These extracts are taken from The Scottish Screen Archive to give you a flavour:
“This gem from the Scottish Screen Archive shows the work of some extraordinarily brave women. It is intriguing in many ways – as one of the earliest documentaries, perhaps the only moving image of Dr Elsie Inglis… best remembered for setting up and running the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units in the First World War. These were staffed entirely by women – from cooks and mechanics to surgeons and physicians. The British War Office had turned down her offer with the admonition: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”
“The first SWHU unit was despatched in December 1914 under the command of Liverpool surgeon Miss Frances Ivens to Royaumont, an ancient abbey north of Paris which operated under the auspices of the French Red Cross.
“Most of the filming appears to have been done at its field hospital, Villers Cotterets, closer to the front in December 1917 – hence the snow. It seems safe enough in the film….. but weeks later it was evacuated in the wake of a German advance and subjected to bombardment. The fur-coated ambulance driver, cooks and nurses serving dinner are clearly self-conscious in front of the camera.
“The Scottish Women’s Hospitals depended on an extensive network of fundraising, much coming from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) whose London units provided the x-ray van. Newnham and Girton colleges in Cambridge (Dr. Frances’ half-sister was at Girton) provided both money and volunteers as did women in the USA and around the world. The film itself may have been part of that fund-raising effort.
“The Scottish Screen Archive notes the NUWSS as the sponsor. But it could also have been an exercise by the British War Office’s propaganda division, then under the command of John Buchan, the Scottish author and later politician who would have known the subject area well.
“Elsie Inglis rarely visited Royaumont – she was far too busy establishing hospitals elsewhere, including Salonika, where the SSA record says some of the film was shot. If so, she may actually appear in the operating theatre scene and/or in the line up of staff in the final frames (the woman seated on the far right has some resemblance).
“Eileen Crofton (Her definitive work being The Women of Royaumont (Tuckwell Press, 1997). was a meticulous historian and she records a letter from hospital orderly Evelyn Proctor to her mother about the film: “We had to fake all sorts of things, including an ‘op’ – it was too funny – I had to go out in the middle to produce a ‘foreign body’ which consisted of a piece of coal.” When Miss Ivens saw the film, she said it “made her blood run cold” and the unit’s unanimous opinion when they were shown the film after the war at one of their reunions was “atrocious.”
“So what we might regard as authentic now – was viewed in an entirely different light then. It’s an instructive lesson about film as a digital history source.