A painting of a WW1 nurse in the centre, haloed by light. Around her are words associated with the article in black and white.

Looking beyond Brittain and Nightingale

Differences among the Female Nurses of the First World War

Most people in Britain have heard of Florence Nightingale: she has come to represent the popular image of nurses caring for soldiers. Even in the First World War, half a century removed from the Crimean field hospitals that Nightingale volunteered in, the image of a British nurse remains that of a well born and educated woman sacrificing years of her life in patriotic service. In a parallel to the way Kitchener’s volunteer soldiers came to represent an idealized man, the upper-class nurse has come to stand for femininity and sacrifice. However, the reality of nursing in the First World War was more complex than that. Popular impressions of military nurses homogenize a group of women whose identities, experiences, and treatment were shaped by class and nationality.

The first distinction between women serving as nurses was whether they were acting as a volunteer or as part of an official military medical unit. Volunteers for VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) were not under military control or authority. Other women worked for professional military units such as the British QARANC (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps) or the CAMC (Canadian Army Medical Corps) and came under military command, were subordinated to male doctors and officers, and in many cases had their freedom curtailed and policed by military authorities disdainful of women. This was not just a distinction between voluntarism and paid work, but represented significant differences in class and privilege between the two branches.

Popular impressions of military nurses homogenize a group of women whose identities, experiences, and treatment were shaped by class and nationality.

Even within the ranks of white British women working as nurses, divisions existed. Professional nurses were usually more capable and faced greater danger and military scrutiny from the beginning of the war, and yet were judged and looked down on by relatively privileged VAD nurses treading in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale. In part the enduring dominance of VAD nurses in popular culture probably stems from their writing. The historian Christine Hellet has written that VAD nurses generally wrote more about their experiences and spoke of them as a part of their patriotic duty. In many ways Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is the quintessential portrayal of nursing in the great war, and it is written from the perspective of her service as a VAD nurse. By contrast, the more prosaic writing of professional nurses was written by and for a less privileged segment of society, and usually in the form of private letters rather than published works. This difference in content, intent, and scope has likely played a part in the cultural dominance of VAD nurses in memories of Great War nursing.

The myriad experiences of women all who served as nurses for British forces go beyond those of women were themselves British. Facing a shortage of qualified nurses at home, the British government reached out to the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These women faced cultural dislocation and alienation during a time of stress, danger, and new challenges. Rather than being welcomed for their sacrifice and their decision to volunteer to help the metropole, many of these nurses faced discrimination for their origin as ‘colonials’. They faced doubts about their professional competence rooted in the idea that British training would be superior to what was available in overseas colonies, and continued reminders that they were perceived as different. Dominion nurses who answered Britain’s call faced informal discrimination. However, many women from the Dominions volunteered to serve their own nations, presenting a different set of circumstances.

New Zealand nurses in Wisques, France in World War One, 1918.
“Nurses at the New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France, 1918” by Archives New Zealand is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As early as 1904, thanks to a combination of Canada’s experience in the Second Boer War and lobbying by Georgina Pope, sister of the Under Secretary of State, Canadian nurses were commissioned as officers. While still subordinate to male doctors, they were able to command medical orderlies under them, and received equal pay and privileges to male officers of their rank. Resented by other women, Canadian nurses were referred to as ‘millionaire colonials,’ due to the gap between the pay they received as lieutenants or captains and that received by British nurses. Moreover, Canadian nurses were able to claim priority on requisitioning transport and vacation time due to their rank, and so in many cases were able to assert slightly more independence than those of other nations.

Rather than being welcomed for their sacrifice and their decision to volunteer to help the metropole, many of these nurses faced discrimination for their origin as ‘colonials’.

On top of differences of class, differences of nationality had significant impacts on nurses, whether those were the bestowal of comparative privileges of rank and pay for Canadian professional nurses, or experiences of discrimination and perceived incapability levied at women from British dominions volunteering for the metropole. However, despite differences of class and nationality, British Empire nurses still had common experiences as women in a hierarchical and patriarchal military setting. Though professional nurses were more directly subject to military discipline than VADs, both were faced with skepticism and restrictions from the male military establishment. While the writings of female nurses show that most felt that part of their duty was to face the hardships and traumas of front line medical care with courage or stoicism, the military establishment commonly viewed women as fragile, attributing deaths or illness to emotional exhaustion or the harsh conditions of the front, even when those deaths resulted from cancer or other terminal illnesses present before a woman’s arrival near the front. Interestingly, this gendered view of perceived feminine vulnerability did lead to greater accommodation for PTSD from the military establishment. To many male medical professionals at the time, ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle exhaustion’ revealed a failure of masculinity and stoicism on the part of male soldiers. However, with sexist norms of female frailty or susceptibility to hysteria at the time, women suffering from PTSD or other forms of emotional trauma were more likely to be believed and accommodated than men.

This article has focused on the impacts of class, nationality, and country of origin on white nurses from the British Empire. While other areas of identity such as race or sexual orientation lead to immense differences in the experiences and treatment of women in the First World War, this article has focused on silent differences among women perceived to have similar experiences due to popular culture. Even among white women working as nurses for the militaries of the British Empire, myriad factors lead to different experiences, dangers and privileges. While nurses shared many common experiences as women, class, nationality, and country of service created tensions between female nurses, and led to differing experiences. Overall, it is important to recognize that there was not just one single kind of nurse in the Great War, and that the dominance of women like Florence Nightingale or Vera Brittain in popular culture obscures the important and experience of women from less privileged backgrounds.

This article was first featured in the Michaelmas edition of OHR – read it here.