Features

First world war: ‘The first big test of professional nursing’

As the world remembers the horror and sacrifice of the Battle of Passchendaele, a new book by nursing historian Christine Hallett brings into focus the extraordinary achievements of the nurses who risked their lives to care for the casualties.
Nurses with the walking wounded

As the world remembers the horror and sacrifice of the Battle of Passchendaele, a new book by nursing historian Christine Hallett brings into focus the extraordinary achievements of the nurses who risked their lives to care for the casualties

When Helen Fairchild, a young nurse in Pennsylvania, volunteered to take her skills to Europe in the first world war, she was glad to go but felt sorry for her mother. If she would only not worry so much, she wrote to her brother Ned.

As it turned out, Helens mothers worries were justified. While working in a casualty clearing station close to enemy lines, Helen became a victim of the new horror of shells containing mustard gas. The gas may have exacerbated an existing gastric condition,

...

As the world remembers the horror and sacrifice of the Battle of Passchendaele, a new book by nursing historian Christine Hallett brings into focus the extraordinary achievements of the nurses who risked their lives to care for the casualties

nellie
Nellie Spindler was killed, aged 26, by enemy shelling.
Reproduced by permission
of the Lijssenthoek Cemetery Visitor Centre 

When Helen Fairchild, a young nurse in Pennsylvania, volunteered to take her skills to Europe in the first world war, she was glad to go but felt sorry for her mother. ‘If she would only not worry so much’, she wrote to her brother Ned.

As it turned out, Helen’s mother’s worries were justified. While working in a casualty clearing station close to enemy lines, Helen became a victim of the new horror of shells containing mustard gas. The gas may have exacerbated an existing gastric condition, but in any case, the highly trained and highly regarded nurse died in January 1918.

Courage, compassion

Then there is the story of Nellie Spindler. The daughter of a police sergeant in Wakefield, she enlisted with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve when war began, and was accepted for overseas service in 1917. She sailed from Ramsgate on 23 May, and was quickly transferred to No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station at Brandhoek in Belgium. On 21 August she was killed, aged 26, by enemy shelling during an overnight raid.

Both women were among the small battalion of trained nurses who played a crucial role in the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged from 31 July to 10 November, 100 years ago.

Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, this was a campaign fought on the Western Front in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed and wounded. What is less well-known is that it was also the scene of extraordinary achievements by nurses, who risked their own lives and health to care for the casualties.

ward
A ward at a British wartime hospital at Etretat in France.
From the collection of Kate Maxey,
reproduced by kind permission of the Defty and Varley families

The stories of these nurses affected nursing history professor Christine Hallett so much that she became determined to make them more widely known. Her book Nurses of Passchendaele draws on memoirs, letters home, official documents and the testimony of relatives to shed new light on those who displayed such courage in horrific circumstances.

Professor Hallett, who is based at Manchester University, had already written three books about nursing in the first world war so had some idea of what she would find. She was, however, impressed by the evidence she uncovered about the remarkable role played by the nurses of Passchendaele – and the expansion of their role to meet the demands of war.

Lessons for today

‘The first world war really broadened the scope of practice for nurses,’ she says. ‘They were doing a lot of surgical work as well as fundamental care. Of course, the role shrank back again after the war, but it still has lessons for nurses today.

‘For me, it illustrates the broad scope of our work and what we can do. The stories of these individual nurses show the immense repertoire of skills they had, but also show that they were able to bring real warmth to the care of patients. To the nurses, the patients were human beings, and they were providing personalised care as well as using great technical expertise.’

It was important to her to emphasise the human element of the nurses’ stories, she says, adding modestly that her previous publications were ‘the sorts of books that are really only bought by libraries and extreme enthusiasts’.

‘They were doing a lot of surgical work as well as fundamental care. The role shrank back again after the war, but it still has lessons for nurses today’

Christine Hallett

‘I got to the point where I really wanted to get my work out to a wider and more general audience. I decided to do that using narrative – telling the stories of many different nurses, and bringing them together into an overall narrative.’

