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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Ada - A Volunteer in the First World War by Elizabeth Walton

Ada Le Poidevin
In 1917 Ada Le Poidevin was a single, twenty one year old girl, living in the small Channel Island of Guernsey. Her family were ardent Salvationists, with her maternal grandmother, Emilie Robert, having been one of the earliest members on the island, and her father, John Wesley Le Poidevin, having been a founder member of the band of the St. Sampson's Corps. He served for over 50 years, a period which included the German Occupation of the island, doing Young People's Work as well as playing in the band. The Le Poidevins were an ordinary working class family, and Ada had been employed with her sister in domestic service in the household of a local doctor. However, after the outbreak of the Great War, when the Victoria Cottage Hospital in Guernsey became a Class A military hospital, she had volunteered to work there.

In April 1917, she applied for her first passport and went initially to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, to work in the Salvation Army Hut in Camp 15. In a postcard home to her mother soon after this, she describes herself as "one who is doing her bit". Photographs of the period show her in a very elegant uniform with a bonnet with a big bow.

It is likely that at some stage she had heard a talk given to L'Islet Corps by a Captain DaIziel of the Salvation Army, who worked in France with the Ambulance corps. The local newspaper reports him as describing how "A well-organised brigade of Women Officers were also at work at hospital visitation, soothing the last moments of the dying etc. The Hospital visitation which was conducted by Salvation Army Sisters was of great value. The men were always eager to hear them speak and pray Each Hut was in charge of an Officer and his wife, the wife filling the place - that only women can fill - acting as mother to the boys. Each hut has a library, and meetings were conducted every Sunday evening. To give an idea of the work done at these huts, the Staff-Capt. said that six or seven thousand meals were supplied per day at one hut. and the officer's wife fried on a daily average over two thousand eggs." At about the same time, an advertisement appeared in the War Cry, asking for 'twenty five women Salvationists to assist in our Refreshment and Recreation huts with the Troops in France"

It would appear that Ada was moved to apply for this work, because a postcard sent to her mother from Salisbury Plain in 1917, says that all she is waiting for is a letter from France. In November of the same year, she was issued with a red War Worker's Pass permitting her to work in France with the Salvation Army with the British Expeditionary Force. There she did camp work and hospital visitation, initially in the Boulogne and Ostrohove area. Notebooks and correspondence show that she also travelled to areas of heavy fighting such as Abbeville and Amiens, and that on more than one occasion the camps were fired on and suffered shell damage. She also notes meeting members of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry that she knew from back home as they passed through the camps on their way to and from the front. One of the saddest aspects was sending home information about casualties known to the family.

She continued in this type of work until the Armistice, when she was taken ill with Spanish Flu and went into hospital in Wimereux, near Boulogne. However she recovered and continued working in France, now with the Salvation Army War Graves Visitation Service. She was based in Arras, with Staff-Captain and Mrs Tickelpenny, with whom she remained lifelong friends. Her job involved escorting official Pilgrimages of Remembrance, organised by the Salvation Army under Mrs. Commissioner Higgins, to the war cemeteries in Northern France.

An article in The Times of 4 September 1920 describes the work thus: "There has recently been established at the Salvation Army's headquarters in London a special department under the direction of Mrs. Commissioner Higgins to deal with the visits of relatives to the graves in northern France and Belgium It undertakes to render help in securing the correct location of the graves, to obtain the necessary passports and visas, to issue tickets from London to the railway station nearest to the cemetery, to meet passengers in London and at all ports of embarkation and landing and, where required, to provide motor transportation to the cemetery. The cost of these pilgrimages of remembrance is reduced to the lowest possible sum and the Salvation Army makes no profit out of this service. The department has already opened hostels of consolation in London, for colonial and provincial visitors, at Boulogne, Calais, Ostend, Ypres, Arras, Amiens, Rouen and Le Havre. With the sole exception of the one at Arras they are all permanent buildings accommodating about 300 persons. All the officers appointed to this duty were working with the troops during the war."

Ada's passport shows that she travelled regularly between England and France with bereaved families over a period of several years, or visiting graves on behalf of family members who were unable to make the journey themselves. Salvation Army "sisters", working in pairs, would place flowers on the grave, and take a photograph of it. Some flowers would then be pressed and put in a card with the photograph, which would then be sent to the bereaved family. On a postcard home written in 1919, she notes the desolation of the area, saying that "Do you think we want stout boots on these Roads? Alice and 1 are just going for a walk but nothing but ruins to see. No Hall or Chapel or Church near." She continued with this work until 1923, when she returned to Guernsey and never left again apart from for short holidays on the other islands.

Although she left a significant collection of photographs and documents, researching the work of Ada and her colleagues has been difficult. Not only were many local and national records destroyed during the Second World War, but also the very nature of the Salvation Army means that its mission takes priority over its history. Leaders move at regular intervals, individual publicity is never sought and service is largely voluntary and anonymous.

We would very much like to hear (through the Editor) from anyone whose relatives were involved in this work, or in any other aspect of Salvation Army work in the Great War. It seems important that this group of people should receive the recognition that they never sought in their lifetime, but nevertheless deserve.

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