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.
densities of rhetorical, literary, ethical, political,
and cultural dimensions’.39 In some ways they appear to argue that
the value of autobiography – certainly its ‘truth value’ – goes beyond
that of other historical sources. However, they also identify numerous
threats to historical accuracy in lifewriting. Memoirists often present
their accounts as histories witnessed from particular perspectives, but
their writings go way beyond the mere describing of a remembered
past; they also perform ‘rhetorical acts’.40 In their war memoirs, nurses
are giving voice to their own
’s Tale: Bearing
Witness to a Modern War (London: Penguin, 1998).
3 Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have observed that life-writing is, in itself, a
‘performative act’: Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography:
A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2010): 61. See also their Chapter 3: 63–102.
4 See, for example: Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
(New York: Longmans, Green, 1901 ); Henry Rider Haggard, She
(London: Harper and Bros, 1886). G. A. Henty wrote over 100 adventure stories, with
the excitement of journeys
‘into the unknown’ – none more so than Helen Dore Boylston, a
young nurse with the Harvard Unit, who spent the last two years of
the war on the Western Front and the remainder of her lifewriting
about the adventure of nursing.
Boylston was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1895,
when the United States of America was at the height of its pioneering
American nurses in Europe
powers. Looking both eastwards to the sophistication and style of
fin-de-siècle Europe and westwards towards a half-tamed wilderness,
, ‘(Author)ity abroad:
The lifewriting of colonial nurses’, International Journal of Nursing Studies
48 (2011): 1162.
143 Summers, Angels and Citizens, 150.
144 Lucy Bland, ‘White women and men of colour: Miscegenation fears in
Britain after the Great War,’ Gender and History 17, 1 (April 2005): 29–61.
Bland argues that if sexual relations between white men and black women
were ‘unacceptable’, those between black men and white women were
‘totally reprehensible’. Bland, ‘White women and men of colour’, 31.
145 Kara Dixon Vuic, ‘Wartime nursing
stretched to non-human actants. Self-help books, audio equipment and exercise apparatus were just as important to projects of balanced selfhoods as life-writing and records were to the emergence of new forms of self-formation in medicine and the military.
Balancing the self in the twentieth century, therefore, did not mean exercising autonomy alone.
Structure and themes
Each chapter in this volume examines a novel instance of the ways in which selves became the objects of