VAD Lady Rosemary Leveson-Gower and the Prince of Wales in July 1917 - nearly a marriage but not quite!  [IWM Q2585]

     From its formation in 1902, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service was one of single women. In theory widows without dependents were acceptable though none were employed with the Service prior to the Great War. At that time married women who were also fully-trained nurses were scarce in civil hospitals and although there was no universal ban on their continuing to work, hospital rules meant that most left the profession on marriage. Trained nurses joining QAIMNS were expected to devote all their time and energy to their work. They were required to be available at short notice for transfer within the United Kingdom or for overseas service, often for periods of up to five years, making it a lifestyle incompatible with married life.

     Initially, most trained nurses applying to join the military nursing service reserve in wartime were also single. As more men enlisted, many married nurses found themselves alone and with time to spare, and they felt the need to get back to work in order to make some contribution to the war effort. In addition, single women already serving continued to follow life’s normal pattern of finding a partner and marrying, and as the war lengthened many followed this route.

     For the pre-war military nursing services the transition to a wartime footing was a complicated process and marriage among its members was something for which there was no previous model. The War Office was suddenly faced with considering if women should be allowed to marry and remain in the service, and if so, under what conditions they could be employed. It was also important to consider how relationships between husband and wife could be controlled, especially in cases where both parties were involved in medical care.

     One of the first cases of marriage took Miss McCarthy by surprise and her shock at an everyday occurrence daring to happen within her nun-like environment is evident from her entries in the war diary. The marriage took place between a Staff Nurse Fairbrother working on the hospital ship St. Andrew and a doctor of the Royal Army Medical Corps. However, it was Emily Hay, the Acting-Matron of the ship, who came off worse in the encounter. On the 12th April 1915 Miss McCarthy received an official letter from Miss Hay:

… informing me that Nurse Fairbrother “had got married on 31st March to Lieut. ____ RAMC.” No letter of explanation and apparently the happy pair were still on duty!!! Later sent back through DMS for explanation.[189]

Four days later Miss Hay arrived for an interview with the Matron-in-Chief:

Miss Hay from St. Andrew, hearing I was at Boulogne, called to see me. Seems the happy couple had been engaged some time, that the OC [Officer Commanding] said there was no need to report the matter – that there was no regulation to that effect – that she thought that as they were civilians she had no control over them – that their behaviour was exemplary – (I had breakfast with them all some short time before the wedding but no one said anything about it. When the ship was being repaired I understand they were married without anyone’s knowledge). I told her that I thought her action in the matter was quite extraordinary and that personally I didn’t think she was fit to be in charge, but I said I had reported the matter to the Matron-in-Chief War Office, and it would be for her to decide. Later the OC came – said there was no regulation with regard to reporting a matter of this sort; that he didn’t wish Miss Hay’s future to be affected etc., and that according to regulations the marriage was reported officially and that the officer was on another ship. I told him exactly what I thought of the matter, and also that the Matron-in-Chief would be dealing with the matter and I am sure whatever decision she came to would not be done without fair consideration.[190]

As with many of these occurrences, the Matron-in-Chief at the War Office, Ethel Becher, tended to see things differently and Miss McCarthy often had no option but to defer to the wishes of her senior.

The M-in-C takes a different view with regard to Miss Hay – looks upon it as an error of judgement. I am therefore glad I referred the matter to her – she is to have a Home Hospital later. It is evident I took too serious a view of the case.[191]

     Emily Hay was born in Madras in 1869, the daughter of a Major-General in the Indian Service and educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. After her nurse training in Southampton she served in South Africa during the Boer War and joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1903. After this incident she remained on the hospital ship St. Andrew for another ten months at which time she was appointed to a position in the United Kingdom as Acting-Matron at Mount Vernon Hospital. She served with QAIMNS for more than twenty-three years, finally retiring in 1924. For her wartime service she received the Royal Red Cross, so must have been forgiven her sins fairly quickly.[192]

     Relationships at close quarters within a hospital setting were not only a problem for the military nursing services. In civil hospitals at that time it was not acceptable for nurses and doctors to have an open and public relationship, however discreet. If it was suspected that a nurse was romantically linked in any way with one of the medical staff she would be asked either to end the liaison or offer her resignation and find alternative employment. This type of regulation had formed part of almost all trained nurses’ experiences and would have been familiar territory for them, but with war changing so many areas of life, the situation on the St. Andrew may well have seemed entirely reasonable to those involved especially as the medical officer had been transferred to a different vessel.

