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.

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