Nurses Faced Great Odds to Help Soldiers in WWI

When people speak of the great bravery seen during WWI, they often simply mean that of the soldiers; many forget the important hand that nurses played in providing quality, undying care for the fighters in the war. Florence Nightingale may be covered in high school history courses, but ask many full-fledged adults who she is and they might greet the question with a blank stare. The truth is, she was just one of many WWI nurses who were willing to risk their lives for a greater cause.

This may be in part due to photographs of the time, which depict WWI nurses in unsoiled white gowns with pleasant smiles on their faces. This is not fully accurate, however, as these women, young and old, lost as many friends and loved ones as any man on the frontlines of battle. It is important to keep in mind that many of them were unpaid and untrained, yet still willing to put themselves close to the action to provide soldiers with the car they needed.

No one, including soldiers and civilians, expected the war to drag on for as long as it did. Many faced the conflict with a sense of pride and patriotism, only to find that their ideals were not enough to sustain the belief that the suffering of war was soon to pass. Their assurance that WWI would be brief and easily won was not necessarily foolish, but did not do much for them either. The soldiers were lucky these nurses showed up at all, for many women were told to simply await the re-arrival of their loved ones on native soil.

Of course, not all nurses were untrained. Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service went from a few hundred to a few thousand, having trained that many women in just a few years. Some were wealthy, some were poor; no one could tell the difference as they bloodied their uniforms to aid the wounded and dying soldiers of WWI.

While the work was unforgiving, these women carried on. Even women of status, such as the Duchess of Sutherland, found a place for themselves. From management positions to mopping floors, every nurse had her own duty. Prior to their WWI service, many of them had never dealt with bullet wounds or gangrene, and yet they still had to do their best to ease the soldiers’ pain, the BBC News reports.

The WWI nurses were, in a sense, rewarded, as it was after the war that women started to gain better jobs as well as the right to vote; however, this reward was not the same as receiving true honors for their service. Even today, nearly one hundred years later, WWI nurses are still not truly remembered for the full depth of their contributions. One can only hope that this is due to the emphasis on soldiers and not a diminution of women’s contributions.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE