Nurses in the First World War

by Myfanwy Cook

Angels in FlandersVera Britain’s 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth, and the Great War diaries of nurses such as Dorothea Crewdson, Dame Maud McCarthy, Enid Bagnold (author of National Velvet) and Sister Edith Appleton1 are a few examples of the well-known accounts written by nurses who treated and cared for the wounded soldiers, many “just dying by inches.”2 Thankfully, nurses from Canada, Britain, America, and New Zealand were all prolific diary keepers, and as a consequence, the true futility and horror of the war was captured forever as a reminder of the inhumanity and destruction war can cause. However, they also recorded the romances that blossomed and have provided many historical novelists with a source of inspiration.

In October 1914, when Katharine Furse took two VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) to France, they were restricted to helping in the canteen, but under fire their skills were called on, and they found themselves working as nurses in military hospitals. The provision of nurses from Britain was hierarchical and complex because, at the outbreak of the War, there were so many different groups: Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, the Territorial Force Nursing Service, the Civil Hospital Reserve, Special Military Practitioners and VADs (which also included men), just to mention a few. By the end of the War, 90,000 women had served in some capacity as VADs, and their role has been highlighted in TV series such as Downton Abbey and The Crimson Field (2014). They were often middle and upper middle class, some were aristocratic and all had to be aged over twenty-three.

In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), written a mere decade after the war, the character of Catherine Berkley foreshadows the nurses of many of the historical novels that followed. Their characters and fate may not have been the same, but what they personified was: they were seen not only as healers caring for wounded bodies and minds, but they also represented the love of families, friends and lovers that the soldiers had left behind. Thomas Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars centres on two Eastern Australian nurses, Sally and Naomi Durance, who initially serve on the Archimedes, which is torpedoed, but also in Cairo, Gallipoli, and on the Western Front. Based on the diaries of Australian nurses, the story charts the transformation of the sisters: in the beginning naïve Sally does not even know what “shrapnel” is, but by the end her experiences have matured her, leading her to remark, “There are only two choices, you know. Either die, or live well. We live on behalf of the thousands who don’t. Millions. So let’s not mope about it, eh?”

Other novels featuring nurses have shown the hope that they provided to the wounded. These include Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Anita Shreve’s Stella Bain, and Marcus Sedgwick’s Alexandra in The Foreshadowing. These characters all create an authentic atmosphere, while Elusive Dawn by Gabriele Wills portrays the Canadian nurses’ perspective.

Fatal Decision by Terri Arthur, which tells the story of Nurse Edith Cavell who was shot by a German firing squad for helping her patients to escape, and Jean-Pierre Isbouts’s Angels of Flanders, based on the true story of four courageous women who set up an “illegal” dressing station, illustrate the determination of these nurses to “do their bit.” In a similar spirit, Hemingway wrote: “War is not won by victory,” but by people’s sacrifice. This is a quality encapsulated in the spirit of “real” nurses, women such as Mary Keziah Roberts, who kept working even as the hospital ship on which she served, the Rohilla, sank. Violet Jessop was on board HMHS Britannic when it suffered a similar fate.3These women and others like them leave behind legacies of courage, determination and skill, which have been enshrined in a growing list of historical novels.

1. A Nurse at the Front – the Great War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton (Simon and Schuster)
2. Dorothea Crewdson, Dorothea’s War: The Diary of a First World War Nurse (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
3. Both had formerly been stewardesses on the Titanic.

About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is a member of the HNR editorial team. She is currently involved a new community heritage project aimed at highlighting history and heritage,


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 69, August 2014

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