Spearette Reviewed

by T. Bulckley

 

This delightful book is mainly a vivid account of the personal experiences of the author (née Howell-Evans) from 1942-5 as a driver-cum-nurse in the Hadfield-Spears Hospital, an integral part of the 1st Free French Division. But it also contains interesting comments on human relations within a busy mobile divisional Hospital of mixed nationalities, and on their reception after landing in France, which varied from wild joy and generosity to indifference or outright suspicion.

It is no book on strategy or military tactics, but much on the tactics of survival in the desert and later in the snow, and especially the subterfuges needed for cutting through the 'red tape' that exists in all armies.

The hospital, founded by Lady Spears, was the third hospital that she funded and presented to the French Army. It consisted of French officers, British nurses and driver/VADs, quakers (mostly conscientious objectors), and colonial other ranks from Chad and Senegal. 'Spearette' was the French nickname for the Hadfield-Spears girls. It is an exciting story as the hospital follows the Division from Alamein to Tunisia and into Italy. In July 44 they were pulled out for the South of France Invasion (ANVIL) for which the author became an 'honorary commando' and landed on the wrong beach - luckily as it turned out - in a real 'fog of war' situation.

When on the move their ancient vehicles were always breaking down and the girls had to rely on a shrewd mixture of guile and charm to 'acquire' spare parts, and enormous improvisation. The hospitals admittance figures give an idea of their intense activity during pitched battles. The book is full of humour and makes entertaining reading.

 

 

by Richard Gott

As the Second World War fades from popular memory, a clutch of fresh stories has begun to emerge, written by those who were fully involved on the stage but had what were sometimes perceived as 'bit' parts. 'Subaltern studies' have already become a familiar part of the revisionist histories of the Indian empire, and now the surviving participants of the great army of camp followers during the Second World War - drivers and cooks and nurses - are being prevailed upon to tell their own stories. No force, ancient or modern, could have hoped to survive without them for more than twenty-four hours.

Rachel Howell-Evans was one of these essential also-rans and her reminiscences, peppered with extracts from her diaries of the time, turn out to be a sparkling tale of what might be described as the 'up-side' of war, the opportunity that many people had to have their entire familiar world turned inside out, emerging at the other end wholly changed - indubitably for the better. 'When the second world war was declared,' she writes, 'I was on holiday from my job as head matron at a boys' preparatory school in Northamptonshire.' Three years later she was in Cairo, working for the Hadfield-Spears Hospital, a story in itself. By the wars end, the lovely Rachel had driven up the whole of Italy and landed on a beach in the south of France, as an honorary commando, and encountered the presumably equally enchanting Colonel René Millet of the Free French forces, who eventually became her husband.

The 'Spearettes' of her title were the girls who worked for Lady Spears, the extraordinary American wife of Louis Spears, then the British representative with the Free French in Lebanon and Syria. We often forget that, although wars tend to be run by great state machines, a huge amount of private enterprise activity has also to be mobilised. Lady Spears had funded and run her own hospital during the First World War and, although she had lost her personal fortune during the Wall Street crash, she was determined to run another hospital in the Second. Securing some money from Lady Hadfield, who lived in a villa in the south of France, she established her Hospital, first in Lorraine and then in Syria.

Lady Spears has already told her own story of life running a hospital in the desert in Journey Down a Blind Alley(under her maiden name Mary Borden), but Rachel Millet's tales come from a different perspective, often from behind the wheel. She worked as a nurse, but she was also a driver, steering through traffic while Lady Spears sat in the back reading detective stories.

The private enterprise hospital lived a charmed life, yet the dramas were manifold. Lady Spears and the staff liked to have British nurses, but the authorities thought otherwise, endlessly dumping unsuitable French women upon them. General de Gaulle maintained a personal vendetta against General Spears which often seemed to extend to the hospital and its directrice. When 'l'Ambulance Spears' turned up at the victory parade in Paris, and was applauded by a crowd of wounded men, de Gaulle ordered the entire unit to be closed down, and the British personnel to be repatriated immediately. It was a strange form of gratitude for a freelance operation of inestimable value to the Free French.

Liberated France was a strange country, ambivalent about liberation. Rachel Millet does not mince her words. At one stage the hospital was billeted on the Chateau de Gramont, run by 'the least co-operative and most inhospitable of all the people we came in contact with in France.' She notes that 'sadly, many of the French aristocracy behaved badly during the occupation,' and seem to have offered no thanks for liberation. At lunch with a princess in Cannes, she finds that the other guests gave 'the impression of not caring who won the war as long as they were able to continue their lives of pleasure and gaming.'

Britain too was a foreign country to someone who had just spent three years close to the front line. When she finally gets a month's leave in England, in November 1944, and has a couple of day's hunting, she finds her parents preoccupied with other things: 'I did not fit into life with my parents at all - they were more interested in when the sweep was coming, or that I had eaten their ration of butter, than in hearing about my adventures.' Let us hope that Rachel Millet's grandchildren appreciate those adventures rather more.

 

 

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