Network member and musician Martin Purdy has commemorated the death of a First World War nurse in song. On the one hundredth anniversary of Nellie Spindler’s death, Martin has written a brief introduction to the commemorative project for us. Please do check out the song, and hopefully plenty of our members will be able to catch a performance from Harp and a Monkey soon!
On this day 100 years ago (August 21, 1917), Nellie Spindler, a nurse from Wakefield in Yorkshire, was resting in her tent after a hard night-shift at the No.32 British Casualty Clearing Station in Brandhoek, Belgium, when a German shell fragment pierced the canvass, hit her and killed her.
The sacrifice of Nellie Spindler, and nurses in the First World War in general, has been the focus of a recent project involving the folk experimentalists and storytelling trio Harp and a Monkey – and they have released a video today (which you can view by clicking the link below) to mark the anniversary of Nellie’s death.
Martin Purdy, the band’s frontman and a First World War historian, said: “Recent events to mark the centenary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres, or ‘Passchendaele’, have focused on the soldiers, but it would seem fitting today to spare a thought for the nursing staff, many of whom – like Nellie Spindler – were never too far from danger.”
‘Clean White Sheets’ (The Nellie Spindler Song) was inspired by the work of secondary school children from Nellie’s home town, who worked with Professor Christine Hallett from Manchester University to remember the sacrifices of their local heroine, who was only in her mid-twenties when she died.
Martin added: “The idea of Clean White Sheets is based around the memoirs of the wounded, who would often judge how close they were to home – and safety – by how clean the sheets were. It just seemed like a very simple but evocative and powerful image.”
As well as performing their standard shows, Harp and a Monkey have spent the past two years highlighting different aspects of the First World War, and challenging stereotypes about it, by performing in unusual venues related to the conflict on home shores. This has seen the Lancashire trio perform to the inmates of a prison that once housed conscientious objectors; disabled veterans on a community purpose-built for the maimed in 1919; at the scene of a Zeppelin attack in the middle of the West Pennine Moors; at the former parish church of the most decorated WW1 clergyman; inside the pithead of a mine that was crucial to the war effort; in front of the railway van that brought home the body of the Unknown Warrior; and on the site of a former WW1 aerodrome.
In coming weeks they will perform two more free shows open to the general public:
The first show will be on Sunday, September 10 inside a First World War military hut in a farm field in Suffolk. More than 800,000 volunteers needed housing around the country after the outbreak of the war in 1914, and providing the huts to do so became the biggest building project of its kind ever undertaken. After the conflict, many of the huts went on to have useful lives and some are still found in communities around the country today under the guise of scout huts, churches, church halls and the like. A project is now underway (courtesy of the Khaki Devil organisation) to restore and preserve a number of these huts and build a museum around them, and it is this collection that will provide the backdrop to the Harp and a Monkey show at Brook Farm, Bells Lane, Hawstead, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP29 5NW. The show starts at 2pm, is free and suitable for all ages.
The second show will be on Saturday, September 30 at the Heritage Centre in Crossgates Library, Leeds. This is the community that housed the Barnbow munitions factory during the First World War in which there was a huge explosion in December 1916 that killed 35 of the female workers and injured many more. Sadly, many of the dead could only be identified by discs with their names on that they wore around their necks. Because of the censorship at the time, the explosion was kept secret and production started again soon afterwards in the affected workroom. It would be six years after the end of the war before the story was made public. The memorial to the dead is near to the heritage centre on Farm Road, which also hosts an exhibition about the event. The show starts at 1pm, is free and once again suitable for all ages.
The performances include field recordings and interviews with veterans, new songs and re-workings of traditional and contemporaneous songs. The shows are tied to the band’s critically acclaimed third album ‘War Stories’, which was described by the likes of The Observer as “bold and brilliant”.
Martin Purdy is a former newspaper editor, battlefield tour guide and First World War advisor to the likes of the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine – for whom he wrote a book in 2008 (reprinted in 2013) on how to research First World War service people. He is the co-author of two popular First World War books (The Gallipoli Oak and Doing Our Bit) and has written numerous articles and academic papers on the subject. He gained his BA and MA (researching Roman Catholic chaplains in the First World War) at UCLAN and is awaiting his viva voce for a doctorate completed as a collaborative doctoral award (on war disability and philanthropy) between Lancaster University and the Westfield War Memorial Village. He has fronted the modern folk trio Harp and a Monkey for 10 years.