Over 2 million soldiers fighting for Britain were wounded during World War One. Of those 2 million, roughly half died. A large percentage of Britain’s injured would have been nursed by women – many of whom had little or no experience of nursing prior to 1914 – often using rudimentary treatments under gruelling conditions.
Doctors and those on the front line could be critical of the efforts of volunteer caregivers, but despite this, nurses had a huge impact on the war effort and saved countless lives.
Here are 7 facts about nursing during World War One.
1. Britain had just 300 trained military nurses at the start of the war
In the early 20th century, military nursing was a relatively new development: founded in 1902, the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) had just under 300 trained nurses on its books when war broke out in 1914.
As the casualties piled up thick and fast on the Western Front, it became painfully clear that this was completely inadequate. Nurses left at home found themselves frustrated that they could do little to help. War on this scale had not been seen before, and the military had to respond accordingly: by 1918, QAIMNS had over 10,000 trained nurses on its books.
2. Hospitals relied heavily on volunteer nurses
A large number of British nurses were part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Many of them had previously been midwives or nurses in civilian settings, but that was little preparation for military hospitals or the kinds of trauma and wounds suffered by many of the soldiers on the Western Front. Some had no experience beyond life as a domestic servant.
Unsurprisingly, many struggled to deal with the exhausting, relentless work. Many young women had never seen a man’s naked body before, and the horrific injuries and harsh realities of nursing during war meant they took time to adjust to the conditions in front of them. Many VADs were effectively used as domestic labour to clean floors, change and wash linen and empty bedpans rather than anything more technical or physical.
3. Professional nurses often had strained relations with volunteers
In an age where women’s professional qualifications were rarely recognised or deemed equal to those of men, professional nurses who had trained in their profession were somewhat wary of the arrival of volunteer nurses. They were afraid that their positions and reputations might be jeopardised by the influx of new volunteer nurses with little training or expertise.
4. Many aristocratic women championed nursing
During World War One, dozens of England’s country houses and stately homes were transformed into military training grounds or hospitals for recuperating soldiers returning from the front line. As a result, many aristocratic women developed an interest in nursing, finding themselves feeling somewhat responsible for those recuperating in their homes.
In Russia, the efforts of the Tsarina and her daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Maria, who signed up to work as Red Cross nurses, significantly boosted public morale and the profile of nurses across Europe.
5. Nurses were often romanticised in the media
With their starched white Red Cross uniforms, nurses were often romanticised in the media during World War One: their presence was portrayed to echo that of graceful, caring women from legends who looked after heroes returning from war.
The reality could not have been further from the truth. They were discouraged from forming personal attachments to any of the soldiers, and the sheer quantity of casualties arriving at hospitals meant they had little time for chit-chat. Many were away from home for the first time in their lives and found the regimented atmosphere of military hospitals, the gruelling work and the horrific injuries hard to deal with.
6. Nurses became a lot more involved in clinical practice
Time was of the essence when it came to the treatment of many wounds, and nurses had to become much more involved in clinical practice than they had been in civilian hospitals. They quickly adapted to removing filthy, muddy uniforms, washing patients, hydrating them and feeding them.
They also had to learn and adapt to new antiseptic irrigation treatments, which required technical skill. Many wounds also needed shrapnel and debris carefully removed from them. Some nurses also found themselves carrying out minor surgical procedures when the number of injured soldiers arriving at hospitals was too much for surgeons to deal with fully.
7. It could be dangerous work
As the war progressed, casualty and clearing stations moved closer and closer to the front line in order to afford soldiers the best possible medical attention. Several nurses died directly from shellfire or on ships in the Mediterranean and British Channel that were torpedoed by German U-boats, whilst others succumbed to disease.
The Spanish Influenza pandemic that hit Europe in 1918-1919 also saw many nurses struck down with illness: their work on the front lines and in hospitals made them particularly vulnerable to the virulent strain of flu.