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.
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.
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.
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.
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.