Katherine Harley

Katherine Harley sits at the desk
Katherine Harley sits at the desk

Katherine Mary Harley nee French, sister of Sir John French, (leader of the British army at the outbreak of World War 1,) and Charlotte Despard, was born on May 3rd 1855, less than three months after the death of her father. Her childhood was blighted by her mother’s ill health and by the age of ten she was an orphan. Katherine was sent to boarding school and then travelled to India to stay with her sister Maggie. There she met and married George Ernest Harley, a soldier. A little over a year later still in India she gave birth to her first child Florence.[i]

They returned to England where their son Julian was born followed by a daughter Edith. Katherine was a typical army wife and mother. Ultimately the family settled in Condover, near Shrewsbury. Following her husband’s death in 1907 Katherine’s approach to life changed radically.

In parallel with her sister Charlotte, who changed direction following her husband’s death, Katherine became politically active. By 1910 she was a Poor Law Guardian and leading member of the West Midland Federation of The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Committed and active, within three years she had become President of the Shropshire Society of the NUWSS and was also involved with The Church League for Women’s Suffrage.

Katherine was the originator of the 1913 Suffragist Pilgrimage, a march from seventeen cities across the country by women to Hyde Park in London. The idea was to promote their ideals and make it clear that they were non militant and peaceful in their campaign for votes for women. The Pilgrimage was considered to be a great success and early in 1914 Katherine was one of the founders of the Active Service League intended to build on the achievements of the march. As an extension of these activities Katherine organised a women’s camp.

With the outbreak of the First World War the League’s activities changed. Within seven days of Great Britain declaring war it became a relief body, processing women who wished to assist in the war effort sending them onto organisations within which they could serve. Katherine offered her own personal message to the women of Shropshire asking them to volunteer to take over men’s jobs enabling them to go and fight “I ask this in the name of my brother, who so sorely needs of the able bodied men in the country”.[ii]

Through her work with the Active League Katherine became involved with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which formed units able to set up hospitals in the field. The driving force behind these units was Dr Elsie Inglis supported by the Active Service League and Newnham and Girton,  both women’s colleges at Cambridge University. The first unit was posted to Royanmount Abbey in France. The administrator had to return to England due to ill health and Katherine offered to take her place.

After only a few months Katherine was posted to Chanteloup near Troyes, also in France, to assist in establishing a second hospital. Initially conditions were harsh and a lot of work had to be undertaken to get the hospital ready. Most patients were accommodated in tents as part of an experiment to see if fresh air helped wounds to heal without infection.

However, their time in France was short lived, in October 1915 the unit was posted to Salonika. The unit travelled to Marseilles in the south of France by specially commissioned train before which Katherine hosted a farewell dinner; from there they sailed to Greece.

The hospital unit first established itself at Ghevgeli about fifty miles from Salonika. They were allocated a disused silk worm factory, tents were erected in the compound surrounding the factory and within two weeks the hospital was ready to receive the wounded. The winter was bitterly cold and soldiers were often admitted suffering from frostbite. When it became too dangerous the unit was forced to retreat to Salonika where they had to start again. The area they were given was knee deep in mud and wounded soldiers started to arrive before they were ready. With help of the British navy tents were soon erected and order was created.  Katherine for her dedication and services to France was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

In the Spring of 1916, following a dispute, Katherine resigned and returned to England. She was, however, determined to return and the Serbian government’s request for two more hospital units each supported by a motorised flying corps of ambulances afforded her the opportunity. This time she was accompanied by her daughter, Edith. Based near Ostrovo the unit opened in September 1916 and was the nearest Allied Hospital to the front. Katherine was in charge of six ambulances, two delivery vans, a mobile kitchen and the staff. Attached to the Serbian Expeditionary Force, billeted in tents, they transported the wounded from the dressing stations to the hospital, journeys which took anything between ten and thirty hours.  Within eight weeks of opening they had dealt with over four hundred wounded. One of Katherine’s patients was Flora Sandes, a British woman, who had enlisted in the Serbian army.

The unit operated in difficult conditions and worked tirelessly to keep their fleet of ambulances on the road. However they were criticised for their lack of discipline, smoking, drinking and short haircuts. Katherine, it was felt, did not have a firm enough grip on their activities. Following an inspection by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Katherine and her daughter agreed to resign.

In November 1916 Monastir (now Bitola) was occupied by the Allied Forces. Being a frontline town it was bombed and subject to battery fire every day. Katherine, determined to continue to do her bit, moved with Edith to the town to help the women, children and elderly. She rented a house in the town, funding the establishment of an orphanage.  On March 7th 1917 the town was subjected to a barrage of shells, Katherine, who was taking tea with Edith, was killed by shellfire. Her body was taken to Salonika accompanied by Edith who avowed her intention to return to Monastir to continue her and Katherine’s work. Katherine was buried with full military honours, her grave, considerably more splendid than the other graves, includes the inscription “On your tomb instead of flowers the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there. For your wonderful acts your name shall be known from generation to generation”.

Following her death a memorial fund was established which endowed a medal at the Royal Salop Infirmary, the Katherine M Harley Medal for Efficiency during nursing training. The Infirmary closed in 1977 and was converted into a shopping centre but the memorial to Katherine remains.

Written for Sheroes of History by Sara Paulley. Sara is lead researcher at www.uncoveryourancestors.org specialising in biographical, family and legal genealogy research putting the individual in context.

Find out more:

The Scottish Women’s Hospital website has information on Katherine and many other women involved

Jon Catt’s blog about the hospital at Chanteloup is another good source of information. See here.

The British Red Cross has a great factsheet about nurses during the First World War, which you can download here.




[i] Indexing Project (Batch) Number: C75027-2 , System Origin: India-EASy , GS Film number: 510855 , Reference ID: v 163 p 15

[ii] Huddersfield Daily Examiner September 15 1914


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