Marriage proposal in Boulogne, 17 Mar 1918

Molly Evans had been working in the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Dunkirk from Sep 1917 and had returned to England on 28 Feb 1918 for two weeks leave to her parents in Hagley, Worcestershire. According to her diary, the two weeks after her return to France, were the most memorable experiences of her life. Molly writes extensively about the bombardment and evacuation of the hospital on the night of 23 Mar 1918, but the whole week of her return to the hospital covered the full range and intensity of experiences of being in a war.

Molly Evans’s Diary, 1918, pp. 20-21

Molly Evans’s Diary, 1918, pp. 20-21

In a special entry at the front of her diary there is a section headed “Personal – List of mind filling events succeeding my leave”

Molly had travelled to Folkestone from an overnight stay in London and took the boat to Boulogne, landing at 7 pm on 15 Mar 1918. She spent the following day in Boulogne, where there were many comings and goings – the FAU had an HQ there. She recounts how she met acquaintances from Le Treport Hospital and also the ‘Goodwin girl’ from Jersey.  She was joined by Elizabeth Hardy and in the evening they got permission to go to a concert, which she describes as a ‘Fiasco!’

The next morning, 17 Mar,  it would appear she got an unexpected phone message, saying a car was ready for her at 9.30. She and Hardy rushed over to HQ, only to find the car and Noel Reay, a neighbour from Hagley:

Was at Boulogne waiting movement order. Sudden appearance of Noel Reay, with car. Motoring all though “devastated” France. Asked me to marry him and I had to refuse. Mind very troubled. Arrived at QAH [Dunkirk]. Everyone’s greeting so surprisingly kind.

And in the main diary entry, she describes the awkward journey from Boulogne to Dunkirk as follows:

Midday beautiful run – lovely country – but Noel proposed to me – Hardy sat in front with chauffeur and we two behind – most unhappy – St Omer, Argues, Hazbrook, Cassel, Dunkirk. Lunch at Chapeau Rouge – amusing?

It is generally pretty clear from her diary, that when she recounts receiving from, and writing letters to, ‘Noel’, it is always Noel Downing and not Noel Reay, to whom she refers. The letter from Noel Downing in November 1916 would indicate that there was already an understanding then, that she would marry him as soon as the war was over.

George Henry Noel Reay was born in 1889 and for a time the Reay family had lived in Rockingham Hall (1901 census) just behind Molly’s childhood home, The Lawn in Hagley. Before the war, Noel Reay had trained as an engineer, (telephone and electrical) served in the Territorials (Worcester Regiment) and at the outbreak of hostilities was working in Singapore before rejoining his regiment and serving in France in the Royal Engineers. In 1920, Noel Reay’s younger sister Joyce married Lyon Hatton another neighbour of Hagley House. Another sister Gracie Reay is mentioned in one of her brother Wilmot’s letters.

Noel Reay was not the only admirer of Molly, however. Two days later and back on the ward, Molly writes:

Mr Newman an orderly obviously too “admiring” of me – difficult situation

But the intensity of the situation soon took over again. In a further entry for 20 Mar 1918 she writes:

Matron sent for me and said if I would volunteer, she would choose me and one sister (Surman) to go up behind the lines, where civilians were being evacuated and try to cope with an epidemic of Scarlet fever and diphtheria that was raging there and consequently a ‘menace’ to the troops and would I go and pack as I might be wanted in a few hours! more food for thought! Double risk – fear of infection and more bombardment. Had I the right to accept? Disturbing letter from Noel [Reay?] asking me what I meant by my changeableness ‘re’ going home together – no time to think. Terrible Air Raid began at 8 and lasted till midnight bombs dropping near. A woman killed just outside.

The description of this same Air Raid is picked up in a separate passage in the Diary that is transcribed in the piece about the Hospital Evacuation. With the full scale German offensive, the possibility of being volunteered to go on a dangerous mission seems to have evaporated. Two days later and with little chance for prolonged sleep under continuous bombardment, the hospital was evacuated on the night of 23 Mar.

Noel Reay is not talked of in the diary again. He appears to have spent much of his life abroad. One footnote was that his sister and brother-in-law, Joyce and Lyon Hatton are recorded as visiting the Downings in Upton on two separate occasions in 1947. We do not know if the subject of these diary entries was a confidential matter or something to reflect upon some thirty years later.