Margaret Trevenen Arnold (1884 – 1916)
Text and research courtesy of Margaret Arnold’s family and Vivienne Bennett
Margaret Trevenen Arnold was one of 25 members of the Surrey Branch of the British Red Cross who died or were killed while on active service in the First World War. She was a nurse with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), serving at No 16 Military Hospital, Le Tréport, France, and died, aged 31, on 12 March 1916, of pneumonia.
Margaret, always known as Peggy, was the eldest of four daughters of Edward Augustus Arnold (1857-1942) and his wife Minnie, née Wakefield (d. 1924). Edward was a grandson of Dr Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), the Rugby school headmaster, and a nephew of Matthew Arnold (1822-88), the poet and cultural commentator – Peggy’s middle name, Trevenen, comes from the Arnolds’ Cornish ancestors. Shortly after Peggy was born Edward founded a publishing company that flourished and the imprint ‘Edward Arnold’ lasted for more than 100 years, and was known especially for its educational books. Peggy’s maternal grandfather was William Wakefield, a banker and gunpowder manufacturer, of Sedgwick House, near Kendal, Westmorland (now Cumbria).
The family lived in Kensington, London, and rented a series of country retreats in the Godalming and Haslemere area of Surrey. In 1913 they moved permanently into a large Edwardian house they had built at Pook Hill, Chiddingfold.
Peggy was mostly educated by governesses, including in Latin to an ‘advanced stage’. Her sisters Mary and the twins Nancy and Ruth went in their teens to newly-established schools for girls, but it seems that Peggy, as the eldest sister, was born a bit too early to attend one. She did, however, go to a school in Paris for a year when she was 19.
In her twenties Peggy became involved with the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Bloomsbury, London. Her father’s cousin Mary Ward (1851-1920), better known as the novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward, was the driving force of the settlement, which provided educational, social and health services to the disadvantaged of the area. Over the next ten years Peggy’s voluntary work at the settlement included running the children’s library, being a manager of the school and making home visits to families. The 1911 census lists her occupation as a ‘social worker for the London County Council Care Committee’.
The start of the war caught the family, as most people, by surprise and Peggy was soon involved as a member of Chiddingfold’s Emergency Committee, while in St Pancras she was still organising relief. Before the war Peggy and her sister Ruth had joined the Surrey branch of the British Red Cross, attending lectures and practical classes. In November 1914 Peggy was doing hospital work and by the following February was being trained for nursing at Hilders House, Shottermill, Haslemere, a newly-established Red Cross war hospital.
On June 5 1915, Peggy embarked for France as one of the first VADs to serve in a military hospital outside Britain. She was sent to No 16 hospital at Le Tréport, near Dieppe. The hospital, atop 300-foot cliffs, was ‘entirely under canvas’, although wooden huts were later provided for the VADs’ quarters. Nearby was the Trianon, a large, fashionable Edwardian hotel which had been converted into No 3 Hospital for officers.
Peggy’s nine months at Le Tréport are vividly chronicled in her diary (which is held by her family), with day-to-day accounts of hospital life with all its panics and lulls, tragedies and camaraderie. The frontline trenches were about 60 miles away in the valley of the Somme and hospital life was governed by the ebb and flow of the war – plus the vagaries of the weather. In October 1915 she wrote that there were days when the ‘fighting [must have] been fearful and we have had convoy after convoy in, and they have been cleared off the next morning to make room for others’. On the ward there were ‘groans, and moans, and shouts, and half-dazed mutterings, and men with trephined heads suddenly sitting bolt upright . . . nearly every sheet showing signs of the wound, and face wounds showing pus at the side of their dressing. It was awful, and I really know now what war means’.
But there was also the delight of time off with a chance to go shopping in Le Tréport, have a proper bath in an hotel, or to drive into the surrounding countryside. ‘Oh, why is there a war to spoil things!’
In February 1916 Peggy started nursing in an isolation unit for patients with ‘blue pus’, caused by bacterial infection of wounds or injuries. Possibly as a result of this work she developed double pneumonia and became a patient in the Trianon. She died within two days on Sunday, March 12, 1916.
Peggy was buried the following Wednesday in the English Cemetery at Le Tréport, now a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. Her father and sister Ruth were at the military funeral, which was also attended by Peggy’s fellow nurses, hospital sisters, and Dame Maud McCarthy GBE RRC (1859-1949), Matron-in-Chief, B.E.F (British Expeditionary Force) in France & Flanders. Dame Maud is shown, wearing the lighter coloured full-length coat, to the left of the group of four people at the centre of the first image.
A tribute to Peggy appeared in The Times of March 31, written by someone ‘who witnessed her work and the enormous help and sympathy she gave to our sick and wounded men’. Part of it said: ‘Her spirit of fun, which helps Tommy more than anything, was unfailing, however tired she was herself. Men have told me that no one could help feeling happy when Sister Arnold was there . . . To those capable of appreciating her, her unselfishness, her uncomplaining fearless nature, Peggy Arnold will ever remain a blessed memory’.
Dorothea Crewdson, a fellow VAD nurse at Le Tréport, wrote in her diary on the day that Peggy died: ‘Arnold was one of the very best, the nicest girl you could find anywhere. Straight, true and sterling and loveable’.
There is a family memorial to Peggy in Chiddingfold church, and she is remembered on war memorials at the church and on the Surrey Red Cross VAD memorial at the Farnham Road (Royal Surrey) Hospital, Guildford.
British Red Cross V.A.D Personnel records: www.redcross.org.uk/ww1
WW1 hospitals – lists all the hospitals used during WW1 at home & abroad: http://www.1914-1918.net/hospitals_uk.htm
Military Nursing – information on nursing in WW1, including V.A.Ds and Diaries: www.scarletfinders.co.uk
Dorothea Crewdson & Richard Crewdson (ed.), Dorothea’s War: The Diaries of a First World War Nurse (London, 2013)