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.
but carefully anonymised account of what appears to be the same
1 Claire Tylee, The GreatWar and Women’s Consciousness: Images of Militarism
and Womanhood in Women’s Writings, 1914–64 (Houndmills and London:
Macmillan, 1990): 7.
The GreatWar remembered
The First World War was known in its own time as the GreatWar;
its protagonists believed that it would be ‘the war to end all wars’.1
The earliest attempts to recapture it – either as memoir or as history – struggled to put into words a reality that was so complex that
it defied expression. Later generations created their own collective
cultural understandings but most of these were based on the male,
combatant experience. It was not until the 1980s that the perspectives
of women gained public attention; even then, the
1854–1914, rev. edn (Newbury: Threshold Press, 2000).
2 Anon., Twenty Months a VAD (Sheffield: J. Northen, n.d.), 96/317: 13, Red
Cross Archive Library, London.
3 The majority of VADs served on the ‘Home Front’. On VADs, see: Sue Light,
‘British Military Nurses and the GreatWar: A Guide to the Services’, The
Western Front Association Forum (7 February 2010): 4, available at www.
westernfrontassociation.com (accessed 30 October 2012).
4 Christine E. Hallett, ‘ “Emotional Nursing”: Involvement, Engagement, and
Detachment in the Writings
the writings of women who served as nurses during the GreatWar.
The grand ideas that fed those writings, and the exemplars on which
they were modelled, suffused the culture of the British and Allied
nations in the decades prior to 1914 and provided the fuel that drove
whole nations to participate in one of the most destructive conflicts
of modern times. They were the ideas of empire, and, for women, they
found an outlet in nursing.16
Some nurses’ narratives are full of danger and adventure. Some
involve freedom of movement on a scale previously unknown for
, no-one understood that what
they were eventually to term the ‘GreatWar’ had no precedents. As
historian Paul Fussell points out, terms such as ‘the race to the sea’
had ‘the advantage of a familiar sportsmanlike Explorer Club overtone, suggesting that what was happening was not too far distant from
playing games, running races, and competing in a thoroughly decent
way’.19 This ‘sportsmanlike’ tone also pervades Luard’s early writings.
Women’s historian Claire Tylee has commented on the susceptibility
of British women to war propaganda.20 It is difficult to see
is more important than the most charming patient (except, of course, a
Yet, Angela Smith has identified a contradiction at the heart of
Bagnold’s text. Like many women’s writings of the GreatWar, A Diary
without Dates identifies the strange role reversal that permits female
nurses to hold power over their male soldier-patients, and in which
there is a ‘constant dehumanization and infantilisation’ of wounded
combatants.63 Bagnold both dissociates herself from this power and
expresses a fascination with it.
Bagnold retains her
’Serclaes, Flanders and Other Fields: 62–3.
10 T’Serclaes, Flanders and Other Fields: 66–7.
11 T’Serclaes, Flanders and Other Fields: 69.
12 Arthur Gleason and Helen Hayes Gleason, Golden Lads: A Thrilling
Account of How the Invading War Machine Crushed Belgium (New York: A.
L. Burt, 1916).
13 T’Serclaes, Flanders and Other Fields: 78–9.
14 Baroness de T’Serclaes, MS diary; 9029-2, Imperial War Museum, London.
15 T’Serclaes, Flanders and Other Fields: 63–4.
16 Claire Tylee: The GreatWar and Women’s Consciousness: Images of Militarism
and Womanhood in
her death, she accepted the
award of ‘Lady Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem’. On her
gravestone at Chart Sutton are carved the words:
In the GreatWar, by Word and Deed, at Home and Abroad.
She served her Country even unto Death.64
Conclusion: heroines on Western and Eastern Fronts
Some of the earliest published accounts of wartime hospital work
were written by wealthy women belonging to Britain’s social elite.
Very few were trained nurses, but all were fascinated by what they
saw as the power of nursing to act as a vehicle through which
women might make
work was a
transformative process, which, if approached with a genuine desire to
alleviate suffering, could have a profoundly positive effect not only on
the patient, but on the nurse herself.
1 Paul Fussell, The GreatWar and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000 ): 135–44. See also: Benedict Anderson,
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
(London: Verso, 1991).
2 Michelle Smith, ‘Adventurous Girls of the British Empire: The Pre-War Novels
of Bessie Marchant’, The Lion and the Unicorn, 33.1 (2009