The close proximity of nurses to the battle lines was a controversial issue at the time, she points out, both among medics and the military command. The casualty clearing stations were instituted because the quicker injured soldiers received care the more likely they were to survive, and the rates of survival were improved if trained nurses were there.

wounded
A nursing sister with a group of ‘walking wounded’ patients. 
From the collection of Kate Maxey,
reproduced by kind permission of the Defty and Varley families

‘There were doctors saying they couldn’t do it if they didn’t have trained theatre nurses,’ she says. ‘But there was a long-held patriarchal feeling that the whole war was about protecting women and children. If you had women at the front line, if you put them at risk, it disrupted that war narrative.’

Brilliant supervision

The role of nursing in the first world war has been recognised to an extent through the work of Vera Brittain, whose book Testament of Youth describes her experiences as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse (VAD), and her journey to pacifism.

But Professor Hallett says this is only part of the story. ‘It had a sense of women suffering and a sense of women with strong opinions. But it wasn’t about trained nurses and it wasn’t about nurses in the front line. VADs could not have achieved what they did if it hadn’t been for the trained nurses and their brilliant supervision.’

The nursing profession itself was young at the time of the first world war, she adds, with some in the military still uneasy about nurses' role in war. Even after the heroic efforts of Florence Nightingale in Crimea, there was a lingering taint equating nurses who followed battle with prostitutes.

‘It was the first big test of professional nursing, and there was an apparently harsh military discipline,’ she says. ‘Nurses were not allowed to “consort” with orderlies or patients – any hint of impropriety and the nurse was dismissed instantly. But they did have sing-songs and social events.’

‘History has been a male-dominated discipline. It was only in the 1980s and 90s that women’s history started to come out of the shadows’

Christine Hallett

Although Professor Hallett is disappointed that the role of nurses in the first world war has not had a great deal of attention in the mainstream media, or in the many ceremonies and events marking the centenary of Passchendaele, she is not entirely surprised. ‘There’s a huge story to be told about soldiers, and millions of men died,’ she says.

‘You get the mainstream stories first – and history has been a male-dominated discipline. It was only in the 1980s and 90s that women’s history started to come out of the shadows.’

Professor Hallett has been delighted by the emails and letters she has received from readers since publication of her book in June, and she has also learned more about the nurses who featured in it, often from their nieces, nephews or grandchildren.

These correspondents tend to be older, however, which underlines the fact that people who have had direct contact with those who lived through the first world war are, to be blunt, dying out. ‘That’s why it’s really important to write it down now,’ says Professor Hallett.

Stories remembered

‘I’ve heard a lot from people in their eighties and even nineties, telling me about their relatives who were nurses. It’s public history – historians and members of the public working together to co-create the story.’

bookThe stories they have to tell underline the vital role nurses such as Nellie Spindler and Helen Fairchild played, both in helping to cement the position of the new profession of nursing, and in individual family histories.

‘I had an email from a man who said his grandfather’s life had been saved by a nurse they knew as Captain Gordon – she was a Canadian nurse and they were given military rank. He had been named Gordon, after the nurse,’ says Professor Hallett. ‘Nurses played a hugely important role and deserve to have their stories remembered, and they deserve to have their stories told.’

Nurses of Passchendaele: Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns 1914-18, by Christine E Hallett, Pen & Sword Books, £12.99. Read an extract here

Honouring nurses who died in war

Christine Hallett is a supporter of the Nursing Memorial Appeal, which is raising money to create and maintain a permanent memorial to the nurses who died in the first and second world wars.

The aim is to commemorate the approximately 1,700 nurses who gave their lives in the conflicts with a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum. The money raised will also provide funding to support the study of conflict and humanitarian aid in nursing.

Learn more or donate to the appeal.


Jennifer Trueland is a freelance health writer

Want to read more?

Subscribe for unlimited access

Enjoy 1 month's access for £1 and get:

  • Full access to nursing standard.com and the Nursing Standard app
  • Monthly digital edition
  • RCNi Portfolio and interactive CPD quizzes
  • RCNi Learning with 200+ evidence-based modules
  • 10 articles a month from any other RCNi journal

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this?

Jobs