Crimson Roses: A poignant and personal look at the horrors of World War I

Crimson Roses

Crimson Roses

PRIVATE letters written between a volunteer nurse and her best friend in World War I provide a personal perspective on a conflict which left some 17 million people dead and a further 20 million wounded.

Beatrice Keir’s letters, along with private photographs and poignant drawings and autographs by men wounded in the four-year conflict, have been compiled into the book Crimson Roses: Beatrice Fraser’s First World War Letters and Memorabilia by her grand-daughter, Fiona Polak, who lives in Howick.
Born Beatrice Fraser, in Scotland, she was one of thousands of young women who volunteered to nurse wounded servicemen as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in the field hospitals of France.

Fiona Polak

Fiona Polak

Speaking about her grandmother, Polak, said: “VADs were young women who simply wanted to help but they changed history because for the first time women put themselves in danger on the frontline.”

In her book, a copy of which has been accepted into London’s Imperial War Museum’s library collection, Polak starts off by introducing Beatrice’s life, briefly, which was revealed when she opened up her grandfather, William Keir’s trunk and discovered a treasure trove of letters and memorabilia.

She sets the scene by taking the reader back to the world of the VAD and the horror that was World War I, in Europe, and France, specifically, where Beatrice was stationed, and from where she wrote her letters.

Crimson Roses also shares the thoughts of other VADs, journalists and historians, writing from experience of the war, and during later decades.

But the crown jewels in these pages are Beatrice’s original letters, plus a full transcript of each, which she sent to Jeanie Manson, who lived in Prestwick. Manson gave the letters to the family when Beatrice visited her in Scotland in the 1950s.

Asked why she decided to write Crimson Roses, Polak, who worked as a librarian at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Special Collections and African Literary Studies in Pietermaritzburg, said her primary reason was to safeguard the documents for future generations.

“The photos were crumbling so I took them to the university’s audio visual department who helped me to unravel them and then with the help of CPW Printers I digitised the images and letters,” she said. “In 2013 I decided to put them into a book which was primarily for my children, but later, with the focus on the centenary of the outbreak of the war in 2014, I decided that I should share the letters and pictures with as many people as possible.

“I am very keen on history and I wanted to encourage geneologists and other people interested in history to preserve their family stories.

“When I was writing the book I couldn’t help wishing that my grandmother was still alive so that I could speak to her. I was 12 when I died. I think that’s why I want to emphasise that it is important to get your family history down on paper before it is too late.

“As a child I had no idea of the Great War history that my grandmother had hidden inside her… But I think her letters reveal a lot about her character and her bravery. This book is really a tribute to her and a way that I can preserve her documents for the future.”

One of the challenges Polak faced in compiling Crimson Roses was the censored information in Beatrice’s letters.

“I consulted the Matron in Chief’s war diary for nurses in World War I to fill in the blanks. It is important to be historically accurate but the dates were missing from the letters, so I used the Matron’s diary to try and piece everything together,” she said.

Her efforts make for a fascinating read. Crimson Roses details life on the wards and incidents like Beatrice’s narrow escape when a bomb landed on the 58th Scottish General Hospital she was working at in St Omer in October 1917.

“There were three marquees in the field hospital and the German bomb hit the middle one,” says Polak. “In the letters she wrote about her shock at what had happened. It’s hard to believe that the Germans bombed the hospital when their own men were inside being treated.”

Beatrice and her husband were engaged throughout the war and afterwards a friend of William Keir told him he should visit South Africa. “He went to Durban, fell in love with the place and sent for Beatrice,” said Polak.

The couple settled in the city and years later, in World War II, Beatrice again showed her compassion for others when she opened her home to troops passing through Durban.

“She would invite them in for meals and later received many letters of thanks from their parents who were grateful that she had helped their children,” said Polak.
Keir’s efforts were also recognised by the War Organisation of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem, whose patrons were, respectively, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Her commendation reads: “In recognition of devoted service to the cause of humanity in the Second World War.”

Asked who she felt should read the book, Polak, who has completed her masters in information studies and is busy with her PhD, said: “It is a must-read for all who commemorate the War, historians, genealogists, and readers who love to read actual, first-person accounts, from a healing voice, of one of history’s darkest moments …”

    Crimson Roses: Beatrice Fraser’s First World War Letters and Memorabilia by Fiona Polak is available as an e-book at Smashwords at the following link:
    The first 15 percent of the book can be read for free. It costs $7.99 to download.
    The author has plans to do a second edition of a print version the book.
    Crimson Roses can be accessed through The Imperial War Museum in library collection. Go to
    Copies of Crimson Roses have also been donated to the Pretoria Library and Ditsong (South Africa) National Museum of Military History which allowed her to use an image from Dellville Wood in her book.
    Keep in touch with Fiona Polak through the Crimson Roses Facebook page:

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