Heroic First World War nurse Edith Munro will finally be commemorated for her bravery during a special stone-setting service next week, writes Caron Kemp
A Jewish volunteer nurse, who died on active service during the First World War, will finally be commemorated for her heroism during a special stone-setting service next week.
Edith Hilda Munro was the daughter of Scots engineer John Munro and Leah Nathan, originally from Bow in East London and a member of South Hackney Synagogue. Along with her siblings Harold, Douglas and Gwen, she spent her formative years in Meynall Crescent, Hackney, and from there began her nursing career at the Albert Dock Seaman’s Hospital in Silvertown.
Edith was part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nursing group, which was founded in 1909 in cooperation with the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance and comprised volunteer nurses who worked in war zones in the Imperial and Commonwealth Forces.
Hailing mostly from middle and upper-class families, the 38,000 VAD nurses made themselves indispensable in front-line hospital duties and earned a reputation for courage and calmness under fire. Famous members included actress Hattie Jacques, Amelia Earhart, Vera Brittain and author Agatha Christie.
Many, though, died in the well-documented flu epidemic of 1918 while nursing sick soldiers, or contracted fatal illnesses from their frequently infected wounds. Edith was one of these, succumbing to acute bronchopneumonia, which led to heart failure. She died on 12 December 1916, aged just 23.
Yet Edith was buried privately at Plashet Jewish Cemetery in East Ham and it is only through the dedicated hard work of a team of researchers from the Association of Jewish Ex-Service Men and Women (AJEX) that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has recognised Edith as a war casualty and her gravestone has been re-consecrated as a consequence.
AJEX Jewish Military Museum Archivist and author Martin Sugarman is delighted with the outcome. “For a long time, I have been concerned with graves that either do not honour those killed in service or do not recognise people as Jewish. “Over the past 15 years, I have been working alongside the CWGC and the Jewish Genealogical Society to make right these wrongs and, in that time, around 150 graves have been corrected.
“Yet the case of Edith Munro is particularly poignant because it is very rare to come across a female casualty of the First World War. In fact, this is only the second un-commemorated woman’s grave we have come across, which made me even more motivated to ensure she was honoured properly.”
So finally, on 8 March, coinciding with International Women’s Day, a host of dignitaries, interested parties and surviving family members will come together to honour Edith’s memory, in a service conducted by Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, Senior Jewish Chaplain to HM Armed Forces. It will be the first time this type of ceremony has taken place in a Jewish cemetery in Europe, owing to the small number of Jewish VAD nurses.
“Ensuring that Jewish war casualties are properly remembered is vitally important,” says Sugarman. “It raises the level of our sacrifice and means that our collective history is more accurate.
“Occasionally we stumble across cases where the family does not want changes to be made to headstones, but usually it is a great moment of pride for us to see the months of hard work pay off and these people get the recognition they deserve. It is never too late.”
Similarly, military researcher Stan Kaye, who first came across Edith’s story in 2014 when researching military nurses, and who has organised the 8 March ceremony, is buoyed by Edith’s story.
“Through our research, we have not only uncovered her war sacrifices, but we have managed to connect with family members who knew nothing about her Jewish roots.
“Being able to put pieces of the puzzle together for future generations and for our shared Jewish history books is ultimately why we do this.
“It’s been two years of hard work by a large number of people and, in that time, Edith has become a part of me. It now feels fitting that in the hundredth year of her death, we are able to put on this fitting tribute.
“I am both delighted and excited to be able to honour this Jewish heroine who paid the ultimate price to help others in need at a pivotal moment in time.”
• The ceremony will take place at Plashet Jewish Cemetery at 11am on Tuesday 8 March.
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