The First World War was the first ‘total war’. Its industrial weaponry damaged millions of men, and drove whole armies underground into dangerously unhealthy trenches. Many were killed. Others suffered from massive, life-threatening injuries; wound infections such as gas gangrene and tetanus; exposure to extremes of temperature; emotional trauma; and systemic disease. Tens of thousands of women volunteered to serve as nurses to alleviate their suffering. Some were fully-trained professionals; others had minimal preparation, and served as volunteer-nurses. Their motivations were a combination of compassion, patriotism, professional pride and a desire for engagement in the ‘great enterprise’ of war. The war led to an outpouring of war-memoirs, produced mostly by soldier-writers whose works came to be seen as a ‘literary canon’ of war-writing. But nurses had offered immediate and long-term care, life-saving expertise, and comfort to the war’s wounded, and their experiences had given them a perspective on industrial warfare which was unique. Until recently, their contributions, both to the saving of lives and to our understanding of warfare have remained largely hidden from view. ‘Nurse Writers of the Great War’ examines these nurses’ memoirs and explores the insights they offer into the nature of nursing and the impact of warfare. The book combines close biographical research with textual analysis, in order to offer an understanding of both nurses’ wartime experiences and the ways in which their lives and backgrounds contributed to the style and content of their writing.
First World War memoirs were a powerful and influential genre of life writings, but most were written by combatants. This book contributes to the, as yet, limited literature on the writings of nurses. This body of texts offers a unique perspective on the consequences of industrial warfare: the wounds, sickness and emotional trauma caused by the First World War. They were heavily influenced by their authors’ social and professional backgrounds. As autobiographical texts, or ‘life writings’, they provide insight into both the nature of warfare; women’s lives; and the nature of nursing in the early twentieth century.
Some wealthy early-twentieth-century British ladies contributed to the war-effort by providing fully-funded, equipped hospital units. Although rejected by the official military medical services of their own nation, these were accepted by nations with less well-developed medical services, notably Belgium and Serbia. Significant wealthy volunteer-nurses included Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, Mabel St Clair Stobart and Sarah Macnaughtan.
American millionaire, Mary Borden, established three field hospitals in the French lines during the First World War. The first of these, L’Hopital Chirurgical Mobile No. 1, was both an effective military hospital and a cauldron of literary creativity. Although Borden’s contribution is well-documented, that of her head nurse, Agnes Warner, is less well-known. Warner’s book, My Beloved Poilus, was well-received in her home-province, New Brunswick, Canada, but has, until now, received very little attention from historians.
One of the nursing sisters who served at L’Hopital Chirurgical Mobile No. 1, Ellen La Motte, was a prestigious yet radical American nurse, who had trained at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Her memoir, The Backwash of War has been celebrated as an example of literary modernism. Alongside her work stands that of Maud Mortimer, who wrote a carefully-encoded memoir of L’Hopital Chirurgical Mobile No. 1, which incorporates an oblique critique of La Motte’s perspective.
Professional British nurse, Kate Luard, and highly-trained US nurse, Alice Fitzgerald, both served with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service during the First World War. Both wrote powerful memoirs of their experiences. Their very different perspectives combine to offer an overview of the British military nursing services on the Western Front, which captures both a sense of their dedication to military nursing and the nature of the trauma they witnessed – and experienced themselves.
Women such as Julia Stimson and Helen Dore Boylston were motivated by both a desire for travel and adventure and a wish to prove themselves as professional women. They met the challenge of wartime nursing service, and the sometimes-chauvinistic responses of medical men to their presence in the ‘zone of the armies’, with a combination of diplomacy and indifference.
Some nurses chose to work independently. Trained British nurse, Elsie Knocker, established, with her untrained associate, Mairi Chisholm, an aid post in the village of Pervyse behind the Belgian front-line trenches. Her memoir, Flanders and Other Fields, documents her innovative treatment for wound-shock as well as her experiences close to the front lines of war. Violetta Thurstan, a highly-trained professional British nurse, served with the Order of St John of Jerusalem in Belgium, with the Russian Red Cross in a flying column on the Polish Front, and then, again, on the Western Front. Her writings include one of the few technical manuals of wartime nursing practice to be published during the war.