THE story of a young pacifist who served and died as a medical orderly in the First World War was told by the niece he never knew at a church memorial service last month.
The pacifist, John Frederick White, was 18 when he enlisted into the Royal Army Medical Corps in August 1915. He died on 31 July 1917, while helping to recover the dead and wounded from no man’s land during the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
His niece, Lynda Ibbotson, took her granddaughter, Sophie, aged nine, to the Church of the Holy Spirit, Southsea, in Portsmouth, for a service that celebrated nurses from the city who served in field hospitals during the First World War.
Mrs Ibbotson said: "I was never interested in history as a child, but researching my family background, and finding out more about John Frederick, has really captured my imagination. I think it is really important for my granddaughter to know about her great-great-uncle, and the sacrifice that he and others made for the freedom that we enjoy today.
"John Frederick was a pacifist, which is probably why he enlisted as a stretcher-bearer; but, in a way, this role was just as — if not more — dangerous, because he was going in to carry people away when the battle was raging."
White’s body was never found, but Mrs Ibbotson has photos and letters that he wrote to her grandmother — including one written on the day he died — and a handkerchief and a handkerchief case that he sent to her mother.
The service was organised by the Revd Emma D’Aeth, deacon at the Church of the Holy Spirit and a nurse herself. She was inspired by a visit last year to an exhibition at Blenheim Palace about its functioning as a military hospital during the First World War: "When the curator wasn’t looking, I managed to pick up an original nurse’s uniform, and held it against myself. I just thought: ‘Right, they have just got to be remembered in my own city.’"
With help from local historians and Portsmouth museum, she spent a year looking for names, eventually unearthing those of 20 VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses, and three young men, one of whom was Mrs Ibbotson’s uncle.
She was also given letters by nurses about their experiences. One described how she removed a bullet from a soldier. "I have told people this is a gruesome story we need to hear. We don’t remember those young women who did this for thousands of hours.
"They didn’t have the vote; they had nothing — and when they finished, they all went back to their old lives, and no one said anything."