A great deal has been written about soldiers’ experiences behind the lines during the First World War and the relationships they forged in the course of their service. From visiting brothels to performing in amateur theatricals, interpersonal and romantic relationships had lasting effects on men after their service had ended.1
Janet S.K. Watson has noted that male comradeship became one of the central organizing structures of the First World War, and Sarah Cole has noted the importance of male bonding during the war, arguing that male comradeship was “consistently hailed as the saving grace of a world in crisis.”2
Less attention, however, has been paid to women’s lived experiences and female relationships during the First World War — largely, the historiography talks about the tensions between professional nurses and volunteers, and their existence within hospitals. Yet there is so much more to be learned from nurses’ writings, both about the war itself, and the life that nurses lived while serving in it. Looking into these descriptions in nurses’ personal writing more deeply can provide fascinating insight into the very full and memorable lives that women led during the war, and the relationships that helped sustain them.
While this essay is focused on the Western Front, it’s important to remember that nurses served at every front of the war, and on hospital ships, too, and their writing is also a wealth of information. In her wartime memoir, The Forbidden Zone, Mary Borden describes the towns and villages of France and Belgium as places largely inhabited by women, and places in which soldiers have very little control or influence:
Although women were responsible to, and subordinate to, doctors and commanding officers, their experience in this world was liberating in many ways. Away from parents, placed in a position of power over the men in their care, and surrounded by other women, nurses enjoyed a freedom of movement they didn’t have at home. They also had an authority that civilian life did not afford.
Many women relished these liberties and enjoyed even the uncomfortable and unsavory details of independent travel as a new and exciting prospect. For example, Nurse S. recalled her talent for ‘lorry hopping’ with a colleague, Davis, a practice rather like hitch-hiking, which Nurse S. and Davis found enormously entertaining:
The assurance with which Nurse S. and her friend made these adventures, and their lack of concern, even when their lorry-hopping went awry and they were forced to walk for miles with blisters and without food, is evident throughout this description.
Throughout nurses’ descriptions of their tourist activities, it is clear that they took pains to ensure that they would always remember their travels, and that they would be able to share them later in life. Their diaries are full of notes about stopping to take photos (and, sometimes, of the photos themselves), or to buy souvenirs for themselves or for families at home.
Nurse F., who served in Belgium in 1914, frequently used her Sundays off to travel around with other nurses. She noted in her diary, “After lunch went out and did some shopping (the shops don’t observe Sunday like we do in England). Just a few souvenirs and then had tea in a Patisserie — the pastries are really delicious but the place was not very nice. Everyone on the continent seems to live in cafes.”5
Later, when Nurse F. and her colleagues received word that they were to be evacuated out of Belgium in advance of the German Army’s arrival, they “rushed out to see the sights. Saw the Palace of Peace, the shore and the Mother Queen’s palace. Bought some souvenirs as usual and a cheese.”6 While the cheese was no doubt delicious in the moment, these souvenirs helped nurses recall both their service and their friends for years afterwards. One nurse, who wrote her memoirs some decades after the war, recalled:
These stories also help us see how nurses took care of themselves and each other during wartime. Such trips and their attendant entertainments and luxuries are evidence of simple acts of what we might now recognize as ‘self-care’ — getting away from the ‘ghastly’ sights of the hospital and the helplessness that nurses often felt when men’s wounds and pain were beyond their ability to help.
Nurse W. describes dealing with the wounded men who were being transported from the train station at Dunkirk back to Britain, noting, “in Dunkirk Station itself were trains full of badly wounded, lying in stretchers — some were slung from the ceiling … a big pile of uniforms all soiled and stained and cut up, sleeve out, etc., was heaped up against the wall — we used to have to hack up the wounded’s clothes like that at Antwerp.”8
Later, she notes, she and her friend, Glory (a fellow nurse and a companion throughout most of her service abroad), “went off into the town to buy some things — and had coffee at a tea shop…at hotel — have had lovely fire all day and hot water from hot tap into wash-hand basin in room.”9 There is a definite shift in her narrative in this passage, away from the horrors of wounded men and the ways in which their mutilated uniforms reflected their own mutilated bodies, and toward the comforts of familiar pleasures like tea, clean beds, and warm fires.
Indeed, she and Glory would make a number of concerted efforts at maintaining a sense of normalcy together throughout their service. She notes later about the “jolly evenings round our fire — cooked eggs and made coffee, eat cold chicken and sardines and delicious French bread + butter — +then I ironed a lot of uniforms whilst Glory mended her corsets + my nightdress.”10
Finally, these descriptions give us insight into the real, intense friendships that grew between nurses during their service. As Christine Hallett and others have pointed out, there was often friction between professional nurses and volunteer nurses, but that should not obscure the meaningful and beneficial relationships that were also forged under the pressure of working in military hospitals. Nurses’ photo albums are full of snapshots of groups of women traveling together: riding camels to the pyramids, riding donkeys through the Dardanelles, or having picnics in fields a day’s walk from their hospitals on the Western Front.
These adventures had to be undertaken as a group to ensure safety; however, they also allowed women to share their adventures together, and to form personal connections outside of the hospital. Such relationships were critical in helping nurses maintain their resilience when on duty. As Nurse M’s diaries show, these relationships could make the most frustrating moments entertaining. She mentions how she and her colleagues were transported to their assigned hospital in Wimeraux:
Focusing on the personal moments in nurses’ diaries helps us to understand the experience of life behind the trenches. They also give us insight into the full lives that women lived during their service as nurses. This is an experience full of important sights, sounds, tastes and smells outside the hospital. Moreover, it was a world full of female relationships and friendships that made the hardships of service bearable. Women’s physical journeys while abroad provide a framework for understanding the personal journeys they made and enrich our understanding of their lived experiences of the First World War enormously.
- See for example: Santanu Das, “‘Kiss Me, Hardy’: Intimacy, Gender, and Gesture in First World War Trench Literature,” Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 1 (2002): 51-74; Sarah Cole, Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War reprint (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Clare Makepeace, “Punters and Their Prostitutes: British soldiers, Masculinity and Maisons Tolérées in the First World War,” in What is Masculinity? Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World, edited by John H. Arnold and Sean Brady (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 413-430. Return to text.
- Janet S.K. Watson, Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory, and the First World War in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 266; Sarah Cole, Modernism, Male Fiendship, and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 18. Return to text.
- Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone reprint (London: Hesperus Press, 2008), 18. Return to text.
- IWM, Department of Documents: 08/112/1. Return to text.
- IWM Department of Documents: 09/66/1. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, GC/258/4. Return to text.
- Royal Hospital Archives, PP/HWE/1. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- IWM, Department of Documents: 10/02/1. Return to text.