Intimate and Rare Diary of Brave WWI Nurse To Be Auctioned

The heart-rending and enthralling diary of a volunteer nurse named Katy Beaufoy, who showed great valor, tenderness, and resolve during her duties in World War I, will be going to auction in September and will create worldwide curiosity.

The accounts of Katy Beaufoy during the Great War are regarded by many to be among the most scintillating of their kind, describing such sights all the way from gruesome wounds to the beauty and splendor of Egypt.

Commenting on the find, Charles Hanson, manager of Hansons Auctioneers said, “The archive is so important for what it tells us about the life of World War One Matron and Nurse Miss Katy Beaufoy, whose bravery and final demise is captured in the collection.”

Katy Beaufoy was born in 1868 near Birmingham; she began her nurse training in October 1893 at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. She became a sister in charge of the operating theater by 1896. She then volunteered as a nurse in the Boer War in the late 1890s.

The daughter of Queen Victoria – being impressed with the actions of Florence Nightingale – formed Princess Christians’ Army Nursing Service Reserve (ANSR). The ANSR was created to give military status to nurses, which placed them under the direction of the war office. Beaufoy joined the ANSR and was given badge number 689; the badge itself will also be included in the sale.

Following the Boer War, she worked in private practice in Italy and was decorated for her services by Queen Margherita of Italy. Then she was accepted into Queen Alexandria’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and volunteered once again to set out and face the perils of the Great War. Her enthralling story is her recollection of her service as a sister and matron in the First World War.

She witnessed horrendous injuries during this time. “I had a ward of about 50 beds, such bad, bad wounds, frightful head ones, legs and feet blown off…”

It was not all bad though – Beaufoy’s diary tells of how she has some opportunities to escape the war – going to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx and Giza. The original photograph of this expedition is included in the collection.

Adrian Stevenson, Hansons Militaria expert, commented on the content of the diary. “It is fascinating to read how Katy was able to maintain her interest in the beauty of her surroundings despite her exposure to the shocking condition of the casualties she was obliged to tend. She regularly comments on the architecture, the attire of the various people she encounters, and her love of plants and flowers are very apparent. This makes for an unusual and telling juxtaposition with her description of the suffering of the soldiers and so gives an insight into the thoughts of this remarkable woman.”

On May 26, 1917, Beaufoy narrowly escaped death when the hospital ship she was traveling on, Dover Castle, was attacked and sunk. Beaufoy had been forced to leave the ship and return home for a while due to her health, and she escaped with her life, unlike many of her peers.

Her luck would not last, however.  On returning to work as Matron on HMHS Glenart Castle in September 1917, she tragically lost her life after the German Submarine U56 torpedoed the ship, even though it was marked as a hospital ship. The sinking of the ship was considered a war crime, but Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Kiesewetter of the U56 escaped prosecution and returned to Germany. A memorial was erected in February 2002, close to where the Glenart Castle sunk, to commemorate those who had died. Beaufoy’s family was the main driving force behind the fundraising efforts.

During the First World War, there were only 300 British nurse casualties; it is rare to see anything that had belonged to women come onto market.

Charles Hanson said of the collection, “This outstanding group has been really moving to handle. I feel privileged and excited to offer this group for auction. We are anticipating worldwide interest in this very special lot and I expect bidding to be brisk.”

Not only her diary but her medals – which include her South Africa medal, British War and Victory medal, and 1914-15 Star – her Death Plaque and Dedication Scroll, and personal photographs have been preserved. The archive is estimated to be worth £4,000 to £6,000.

Katy Beaufoy’s story is one of service, humanity, and perseverance.  Mrs. Sue Wood, from Warwickshire, a great niece of Katy Beaufoy, said, “It’s time to let another collector or museum enjoy the archive which my family has kept safe for many years.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE