Young and inexperienced volunteer nurses, such as Shirley Millard discovered the complexities of war-nursing during their service in France. Millard wrote an honest account of her feelings of inadequacy and disillusionment. In a similar vein, Rebecca West ghost-wrote the memoir of a young American volunteer nurse known only by the pseudonym, Corinne Andrews. These memoirs both reveal the powerful desire of some women to participate in their country’s war-effort, and the realities of war-service for untrained and inexperienced volunteer-nurses.
The so-called ‘VAD’ – the British volunteer nurse – received much public attention both during and after the First World War. VADs’ writings were powerful because they were produced by well-educated and articulate young women who were moved by the power of their experience in the military hospitals of the First World War. Their memoirs provide witness-statements to the realities of war-injury and to the significance of nursing work in alleviating the trauma of war. They do also, however, offer a harsh critique of the discipline of military nursing
Some of the writings of soldier-memoirists have been likened to epic romances, because they describe the way in which the so-called ‘hero’ faces ordeal and achieves ‘apotheosis’, or personal transformation. Some nurses’ writings adopt a similar style. The romance trope was particularly powerful for writers on the Eastern Front. The memoirs of Florence Farmborough and Mary Britnieva reveal their authors’ attachment to the idea that nurses were transformed by the ‘ordeal’ of their experience.
Nurses’ First World War memoirs offer significant insights into the suffering endured by the war’s wounded and document the power of professional nursing in alleviating such suffering. They reveal both the tensions inherent in the relationship between professional and volunteer nurses and the ways in which these were often overcome to permit a close and supportive partnership. The social and professional backgrounds of nurses and volunteers had a significant impact on the ways in which they wrote about their wartime nursing experiences. Professionals were more likely to write about their patients than themselves; while volunteers offered sometimes harsh critiques of professional discipline while, at the same time, revealing their fascination with the power of nursing practice. Nurses wrote about their travels and adventures as well as about their nursing work, and some of their texts can be seen to have a ‘heretical’ quality: a few offer powerful exposes of the horror and futility of war.