ON March 21, 1918, the Luftstreitkrafte – the First World War forerunner of the Luftwaffe – bombed the railway station in the northern French town of Lillers, which is about 30 miles south of Ypres in the area known as “the Somme”, after the river which runs through it.

The Luftstreitkrafte got lucky. Their bombs struck a train loaded with ammunition. It exploded, showering the town with fiery, deadly lumps of shrapnel.

Next to the railway station was a British casualty clearing station. It accepted injured soldiers direct from the frontline. The nurses patched up those who could be patched up; those who couldn’t, were sent to general hospitals for treatment or to be sent home.

The sister-in-charge when the explosion struck was Kate Maxey, a 41-year-old nurse from Spennymoor in County Durham. She was hit by shrapnel in the head, neck, arm, thigh and leg. She received a spinal injury that restricted her movement, and her eardrum was perforated.

But still she carried on nursing, first of all going to the aid of a fellow sister who was mortally wounded. Even as her own pain grew worse, she carried on. Her commanding officer wrote in his official report: “When lying wounded, she still directed nurses, orderlies and stretcher bearers and refused aid until others were seen to first.”

For Maxey – she seems to have been known by her surname throughout the war – it was the end of her four years of active service which had all been spent on the frontline. Her injuries were so severe that she was shipped back to Spennymoor, to recuperate at her sister’s house.

It had been in Spennymoor that she had been born in 1876 in 30, Clyde Terrace, which still stands. Her father was a shopkeeper on the High Street – he ran an emporium, calling himself a “wholesale jeweller, cutler and general hardware merchant, importer of French and German toys, china, Bohemian Glass etc, and wholesale draper”. Her relatives, the Deftys, have the store today.

When she was 15, Kate and her sister Amelia moved to Leeds, where her aunt lived with her physician husband. Amelia used the opportunities of the big city to train as a milliner; Kate followed in the footsteps of her uncle, and in 1903, qualified as a nurse at Leeds General Infirmary.

She was called up at the outbreak of war in September 1914, and by October 9, she was in the thick of the action, being stationed at No 8 General Hospital in Rouen, before being moved to a casualty clearing station near Ypres.

She spent most of 1915 there before being moved to No 1 General Hospital at Etretat, near Le Havre, on the French coast. Here she received the wreckage of the men – like the Durham Pals – caught up in the Battle of the Somme.

She was promoted to sister, and in November 1916, Sir Douglas Haig praised her in despatches “for gallant and distinguished service in the field”.

Maxey stayed on the Somme throughout 1917 and into 1918 until the bombing of the ammunition train in Lillers forced her return to Spennymoor.

In the King’s Birthday Honours of June 4, 1918, her heroism under fire was recognised as she was awarded the Military Medal and the Royal Red Cross Medal, the monarch’s citation saying that she “showed an example of pluck and endurance which was inspiring to all”.

To add to her honours, while she was recuperating, the Spennymoor Ambulance Brigade and Nursing Division presented her with “a silver set of salts and spoons”.

By August, she was fit enough to return to service, and although she wanted to get back to the Somme, she was ordered to Leeds infirmary.

Maxey was demobbed in June 1919 and with a colleague set up a nursing home in Halifax. A year later, she became one of the recipients of the Florence Nightingale Medal, awarded by the International RED Cross.

In 1931, she retired from the nursing home, and spent her days living in London and on the south coast, although she died in 1969 in Bishop Auckland.

Somme 1916: From Durham to the Western Front at Palace Green Library runs each day from 10am to 5pm until October 2. Call 0191-334-2932 for tickets or more information

With many thanks to John Banham, of Spennymoor Local History Society, for his help.