November 10, 2018 6:15 PM   Subscribe

"Nursing in World War One was exhausting, often dangerous work and the women who volunteered experienced the horror of war firsthand, some paying the ultimate price. But their story is surrounded by myth and their full contribution often goes unrecognised, writes Shirley Williams." World War One: The many battles faced by WW1's nurses

At the outbreak of World War I women signed up to be nursing sisters and voluntary aid detachment nurses (V.A.D.s) on the frontlines for many different reasons. However, after they arrived in France they would face the same ward routine, and the same horrors of war…

At the Order of St John hospital in Etaples near the frontline of the battle of the Somme nurses of all grades worked very long hours. Day duty began at 7:50am and finished at 8pm. When possible nurses were given three hours off, usually during the afternoon between 2pm and 5pm. They were also given one half day off per week if work-loads were not too heavy. Night nurses began their duty at 7:50pm and finished at 8am. All shifts began and ended with prayers and a Christian ethos underpinned all nursing and medical tasks.

What was a typical day like for First World War field nurses?

While nursing as a profession began with Florence Nightingale, known as "The Lady with the Lamp" for her efforts in the Crimean War, it wasn't until the Great War that the field of nursing expanded and evolved. Prior to World War I, most nurses (all of whom were women at that time) worked in private duty in homes, not in hospitals.

"In the Great War, the volume of casualties from trench warfare drastically changed the role of nurses on the health care team. Much of the time, the doctors were in surgery, dealing with horrific injuries to soldiers' extremities, heads and faces. The nurses performed triage as patients came in on ambulance trains, directed corpsmen who had little medical training, managed entire wards of patients and performed a variety of procedures, including irrigating wounds and managing infection.

World War l and its impact on the nursing profession

With the ongoing commemoration of the World War I centennial and in honor of May 6 -- 12 as National Nurses Week, it is only appropriate to remember the contributions of Army nurses and their lifesaving, sacrificial work during WWI. Three Army nurses -- Jane Rignel, Linnie Leckrone and Irene Robar -- were awarded the Silver Star for their roles in saving lives in France.
Three female Army nurses received Silver Star for WWI actions

The 550 or so New Zealand nurses who served overseas during the First World War enlisted for the same reasons as the soldiers – duty, patriotism and adventure. They endured many of the same dangers and discomforts. But their war was also very different from the men’s. They often faced male prejudice. Although they were supposed to be treated as officers, the nurses had to fight for recognition of their rank. They were often paid less than the men they nursed and the male orderlies with whom they worked. They had to wear uncomfortable and unsuitable Edwardian uniforms and take care of their long hair. Some lost lovers, fiancés, husbands and brothers in the fighting. Others were away when their parents died.
New Zealand Army Nursing Service

As a German plane buzzed overhead, nurse Helen Dore Boylston dropped face down in the mud. Boylston, an American nurse serving at a British Army base hospital near the Western Front in 1918, had been running between wards of wounded patients that night, trying to calm their nerves during the air raid. Now, all she could do was brace herself for the hissing bomb that hurtled toward her. She covered her eyes and ears against the deafening roar and “blood red flare.” About a half hour later, finally realizing she had not been hurt, Boylston stopped shaking.

Boylston’s vivid account of her World War I nursing experience, published in 1927, depicts her work with the first Harvard Unit, a U.S. medical team that treated more casualties than any other group of American doctors and nurses during the conflict. In May 1917, U.S. medical teams became the first American troops to arrive in the war zone, and many remained through mid-1919.

American Nurses in World War I

Vashti Bartlett sailed to France with the American Red Cross in March 1915 shortly after the outbreak of WWI. She worked in Pau at the foot of the Pyrenees as the head nurse and there she described treating the wounded soldiers so that they could return to the front: “If they are not so badly wounded we bring them back and heal them and send them forward again to the firing line that they may go through this agony once more- but such is the ….bravery of these ordinary French men.” The idea of triage had been solidified in the American Civil War but nurses had to experience the idea of conserving the strength of the Army by first treating those who could continue the fight – something counterintuitive to nursing school lessons.
Contributions of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in World War I

More than 3,000 Australian civilian nurses volunteered for active service during the First World War. While enabling direct participation in the war effort, nursing also provided opportunities for independence and travel, sometimes with the hope of being closer to loved ones serving overseas.

