Admist the arms, love – The role of nurses during The Great War

Historically, women have been underrepresented in museum collections. As a result, less has been gathered and preserved on women’s personal experiences compared to the vast amount of knowledge surviving about men. In recent years there has been increasing efforts to fill this knowledge gap and give light to the stories of women and their important role in shaping history. And so,  this International Women’s Day, we delve into what the experience of being a nurse during the First World War may have been like, and have a look at some of the items in the museum collection.

When war broke out in 1914, thousands of women volunteered to help the medical profession with the injured and sick. These voluntary nurses were known as Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD’s), run by the British Red Cross. Volunteers did not have the same level of experience, training or qualifications as professional nurses and so, unless under an emergency, they were not given the same jobs and responsibilities. As there was a very high number of volunteers that continuously increased as the war progressed, VAD’s were only given six weeks of first aid training. Some of the VAD’s responsibilities included cleaning, changing sheets, washing and feeding patients, which were just as important and necessary as the role of professional nurses who completed more technical and skilled duties. As the number of injured and sick soldiers increased, VAD’s took on more responsibility such as changing dressings, keeping wounds clean, and administering medication.

Nurses Nell and Meg with their brother Private John Keith, 8th Battalion (The Argyllshire) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Photo credits: Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

The relationship between professional nurses and the VAD’s, however, was not as warm as one might expect. Although VAD’s were necessary during the war and a lot of professionals would have been grateful for the help, many professionals worried that the volunteers would negatively impact the way that people viewed nurses. Professional nurses, with training and qualifications that were already unrecognised as equal to men’s, were concerned that the influx of untrained and inexperienced nurses would diminish their hard work and reputation.

This was not helped by government propaganda during the war that romanticised the role of nurses. They were portrayed as gentle and graceful women in their clean white uniforms who cared for the heroic men returned from war. The image below is an example of propaganda that reveals this portrayal whilst also emphasising the motherly duties of women.

Poster from World War One showing the expected role of a nurse
Photo credits: flickr

However, this is far from the truth as the work of nurses was a tiring and strenuous job. Nurses fought a continuous battle with empathy which made their jobs emotionally difficult and effected their moods. For instance, nurses would often get excited if there wasn’t a death in the ward at the end of the day. Nurses were also warned about developing personal attachments to patients as it would make the death of soldiers harder to deal with, and the large number of injured patients often meant there was little time for socialising. The Argylls Museum has a number of images and objects related to nursing in World War One. Each of these tells the story of tremendous courage, and in some cases, their own personal loss.

British Red Cross Society Medal for War Service 1914-1918, awarded to Margaret Taylor.
Photo credits: Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

Margaret E. R. Taylor, from Falkirk, volunteered as a nurse in 1915. The above medal, known as The British Red Cross Society Medal for War Service 1914-1918, belonged to her. The same year she volunteered, her brother, Sergeant Allan Taylor, 10th (Service) Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was killed at the Battle of Loos. These medals were given to members of the British Red Cross and VAD nurses who volunteered for one year or 1,000 hours of work in WW1. The medal was made from bronze gilt and was to be worn on the Red Cross Uniform only. The Latin inscription on the back says “Inter Arma Caritas” translates to “Admist the arms, love”. Between 41,000 and 42,000 of these medals were awarded.

The back of the medal with Latin inscription “Inter Arma Caritas”.
Photo Credits: Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

The medals acknowledged the hard work of nurses during the war which was certainly a well-deserved reward. Soldiers were not the only people to risk their lives during the war, as nurses were exposed to the same dangers. In particular, nurses were at risk of catching disease due to their presence in hospitals where they interacted with soldiers who had travelled around war zones. The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1920 was particularly bad for causing pneumonia which killed many nurses during this time. However, nurses also died from tuberculosis and septic poisoning from contact with infected wounds. Additionally, many nurses were sent to the front lines to help with the wounded in base hospitals, hospital trains and ships, barges and clearing stations across multiple fronts which exposed them to military warfare. It is clear that nurses proved their bravery during the war, but they also showed their commitment and strength as they were separated from family for long periods of time, often with little contact with loved ones at the front or at home.

After the war, many volunteers left their positions to return home to their families, including Margaret Taylor who is believed to go on to nurse her other brother, Private William Taylor, 11th (Service) Battalion of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He had been medically discharged, likely the result of a gas attack. A lot of nurses suffered from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the war, something that had been highly overlooked both at the time and in historical literature about the war.

The role of nurses, both professional and voluntary, should not be underestimated as their hard work and commitment to their duties provided an invaluable service during the war, saving countless of soldiers and contributing to the progression of equality for women.

Nurse and Medical Orderlies during World War One
Photo credits: Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum

The museum is actively seeking objects related to underrepresented groups, such as women. If you have something related to The Argylls, which would be interested in donating, you can email museum@argylls.co.uk

Written by Caitlin Stewart, Digital Content Volunteer