The outstanding story of a humble Dorset woman who nursed soldiers in two world wars, and outwitted the Nazis, is told by Roger Guttridge.
Few, if any, can match the extraordinary record of Hazelbury Bryan’s Violet Cross, a heroine of not one but both world wars.
She twice gave the Germans the slip, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for her outstanding nursing work at Verdun, the slaughter house, which saw French casualties exceed 400,000.
This was a rare honour for a woman. Violet, a vicar’s daughter who was born and raised at Sturminster Marshall, was 24 in 1916 when she volunteered to help in the field hospitals in France, which were flooded with wounded soldiers.
“It seemed to me that here was an opportunity of getting to know another country and of making my own known to them,” she later recalled. “Perhaps there would be fewer wars if we all knew each other better.”
She was appointed Matron of a field hospital at Verdun and faced enormous challenges.
“We were all understaffed and under-equipped, and during the last big attacks of 1918 we were dealing with 700 arrivals and 700 evacuations a day,” she said. ”I have seen men queued up on stretchers for three day sand three nights waiting for admission to the operating theatres.”
“Many boys, whose limbs were amputated in the morning, offered to go on stretchers on the floor the same evening to give their beds to the newcomers. If that isn’t courage, I don’t know what is,” she wrote. Violet stayed in France for another three years after the First World War, nursing prisoners-of-war who were too sick to return home.
Meanwhile, her father, the Rev. James Cross, had retired after 54 years as Vicar of Sturminster Marshall and moved to the Manor House at Hazelbury Bryan.
He died six months after moving but Violet never married and continued living there for more than 50 years.
She was a churchwarden, a parish, district and county councillor, an ATS officer, a governor of Sturminster Newton High School and a major contributor to village life at Hazelbury.
Projects she was involved in included the 1938 restoration of the church’s chancel in memory of her father, construction of the Civic Trust award- winning lychgate at the church entrance, the restoration of several cottages and the conversion of others to become church rooms.
Back to another war
When the Second World War broke out, the French surgeon that Violet had worked under 20 years earlier asked her to return.
“I was in France with the Expeditionary Force,” she said.
But after arriving at the hospital site to find an acute shortage of bedding, she immediately returned to Dorset to seek help.
“When I finally got back to France after ten days of intensive begging, I had so many bales [of hay to make mattresses] that I had to commandeer a French army lorry to convey them from the docks to the train,” she said.
“I felt it was an example to the French of what warm-hearted British generosity meant. It also benefited many of our own men.”
Violet also described the scenes as French refugees poured through the town where she was working. “Bicycles, hand-carts, perambulators and great horse drawn-carts piled high with bedding and household possessions, on top of which old women and little children were perched precariously, began to stream night and day, fleeing the German terror,” she wrote.
“Children were even crammed into hearses and one old lady had been squeezed into an ice-cream cart, her old husband pedalling wearily behind. ‘On, on, on, they knew not where, as long as they were moving.”
When Violet herself had to flee the Nazis, she initially tried to get back to England by boat. When that proved impossible, she and a fellow nurse decided to seek help from the colleague’s relatives in Paris.
Outwitting the Hun
Violet feared the worst when a German soldier demanded to see her identity papers, which identified her nationality. Discovery would have made her a prisoner-of-war.
But when the soldier was distracted by an officer, “my hand shot out from under my cloak and the card was back in my pocket whilst I continued to sit meekly in my chair.”
When the soldier returned, he was in a rush and authorised her to pass.
After escaping the authorities in Paris a second time, Violet travelled through Spain and Portugal, where she negotiated a seat on a flying boat that was heading for Britain’s seaplane HQ in Poole Harbour.
From Poole she walked the 25 miles to Hazelbury. A few weeks after D-Day, Violet returned yet again to the continent, where she helped reunite children with their parents in Belgium and Holland.
She died in 1989, aged 98. A memorial plaque in Hazelbury church includes the inscription: ‘I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.’
by Roger Guttridge