Historical essay
“Not being a man, I wanted to do the next best thing”: Female Gentlemen and the First World War

“Not being a man, I wanted to do the next best thing”: Female Gentlemen and the First World War

Anna Elisabeth Gehl

Vera Brittain worked as a voluntary nurse in France and Malta during the First World War. After the armistice, she went back to university, but by 1920 she wrote that the memories of the war “and its extraordinary aftermath had taken full possession of my warped and floundering mind.”[1] She was, she exclaimed, “Nothing but a piece of wartime wreckage, living on ingloriously in a world that doesn’t want me!”[2] Brittain was one of many British female medical volunteers who nursed or drove ambulances on the Western Front. She and others witnessed the carnage of the war under similar circumstances as male soldiers, and they too suffered psychological damage as a result. Because of the predominance of the shell-shocked soldier in cultural and literary history, very little attention has been paid to the psychological trauma of front-line nurses and ambulance drivers.

Black and white photo of a woman wearing a white head kerchief.
Vera Brittain, around the time of the First World War. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

In 1914, there were two official volunteer organizations that British women could join: the Red Cross as Voluntary Aid Detachments or the elite First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Because both the VAD nurses and the FANY ambulance drivers had to fund themselves and were not paid wages, these organizations tended to attract economically privileged women.[3] Though privileged, however, these women were also seen by contemporaries as disrupting gender boundaries. Women in uniform attracted derision as well as fascination, and the volunteers had to prove that they were capable of working in a war zone.

To do so, they held fast to class-appropriate “gentlemanly” concepts of duty, self-control, and honor, which enabled them to continue to function under the pressures of providing medical care to soldiers. Though they attempted to align themselves with their male counterparts, the women and their writings have been analyzed usually through the trope of the plucky and resilient “Rose of No Man’s Land,” a caring and selfless figure tending the wounds of British men.[4] This repeats contemporary depictions of women as somehow untouched and unsullied by the violence around them and positions them as the recorders and observers of male suffering.

The conditions under which the female volunteers experienced the war, however, were not so different from those of male soldiers: “both groups suffered loss of autonomy, performed exhausting work in cramped conditions, underwent bombardment and were continually exposed to death and mutilation.”[5] The FANY and the VADs served under perilous conditions, risking their lives to transport and nurse the wounded and dying. These women understood themselves to be under the same code of moral obligation that determined their brothers’ behavior: they volunteered because they felt it was their duty, and while they were not allowed to fight, they could “do the next best thing,” as VAD Vera Brittain wrote to her parents, even when doing so cost them dearly in terms of mental health.[6]

Female Gentlemen

Women who volunteered were of a similar age and grew up in the Edwardian period. This was a time of transition for women, with the first wave of feminism and the suffrage movement achieving milestone moments in the years before the war. During this period, education for young girls was more similar to that of their male peers than ever before. Secondary and higher education now provided middle and upper-class girls and young women with a rigorous classical education and promoted the values of service, duty, self-control, and honor, as well as physical fitness and team spirit. While the public school education of the time is often provided as an explanation for why so many young men volunteered, the extent to which this played a role in female volunteers’ feelings towards the war and the traumatizing experiences they worked through is often ignored.

Colorful poster featuring three women in white nurse aprons.
A First World War recruitment poster for the Voluntary Aid Detachment. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Finding that traditional feminine norms now felt inappropriate, these young women crafted gendered identities based on the masculine norms and values from their socialization and education. This code of morals, known as “gentlemanliness,” was set loose from its aristocratic origins throughout the nineteenth century with the rise of the middle classes.[7] Instead, gentlemanliness became something that was not solely dependent on breeding, but could instead be aspired to and followed (through self-help books and novels) by the bourgeois male. Young women determined that if gentlemanliness could be learned by non-aristocratic men, then women, too, could learn it.[8]

By adhering to this code, women could show firstly that their presence near the front was justified. FANY Grace McDougall wrote in her unpublished memoir that:

People used to scoff at the idea of women in the trenches, but these Belgians, soldiers, officers and doctors, know – their smiles are different, they are the smiles of comrades who trusted us, smiles of gratitude for the binding of their wounds, smiles of good-fellowship for the discomforts and dangers we shared. They will not forget nor shall we, that we stood beside their dying and their dead in the battle of the Yser.[9]

For McDougall, the primacy of experience and the shared dangers transcended the gender divide. They were ‘comrades,’ they ‘stood beside them’ and they were marked by a shared knowledge of war.

