Sister E.B. Radcliffe is the only woman commemorated on Ellesmere's war memorial – but who was she? John Shone reveals all.

IT WAS on March 10, 1919 that Ethel Radcliffe passed away, four months after the guns fell silent along the Western Front, marking the end of the First World War.

She was 45 years old.

It must have been a bitter blow for her family to learn that this compassionate and dedicated nurse would not live to enjoy the peace for which she and so many others had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The war was over, but Ethel, like millions more, was a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic that raged through Europe in the latter stages of the war, killing more people than the conflict itself.

Ethel Blundell Radcliffe was born in 1873 at Barrackpore in what is now the Indian state of West Bengal. Her parents, John and Ethel Radcliffe, were from Lancashire.

After they returned to England, Ethel, who had learnt to speak French and German, trained as a nurse at The London Hospital between1905 and 1910.

A year later, she moved to South Africa, where she eventually became matron at a nursing home in the city of East London on the country’s south-eastern cape.

Following the outbreak of the First World War, she returned to the UK and signed up with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service (QAINS) in July 1915.

She was immediately posted to a military hospital at Winchester in the south of England to care for some of the thousands of badly- injured soldiers being shipped back from battlefields of France. Although she had lived in several parts of England, her home address was now recorded as The Lyth, Ellesmere, the country house which has long been the home of the Jebb family and birthplace of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children.

At the time, and for some years previously, the house had been rented out and after a year in Winchester, Sister Radcliffe returned to The Lyth sometime in 1916.

She told her superiors that she needed a break, but was also “very anxious” to serve overseas, for which she had been “thoroughly recommended.”

However, she then left the QAINS and began working as a Red Cross nurse in Ellesmere, part of a team looking after wounded soldiers recuperating at the town’s cottage hospital, which had been designated as an auxiliary military hospital. She was joined there by her younger sister, Catherine, who had joined the Red Cross as a masseuse.

Catherine moved south a year or so later to marry her fiancé, William Haigh, in Southampton.

But Ethel stayed on in Ellesmere and in April 1918, she was finally granted her wish to work abroad. She rejoined the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service and embarked for France to work at a military hospital near Calais.

The war was in its closing stages, but now the troops faced another deadly danger – influenza. The Spanish flu pandemic infected half a billion people across the world... and Ethel was one of them.

She began developing symptoms around the time that the Armistice was declared on November 11. After being sent home in early December, a medical board decided she was unfit for duty and recommended a month’s leave of absence.

In January 1919, she sailed again for France, but it appears that she was still suffering the after-effects of the virus.

As she continued her vital work, nursing the injured and the dying, she developed bronchial pneumonia. On March 10, 1919 she passed away in hospital at Calais.

A week later, her sister Catherine, as Ethel’s next-of-kin, received a brief and rather terse letter from the Director General of the Army Medical Service, which read: “Madam, It is with great regret that I have heard of the death of your sister, Miss E. B. Radcliffe, Sister, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service, who was serving in France, and beg that you will accept this expression of my sincere sympathy.”

Sister Radcliffe was buried in Calais at Les Baraques Military Cemetery, Sangatte, but, almost a century later, her name lives on in Ellesmere. Apart from being commemorated on the town’s war memorial, she is also honoured on the Five Sisters Memorial Screen in York Minister, which commemorates more than 8,000 women who died in The Great War.

She is also mentioned on the website of the Channel Island Great War Study Group, due to her sister living in Jersey for a time, though there is no evidence that Ethel, herself, visited the island.

It is a sad irony that this 45-year-old woman, who was clearly devoted to saving lives and caring for others, died so soon after peace was declared – her life cut short not by bombs and bullets, but as a result of a chest infection.