Tag Archives: New Generation Thinkers

The girls behind the men behind the guns

In this post, New Generation Thinker Dr Sam Goodman (Bournemouth University) reflects on the role female nurses played in WW1, and on how the reality is embellished in historical dramas such as Downton Abbey.

In this time of renewed focus on the First World War, both in a commemorative and also a cultural sense, we are confronted regularly with the experience and imagery of suffering. Arguably, TV and film productions that dramatize the war have a responsibility to depict its various horrors, from the squalor of the dugouts through to the trauma of violent injury in battle, and very few shy away from doing so. Of equal importance as these male perspectives on war in the trenches though is the female experience of conflict. In many ways, the roles played by women in the First World War offer more varied accounts than their male counterparts, as they include the stories of those women in Britain either employed in industry or waiting for return of a loved one, or those overseas working in a range of capacities in support of the military. Of all of these roles, one of the most recurrent is that of the nurse. The nurse and her experiences are a staple of popular fiction, and have proved evident in recent televisual productions such as The Crimson Field and Downton Abbey, as well as the film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth.

Lady Sybil Crawley as a nurse in Downton Abbey
Lady Sybil Crawley as a nurse in Downton Abbey

The representation of nursing in these productions typically follows a similar narrative pattern – a young and headstrong woman desires greatly to contribute to the war effort often in defiance of her parents’ wishes, her class status, or some other obstacle. She overcomes initial resistance and gets her wish but her ideals and illusions are shattered by the brutal reality of modern warfare, leaving her emotionally scarred but ultimately changed for the better as a result of her experiences. This is certainly the case with a character like Sybil Crawley from Downton Abbey, whose growing consciousness of the difference between her parents’ values and her own manifests itself successively in daring fashion choices, romance with the family chauffeur, and then a decision to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1916. Sybil’s actions cause all manner of narrative tension but her compassion and dedication to helping others ultimately convinces her parents that nursing is a respectable occupation befitting her social standing. Sybil’s experience appears to deliberately echo Vera Brittain’s journey in Testament of Youth, though does not, as in Brittain’s case, result in a life-long support for pacifism.

Whilst Downton is entirely fictitious and some liberties are taken with the events in Brittain’s memoir in the adaptation, the image of the ‘daring’ or ‘rebellious’ nurse that these texts project is not one created with dramatic licence. The history of nursing had always owed a great deal to the efforts of driven and determined women. At the beginning of the First World War, a professional, organised nursing service was still a relatively recent development within the world of the armed forces, and had only just begun to gain the respectability it would later acquire. A generation earlier and a professional, trained nursing service was a novelty, and a near practical unknown. Until the late nineteenth-century, nursing was mainly the work of religious orders or organisations, or relied on the voluntary actions of individuals; in the Crimean War of 1853-56, women such as Mary Seacole and, of course, Florence Nightingale would be celebrated for their charitable actions, conducted without any organisational support, and little interest from the military command they were aiding. Subsequently to the Crimea, nurses such as Nightingale and Ethel Gordon Fenwick would be instrumental in developing rigorous and professionalised training programmes and a national register for nurses within the United Kingdom. These schools later became affiliated with hospitals and, as a result of the efforts of Fenwick and others, as well as influential royal support, nursing grew into the organised body on which the modern service is based. With the founding of the Army Nursing Service (ANS) in 1881, the Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in 1902, the British Army’s First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in 1907, and the VAD in 1909 nursing became more widely known and respected, and these services would provide crucial medical care when war came in 1914.


VAD_posterOf course the romanticised ideal of the Edwardian woman escaping the strictures of the household for a life of emancipation and liberation in the service of nursing owes a good deal to the recruitment drives mounted throughout the war. The image of the nurse created by the war was one of selflessness and sacrifice, determined to provide care no matter what the personal risks may be, a perception fuelled by the public feeling over the execution of Edith Cavell for espionage in 1915. Of course far more Edwardian women were already in work before the outbreak of war than most people assume, and the virtuous image of wartime nursing was ruthlessly satirised in Blackadder Goes Forth (1986) in which Miranda Richardson’s Nurse Mary Fletcher-Brown smokes, drinks and dryly declares that ‘it’s good to have someone healthy to talk to for a change’. However, for some women, service in VAD, QAIMNS, or FANY did nonetheless equip them with skills and experience, and instil confidence that they otherwise would not have had opportunity to acquire. Any fictional focus on these experiences, even if they do bend the truth a little for dramatic effect, plays an important part in remedying the notion that the First World War took place only in the trenches.

Shaving in the Trenches: Washing and grooming in the Great War

This guest blog post was written by Dr Alun Withey, a 2014 New Generation Thinker and academic historian of medicine and the body. It was originally published on his blog.

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, we are constantly reminded of the horror of trench warfare. A raft of new books, articles, websites and programmes will be devoted to charting the conflict. All of the big questions will be revisited, from the motives for going to war to the fitness of those in charge to lead their men. Much attention has already been paid to the lives of ordinary ‘Tommies’ in the trenches and the recent publication of diaries, such as that of Harry Drinkwater vividly bring to life the experience of living in the shadow of battle.

