Many will be familiar with the Great War biographical memoire of Vera Brittain—Testament of Youth—in which she recounts her experiences as a VAD in England, Malta and France. The image of the doughty VAD from a well-to-do family, doing her bit—Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey—is how most people see the nurses of the Great War. This caricature was certainly my view for a long time, although I was aware of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and the Royal Navy’s equivalent, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.
No-one has done more to enlighten me about the reality of nursing in the Great War than Sue Light, a nurse who has spent many years studying her profession, in particular military nursing in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Her work is extensive, thorough, detailed and fascinating.
The first of her three on-line information depositories is Scarlet Finders, which provides a wealth of information on British military nurses. Particularly interesting is the transcribed war diary of the Matron-in-Chief, British Expeditionary Force, France And Flanders.
A second website—The Fairest Force – Great War Nurses in France and Flanders—provides information ‘on all administrative and organisational aspects of the British military nursing services in France and Flanders during the Great War’, including areas such as pay, contracts, mobilisation and demobilisation, marriage, off-duty time, sickness and discipline.
Finally, her blog—This Intrepid Band—gives us her take on some of the issues and provides fascinating vignettes of some of the nurses of the Great War and the life they led.
For anyone seeking information about nursing in the Great War I cannot recommend her work highly enough.
The only area missing from her research is the Ulster Volunteer Force Medical and Nursing Corps, which provided trained nurses and the equivalent of VADs for UVF and other hospitals in Ulster during the Great War. This is a most difficult area to research due to the paucity of records, although a significant number of photographs and newspaper articles give some idea of the organisation and women of that unofficial but well-regarded Corps.
Sue Light for the photographs of wartime nurses.