THE FAIREST FORCE
GREAT WAR NURSES IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS
USE 'THE FAIREST FORCE' TAB ON TOP BAR FOR FULL INDEX TO PAGES
A Sister and Staff Nurse of QAIMNS Reserve at Rouen [IWM Q2338]
Through the years of the Great War and the decades that followed, a number of memoirs appeared written by women who had been involved in some capacity with the nursing of soldiers during the conflict. The majority of published works were by women who had not been nurses before the war but who had the motivation, education and the social background to contribute to the war effort in ways that would have been closed to them in earlier times. Some of the works were contemporaneous with the war, some openly acknowledged as being autobiographical fiction rather than entirely factual, and others, written years later, sat in that no man’s land of memories, where the reader can never quite differentiate between fact and fiction.
While the volunteer and the adventurer were eager to put their experiences on paper, the professional nurse tended towards silence. Some left unpublished diaries and accounts and a number of these later found their way into archives, but with just a few exceptions, original published works have been absent from the canon of women’s writing. It is, of course, understandable that professional women with many years’ experience were not in the habit of writing about their day to day work. They were bound by codes of conduct and confidentiality, and during wartime British military nurses under contract to the War Office were forbidden to write to newspapers or journals other than to comment on medical and nursing matters. In addition, their work filled their time. They were employed over long hours during which they undertook duties of the most arduous kind, and while letters to their families were an enjoyable necessity, the act of spending priceless off-duty time contemplating a novel was unlikely.
As a result of this gap in personal accounts it has been impossible to accurately reconstruct the wartime life of women who worked as trained members of the British military nursing services, i.e. Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. The considered destruction of many official documents during the ‘weeding’ process of the interwar years and the subsequent loss of many more during the Second World War has added to the problem. Stories of volunteer nurses have emerged and flourished over the years, eclipsing those of the trained nurse and rendering the latter near to anonymous today. After the opening programme of the BBC drama series ‘The Crimson Field,’ a comment was added to a review in the Guardian which said:
‘For me the programme actually brought home something that hadn't occurred to me before. I'd heard about the thousands of women who had volunteered... but the rather obvious fact that a professional army already had a nursing corps had rather eluded me...’. 
Unfortunately I fear that the writer is far from alone.
My aim over several years has been to try and assemble accurate information about the life of trained members of the military nursing services working in France and Flanders during the Great War which does not appear elsewhere. For this account I have set aside their working life. There is nothing about blood or bandages, no heavy convoys, no dead or dying to fill the pages. I’ve attempted to ignore the portrayal of military nurses which so often appears in the pages of other people’s stories where they are depicted as cold and unfeeling; characterless and one dimensional at best, emotionless harridans at worst. This is a simple account of how the nursing services arose in the years prior to the Great War, and provides details of things such as contracts, pay, uniform, food, leave, sickness, marriage, discipline and much more.
My information comes from a variety of sources, but relies heavily on the official war diary of Dame Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders throughout the Great War. The war diary is an exceptional document, not only a lengthy and straightforward account of the day-to-day life of the nursing services throughout more than five years, but also full of fascinating detail describing the way nurses lived and behaved during that time. The diary has been transcribed, and any references to it here can be checked in their original context on my website where it appears in full up to the spring of 1919. The largest single source of information about military nurses is contained within their service records, 15,792 of which are held at The National Archives, Kew. These files were stripped of much of their correspondence during the weeding process of the 1930s, but by searching many files for small things it has been possible to extract a great variety of forms, letters, and other documentation which together help to provide a fuller picture of the life and work of a military nurse. Hopefully I can supply some of the building bricks of the Great War nursing services, and attempt to explain the large part of the iceberg lying below the surface which has, so far, remained hidden.
The decision to put this account online means that not only is it fully accessible, but it can also be added to, changed and corrected as and when more information becomes available.
For a selection of transcribed documents relating to the Military Nursing Services during the First World War use the 'Background Extras' tab at the top of the page or click here: BACKGROUND EXTRAS
 The Guardian, online edition, comment posted 7th April 2014 at 9.58 a.m. in reply to the review dated the previous day
 War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders, The National Archives, WO95/3988-3991
 Scarletfinders website, war diary introduction
 The National Archives, series WO399. All available to search and for online download: Nurses' Service Records
COPYRIGHT: Sue Light - Please acknowledge source when using or quoting material from this site. Images from documents held at The National Archives have been used with their knowledge and on payment of an image fee and cannot be reproduced without their permission