Cadets from Foyle College Combined Cadet Force. Their research into Laura’s story unravelled a poignant story of World War 1 courage and loss and earned the teenagers first prize in the Northern Ireland wide ‘Local Heroes’ project.
Laura, they discovered, was born in Londonderry on 8 November 1886, the daughter of William Gailey and Margaret Elizabeth Gailey. Not much is known about her early life, but her service record shows she volunteered in June 1915, joining the Donegal/Londonderry Commission of St John's Ambulance Service, later moving into the Voluntary Aid Detachment. During World War 1, volunteer nurses gave up their time, left their families and risked contracting diseases such as typhoid and influenza in order to care for ill and wounded soldiers in hospitals across the UK and in countries throughout the British Empire.
During the First World War, the Voluntary Aid Detachment which Laura joined was a voluntary unit of civilians providing nursing care for military personnel in the United Kingdom and various other countries throughout the British Empire. The VAD nurses worked in both field hospitals, close to the battlefield, and longer-term places of recuperation back in Britain. Managed by the Red Cross, more than 90,000 volunteers - three quarters of whom were women - joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) to work in auxiliary hospitals at home and overseas.
Laura was deployed to the First Western Military Hospital, Fazerkerley in Liverpool, where, undoubtedly, Laura would have cared for soldiers returning from the Western Front with horrific physical injuries and severe mental trauma. Nurses of WWI worked from sun up to sun down, snatching sleep when and where they could as they cared for wounded and sick soldiers as well as convalescents, prisoners of war, and even, on occasion, civilians. Over 30,000 nurses from Ireland served in these hospitals and overseas behind the frontlines.
It was whilst working at the First Western Military Hospital that Laura Gailey contracted measles, followed by pneumonia, losing her life on 24 March 1917, whilst on active service … one of an estimated 1,500 nurses who lost their lives during World War 1, mostly from disease or enemy action.
Laura Marion Gailey held a rank equivalent to an officer. In accordance with King's Regulations she was buried with full military honours on 29 March with 200 nurses present to pay their respects. Although her rank afforded her a military burial, it was not for another 100 years that her grave would be marked with a headstone. Purchased with funds raised by the ladies of the Mountjoy Orange Lodge, the headstone was erected on 21 March 2017 at her final resting place in Liverpool, just days before the centenary of Miss Gailey's death.
John Fulton (16) from the trio of researchers said, “We have all studied World War 1 in history classes and at the Cadets, but learning about Laura Gailey reminded us that, behind the statistics, facts and figures, were ordinary people whose lives were torn apart by war.”
Clarke Lindsay (15) agrees, “Our research made us feel that we knew Laura as a person and we were all genuinely sad and surprised to learn that she had died after a bout of Measles which would rarely be thought of as dangerous today. Things were very different in 1917 and our research really made us understand that the horrors of war weren’t confined to the trenches.”
Andrew Pollock (15) adds, “It’s amazing to think that someone you might think of as a genteel lady out of history actually had sure a core of steel. She showed real bravery and independence and we can all learn from her example.”
Pictured showing off the certificates which marked their participation in the research challenge are, from left, Cadet Corporals John Fulton, Clarke Lindsay and Andrew Pollock, students of Foyle College.
The information gathered by the young people will now become an important learning resource for others in the Cadet movement