Secondly, FANYs and VAD nurses used values traditionally associated with men to show their similarity to their male counterparts and to distance themselves from perceptions of traditional femininity. Voluntary nurse Mary Borden wrote to her lover that “I am on night duty tonight – you will say I ought not to do it – but the morale is not all that it might be and I want to be an example to the women that weep and wail.”[10]

Thirdly, women regularly pointed out their self-control in order to emphasize the severity of the situation in which they found themselves. In keeping with the code of gentlemanliness, the struggle to keep control of one’s feelings despite inner turmoil was felt to be of greater merit if one normally acted cool, calm, and detached. Vera Brittain wrote of a situation during a raid where “I knew that I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life, yet all the time a tense, triumphant pride that I was not revealing my fear to the others held me to the semblance of self-control.”[11]

While nurse writers do point to the psychological damage they sustained, especially after the war, the members of the FANY strike a more careful note.[12] Allegiance to the group identity that the FANY fostered, on top of the positive outlook needed to promote resilience, prohibited any kind of blunt admission of trauma. Yet we still find Grace McDougall suffering from unexplained fainting fits and “pain,” while her colleague wrote of her, after the deaths of both her brothers, that “naturally all this trouble has completely unhinged her.”[13] McDougall herself wrote that by 1919, her nerves were shattered.[14] FANY Pat Waddell lost a leg on active service when her ambulance collided with a train and provides the perspective both of witness and of patient. While determinedly upbeat, she describes recurring nightmares and depression after the accident, especially when it became clear that the army had no idea what to do with her and that she would have to pay for her prosthetic leg herself. In Fanny Goes to War, she complains that “My troubles, I am sorry to say, began from then onwards. England seemed quite unprepared for something so unorthodox, and the general impression borne in on me was that I was a complete nuisance.”[15]

In the decade after the war, and with the rise of war books and memoirs, women tried to participate in the discourse on trauma, sacrifice, loss, and futility. But despite Mary Borden choosing this time to “pull out the manuscript of The Forbidden Zone and prepare it for publication, observing that the time appeared right for the public to hear the truth about war,” these women were not included in the ranks of veterans after the Armistice.[16] Brittain’s Testament of Youth was a bestseller in 1933, but she was quickly forgotten until the second feminist wave of the 1970s, while Grace McDougall failed to even find a publisher for her memoirs in the late 1930s.

Black and white photo of a white woman in a dark dress and white apron. The apron has the symbol of the Red Cross on the front.
Violet Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform, likely between 1915 and 1917. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Belonging to the same class as the young officers who influenced the postwar discourse on shell shock, volunteer nurses and FANYs aligned themselves with these men through their portrayal of their experiences. This experience was, however, divided by class, both in the way shell shock was perceived, as well as in the way veterans wrote (or didn’t write) about war experiences. Shell shock was given different terms according to the class and rank of the sufferer. While ranks were presumed to be more physical in their expression of trauma (shaking, twitching), officers tended (it was assumed) to suffer more mentally, through nightmares, sleeplessness, nervousness, and hallucinations. The female gentlemen’s expression of trauma was meant to show the similarities between men and women (primacy of experience, rather than gender). By doing this, however, they also distanced themselves from other women who had war experience, but who were not of the same class.

Ultimately, while women who suffered mental breakdowns as a result of their war service were initially included in the ranks of shell-shocked veterans after the armistice, the rise of the “soldier’s narrative” came to dominate the discussion surrounding war trauma, leading to an exclusion of the women who went to war, which continues today.

As I was writing this article, the news regarding the Russia/Ukraine situation was growing ever more serious. Now, writing the last sentences days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are again facing a protracted and brutal war in Europe. At this point, it is, of course, difficult to foresee how the events will progress. But as volunteers rush to Ukraine’s borders, we must be aware of the trauma they will bring back home with them. With reports of civilians being targeted by Russian forces with thermobaric weapons and cluster bombs, the situation in Ukraine could become indescribably awful. It can only be hoped that we, who are witnessing from afar, will listen and give support to those who are there.


  1. Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900–1925 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009), 315.
  2. Brittain, Testament. 425.
  3. VADs received pay and uniform allowances later in the war.
  4. Lyn Macdonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land: Nurses on the Western Front (Michael Joseph, 1980).
  5. Tracey Loughran, “A Crisis of Masculinity? Re-Writing the History of Shell-Shock and Gender in First World War Britain,” History Compass 11, no. 9 (2013): 733.
  6. Brittain, Testament, 179.
  7. Melissa Schaub, Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction: The Female Gentleman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) 3.
  8. Schaub, Middlebrow Feminism, 9.
  9. Grace McDougall, Five Years with the Allies (n.Pub: 1920), 283.
  10. Jane Conway, Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars (Munday Books: 2010), 76.
  11. Brittain, Testament, 362.
  12. It is worth remembering that the FANY still exist and were active in later conflicts. This may also have a good deal of influence on how freely members felt they could speak about their experiences.
  13. Janet Lee, War Girls: The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in the First World War (Manchester University Press: 2005), 123.
  14. Lee, War Girls, 241.
  15. Pat Beauchamp Washington (nee Waddell), Fanny goes to War (John Murrey: 1919), 219.
  16. Conway, Mary Borden, 149; Janet S.K. Watson, Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory and the First World War in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2004) 261.

Featured image caption: Lieutenant Grace “Mac” Mcdougall and the Ford FANY ambulance named “Flossie” in Calais in 1915 with “Bob” Bailey. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Anna Elisabeth Gehl is a PhD student at the Freie Universität Berlin and an Elsa-Neumann scholarship holder.