In the discussions of action, however, the day-to-day experience of living in the trenches, the ordinary routines of life, are sometimes overlooked. How did men keep themselves clean, for example? In the muddy quagmire of battle trenches, did the usual routines of washing and grooming still apply? I thought it might be interesting to look at one aspect of this – shaving –to see what the sources might reveal.

Until 1916, it was a statutory requirement for all members of the British Army to wear a moustache. Uniform regulation command number 1695 stipulated “the hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under-lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…”. It is not clear how far this order was rigidly enforced but until General Sir Nevill Macready, who apparently hated moustaches, repealed the order in October 1916 British soldiers were moustachioed! Nonetheless, shaving was still required; to appear stubbly was still effectively a breach of regulation. What, then, did soldiers in the field actually do?

military-moustaches

Firstly it is clear that many soldiers, at least initially, carried razors as part of their kit. Some also took tins of shaving cream and lathering brushes – officers, especially, had toilette kits to help them keep up appearances.

As the war drew on, however, it seems that razors became harder to come by. In the wet, muddy conditions metal objects, like razors, quickly became rusty. Over time, and with use, they blunted and resharpening them only possible with a stone or strop. By 1915 they were starting to become scarce. In October 1915, as winter approached, many regiments were starting to run out of basic necessities. Funds, such as the Christmas Comforts Fund in Manchester, called for people to donate everything from envelopes and pencils, to chocolate and razors. The 2nd Battalion South Lancashire regiment asked specifically for mirrors, shaving soap and razor strops amongst their ‘wish list’.

The 2nd Battalion Cheshire regiment asked for the same in a long list that included everything from chocolate, coffee and cakes to musical instruments. Such items were small comfort in cold winter months, which the Manchester Guardian described: “The wet mud, the ice-cold water beyond their knees in the communication trenches, the wind that lashed them like sharp whips, the ooze and slime in the dugouts, the waterspouts through the roofs of broken barns…Must our men” the paper argued “suffer all that again?” Indeed they must.

zonnebeke_trenches

In the dirty environment of the trenches, without access to running water, basins, towels and even privacy, how did men even manage to shave? In some regiments, rules were relaxed in times of action meaning that stubble was permitted, although soldiers were expected to take the first opportunity to attend to their beards in calmer conditions. In the field, though, even obtaining clean water to shave was no easy matter. Complete washing was an irregular occurrence. According to one account, a single tub of water served for the whole company. Instead, soldiers might get a cursory wash of face and hands at best. In such circumstances ingenuity was required. Some soldiers took to using cold tea as shaving water – better than drawing water from a muddy puddle although even this likely sufficed in an emergency

a-french-soldier-shaving-a-british-soldier-in-an-old-trench-at-boesinghe-19-august-1917

Whilst such a mundane, prosaic activity such as shaving might not seem important in the broader discussions about the First World War, it is also something that brings us closer to the lived experiences of trench warfare and the daily lives of ordinary men. Requests for razors and strops, along with other basic items, remind us of the comfort that even these basics could bring. Even in the heat of battle, men tried to maintain some semblance of normality, no doubt finding comfort in routine. I would argue that these small glimpses, such as Thomas Mcindoe’s account, are vitally important in any study of the Great War.

One of the best narratives we have of the practicalities of shaving comes from the records of a British soldier on the Western Front. In 1914, Private Thomas Mcindoe was entrenched with his regiment, the 12th battalion Middlesex. In 1975 Thomas recalled how, in a lull in fighting, he decided to remove his several days’ worth of beard. Setting up in an abandoned sniper post Thomas described how be filled his mess tin with water and stuck a mirror into the earth and carefully shaved himself. Emerging from the post he encountered an officer who exclaimed “Oh, what a lovely clean boy!”. The officer was impressed by Thomas’s new-fangled safety razor, as opposed to the usual cut-throat models, and asked the young Private to shave him – a task that was undertaken outside on a chair next to the sniper’s position

4701As Thomas himself pointed out, cutthroat razors were lethally sharp and dangerous in battle. Shaving oneself, especially around the neck and throat, required precision and a steady hand. Many soldiers of what Thomas described as the “nervous type” had faces full of nicks and cuts since their hands shook so much from the experience of battle. In fact, shaving comrades was a common occurrence. It was perhaps easier to do this than rely on a broken shard of mirror and attempt to do the job yourself.

Whilst such a mundane, prosaic activity such as shaving might not seem important in the broader discussions about the First World War, it is also something that brings us closer to the lived experiences of trench warfare and the daily lives of ordinary men. Requests for razors and strops, along with other basic items, remind us of the comfort that even these basics could bring. Even in the heat of battle, men tried to maintain some semblance of normality, no doubt finding comfort in routine. I would argue that these small glimpses, such as Thomas Mcindoe’s account, are vitally important in any study of the Great War.