The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) had been formed in July 1903 as part of the Australian Army Medical Corps. During the war more than 2,000 of its members served overseas alongside Australian nurses working with other organisations, such as the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the Red Cross, or privately sponsored facilities.

Great War nurses (Australia)

Did you check out the latest Heritage Minute? Although Nursing Sisters focuses on two nurses in particular, Eleanor Thompson and Eden Pringle, it is a commemoration of the hard work and sacrifice of over 2500 Canadian women who served as nurses during the First World War. As always with Heritage Minutes though, they only have well, a minute, to tell their story. Naturally some details get lost although the way. So let’s take a closer look at Thompson, Pringle, and Canada’s WWI nurses at large.
Canada’s WWI Nursing Sisters

Rare colour photos of 'forgotten' First World War nurses released in attempt to trace identities
Short History of Military Nursing: Videos of Nursing in World War I
The History of Wartime Nurses
posted by supercrayon (8 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Helen Dore Boyston led a remarkable life. In addition to her wartime and postwar nursing career, she wrote two series of YA novels, including the Sue Barton books, which followed a woman from nursing school through marriage and (working) motherhood and, with Rose Wilder Lane, a book about their two-year stay in Albania.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 7:08 PM on November 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh my, this is fantastic! Thanks.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:15 PM on November 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

EDITH CAVELL 1865-1915:
...Edith Cavell, the World War I British nurse who is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers in Brussels from all sides without distinction. She and Belgian and French colleagues helped over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.

She was arrested, tried with 33 others by a German military court, found guilty of ‘assisting men to the enemy’ and shot by a German firing squad on October 12 1915.

"Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."
Edith Louisa Cavell, October 11th 1915
Her Life & Legacy, Some Soldiers’ Stories, and controversy.

One of many 'nurses without borders' in wartime, thank God.
posted by cenoxo at 9:58 PM on November 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

When politicians utter the word war, don't think of planes, tanks, ships and missiles. Think of human suffering.
posted by notreally at 4:10 AM on November 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Excellent post. There's a passage from Testament of Youth, the account by Vera Brittain (Shirley Williams' mother) of her WWI experiences, which always gives me chills:
"When patriotism ‘wore threadbare,’ when suspicion and doubt began to creep in, the more ardent and frequent was the periodic re-dedication, the more deliberate the self-induced conviction that our efforts were disinterested and our cause was just. Undoubtedly this state of mind was what anti-war propagandists call it—“hysterical exaltation,’ ‘quasi-mystical, idealistic hysteria,’—but it had concrete results in stupendous patience, in superhuman endurance, in the constant re-affirmation of incredible courage. To refuse to acknowledge this is to underrate the power of those white angels which fight so naively on the side of destruction."

This always seems to me a remarkable way to sum up the contradictory ideas of "WWI was a meaningless war and a horrible waste of human life" and "Many of the people who suffered and died in WWI were genuinely, inarguably heroic."
posted by huimangm at 4:16 AM on November 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

From The Medical Front WW1:
German Red Cross — Volunteer Nursing and Welfare Work Under The Red Cross

This article on the German Red Cross Organisation was taken from the book "Lessons from the Enemy - How Germany Cares for her War Disabled", by John R. McDill, Major, Medical Reserve Corps, U.S.Army, 1918, Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia and New York. [full book]

The material in the book was based on a visit to Germany, before America entered the war in June 1916, by an American Physicians' Expeditions Committee of New York. This was organized to send independent hospital units to the Central Powers.

Dr McDill, who temporarily resigned his Army Commission in order to comply with American Neutrality Provisions, was appointed as Director of a unit, financed by a German and Austro-Hungarian Society of Chicago, and travelled to Germany in order to study and inspect the medico-military and volunteer coordination and administration in the care of the German sick and wounded. This was for the purpose of publication in the United States. The following article describes the working of the German Red Cross Society.
When the enemy is war itself, all sides can be allies.
posted by cenoxo at 6:41 AM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Excellent post, thank you.
posted by Quietgal at 9:48 AM on November 11, 2018

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