What the first world war means to me. A serving nursing officer writes...

When asked what the first world war meant to me, my initial response was: ‘In what capacity? As a woman, soldier, nursing officer, member of the public or as a nurse?’ In all of these areas, the inspirational efforts of all involved in that war has shaped who I am today in all aspects of my life, especially my role as a nurse, former soldier and now serving officer.

There are many moral, humanistic and scientific lessons that can be learned and applied to modern nursing whether that be in the military or civilian arena. The women nursing in the first world war had very little experience, facing unprecedented injuries and a staggeringly increasing amount of casualties armed with nothing more than resilience, loyalty and a sense of duty.

When facing adversity they did not turn on each other and whine and whinge over a coffee or bottle of wine. They united and worked together with one common goal of providing the best possible care for their patients; whatever the patients’ social, cultural or racial background may have been.

They formed comradeship with each other, cried together, laughed together and supported each other through the difficult times. Most humbling, they returned home and carried on their lives as normal without pomp and ceremony believing they had done nothing extraordinary but do their job.

For every Edith Cavell there were a number of other nurses taking incredible risks often losing their own life in protecting and nursing the wounded. They were not armed, chose to stay behind with those too wounded to be evacuated, and had to improvise with the little equipment provided.

They produced investigative papers detailing research undertaken and presented them to parliament to improve patient care. Despite the unsanitary conditions they lived in, they always made sure they were immaculate and not because of vanity – they did it to provide confidence and security to those they nursed.

They did not need a nursing council, a code of conduct, or the threat of litigation to provide holistic, dignified care without prejudice to the wounded. They did it because of their own moral values and standards and because, although difficult, it was the right thing to do.

Today I am armed with not just a weapon, but also the medical and military equipment needed to provide care. I am given pre operational tour training and placed in a civilian trauma centre to nurse civilian and military patients to gain experience for when I am sent to combat.

Despite all these practicalities and preparation it is the moral values and standards set by my nursing ancestors of the past that have inspired my nursing practice. In times of adversity I remind myself, and those around me, of the heroines of our past and take inspiration and strength from their resilience and depth of character.

If I do not pass on their legacy, ensure their memories and sacrifices live on, and most importantly adopt their core values in my daily practice, then what was it all for? That is what the first world war means to me, a lifelong commitment to ensure those sacrifices were not in vain.

About the author

Lesley MM Rankin is a lieutentant in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps