Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

February 5, 2018

The True and Tragic Adventures of Dr. Laura E. Forster

As Dr Laura Elizabeth Forster stood on the platform at London’s Victoria Station, she must have pondered with some amusement the fuss from bystanders over the departure of her medical unit’s doctors and nurses for the war front. It was 4 September 1914 and Great Britain had only been at war with Germany a month when the British Committee of the French Red Cross, the umbrella group supervising Forster’s unit, was established. The train was taking the team to Folkestone for the boat trip across the channel to a Red Cross hospital near the front in Antwerp, Belgium. It would not be Forster’s first time in a combat zone. Although she was a seasoned physician in London, she had volunteered as a nurse – female doctors were not permitted near the front lines – to travel to Epirus in the autumn of 1912 to treat the wounded during the First Balkan War. Then, few Britons seem to notice that a war was raging. The commotion she was witnessing two years later at Victoria Station was an entirely new experience.

Dr Laura Forster portrait

Nine nurses dressed in pristine violet cloaks and sky blue dresses, four male doctors in khakis and four female physicians were on the platform for a send-off by family members and colleagues. Accompanying them were drivers, orderlies and an unexpected quartet of women farmers dressed in crisp officer’s khaki tunics, breeches and sun helmets. At Folkestone the attention was even greater as a film camera operator convinced the group, about 20 members in all, to march down the quay as he cranked his camera to record their departure. They may have been heroes in their mismatched uniforms, but they were not military. Unlike the Royal Army Medical Corps, where only male physicians were sent to the front, women medical officers had no such military support. They volunteered to private organisations to treat the wounded and the rampant diseases among refugees in war zones. While the British Expeditionary Force documented the services of its personnel, many private organisations’ record-keeping was haphazard or lost.

As a result, most independent women doctors were rarely recognised for their sacrifices during the Great War. Forster’s contributions to the war effort are officially documented through the British Committee of the French Red Cross as serving a single month in a combat zone – 14 September to 14 October 1914 – although she worked as a surgeon and epidemic specialist for 29 consecutive months at the fronts in Belgium, France, Russia, the Caucasus and Turkey.

Dr Forster was an independent surgeon travelling from one battlefield to another. She ran hospitals with beds numbering in the hundreds to tiny far-flung outposts with minimal medical supplies and support staff. She treated soldiers with severe battle wounds, farming accident victims and rampant diseases among refugees in war zones. And she died alone in Russia.

This is her untold story originally published in the Australian military journal Sabretache vol. LVIII, no.4 — December 2017. Read the PDF file.

Click to OpenForster.article

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