     Although strictly speaking all members of QAIMNS, its Reserve and the Territorial Force Nursing Service were civilians under contract to the War Office, i.e. ‘of’ but not ‘in’ the Army, they were expected to conform to military rules and regulations. When it came to marriage their initial action was to seek approval – they had to ask. By asking permission the decision was then whether to resign and leave the Army behind them or whether to remain within the military nursing services and continue as before. Although women had signed a contract with the War Office for a minimum of one year there were no penalties imposed for leaving on marriage, which in itself was considered a normal path to take. The more difficult decision was what to do with a woman while waiting to be married, especially if her fiancé was employed in the same area, and under what conditions a nurse would be allowed to stay on afterwards. In line with life in most UK civil hospitals it was decided that once an engagement was made public, the ‘happy couple’ would only be allowed to live and work at considerable distance from each other. There are many examples within the diary:

Letter from Miss Barratt upon taking up her appointment as Acting Matron 7 Stationary Hospital, and letting me [know] of Miss Byrne, CHR, engagement to a Surgical Specialist at 1 C.C.S., saying had both behaved very well and been quite straightforward about it. She had told the OC, and had said that she would be moved, she knew. They do not wish to marry until after the War.[193]

On to 8 C.C.S. at Bailleul. They had just evacuated, only a few remaining too ill to be moved, who alas will never leave, I am sure. The O.C. was on leave, but I saw Captain Phillips and the Sister in Charge, Miss K. Stewart QAIMNS, who told me of their engagement. Congratulated them – said Miss K. Stewart will be moved

Miss Barwell, Sister i/c, 30 C.C.S., wrote reporting the engagement of Capt. Charles, surgical specialist, to Miss Horner, Staff Nurse, Q.A.I.M.N.S.R. Arranged for Miss Horner to proceed to Etaples for duty … Colonel Kelly said that she was an excellent nurse and he was sorry to lose her services but he quite agreed under the circumstances that no other course could be taken.[195]

     In early 1916 Miss McCarthy wrote in positive terms that she felt that Nursing Sisters granted permission to marry and be retained in the service should be transferred back to the United Kingdom to serve on the Home Establishment and not return to France.[196]   There were increasing problems with women requesting to be posted near to their husbands which was considered the most untenable of situations. It also provided an opportunity to get rid of staff serving in France and Flanders who had proved to be unsatisfactory workers. However, worsening staff shortages, particularly among trained nurses, meant that it became progressively more difficult to be prescriptive and more flexibility in attitude had to be applied to these situations. The two Matrons-in-Chief of QAIMNS, Ethel Becher and Maud McCarthy, both had some problem with the changes brought about by war but approached them differently. Miss Becher often appeared to have difficulty in fully appreciating the differences between conditions in the United Kingdom and those in France.[197]

     If marriage was a new innovation for the military nursing services, the employment of VADs, especially those already married, was a step even further into the unknown. From the time of their first arrival at British military hospitals on the Western Front in the spring of 1915, Miss McCarthy noted her own views and also feedback from others, whether for or against their presence. The main problems revolved around those married women who viewed a posting to France as a step nearer their husbands who had preceded them – closer to their ‘belongings at the front.’

Havre: Here like everywhere it was pointed out that married VADs with their belongings at the front are not likely to prove satisfactory.[198]

Am hearing on all sides how satisfactory the VADs are as a whole, but that the married ladies are not suitable, certainly not those with husbands at the front.[199]

And by the autumn of that year an even more emphatic statement following attempts to remove a particularly unsatisfactory VAD:

Rouen. To DDMS office. Saw DDMS who spoke of the long delay there had been in getting rid of Miss C____ and what a trial and disturbance she had been at 6 General. He also spoke of how unsatisfactory all married VADs have proved themselves in his area. I said I had asked that they should not be sent out – they still come however.[200]

     They still came because of the increasing difficulties in finding enough women, trained or untrained, to staff the growing number of military hospitals both at home and overseas. In mid-1916 a War Office ruling stated that there was no objection to women returning to France after marriage as long as their husbands were not working in the same area, but this ruling did not take account of members of Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) wanting the same treatment as their trained colleagues. In the summer of 1917 two VADs, Miss Hockey and Miss Morgan, asked if they could marry, be retained in the service, and return to work in France. This was the first time that the situation had arisen, and when the War Office were asked for a ruling they replied that it would be acceptable as long as permission had been asked and the request granted prior to the marriage.[201]  No mention was made of what penalty would be incurred if these regulations were not adhered to. Then, in November 1917, it came to light that one VAD, Dora Hall, had married in England towards the end of 1916 while on leave and returned to work in France as though the occasion had never happened. Contrary to her usual hard line on breaches of discipline Miss McCarthy felt that in this case there was no need for Miss Hall, now Mrs Rice, to return home, possibly because the VAD was a good worker and the ‘offence’ had taken place prior to the War Office ruling:

Returned to D.G.M.S. correspondence concerning Mrs. Rice, V.A.D. (née Miss Hall), saying that there is no reason for this lady to be sent home, beyond the fact that she was married without permission, and failed to report this before embarking to France where she continued serving under her maiden name. These facts had been brought to light by a mandate letter for separation allowance being received for her.[202]

Sometimes it seems that Miss McCarthy in France and Miss Becher at the War Office took delight in opposing whatever the other decided, as once again Miss McCarthy was over-ruled:

Received copy of War Office letter stating that it is considered desirable in the interests of discipline that Mrs. D. Rice (née Hall), V.A.D., should return to England and report to the Matron-in-Chief, War Office. Steps should be taken that all matrons are informed of the regulations already circulated on the subject of obtaining permission to be married and retained in the service.[203]

As in the case of too much discipline, too little was also likely to have its repercussions. Eventually, with an increasing number of married nurses wishing to work as near to their husbands’ units as possible, a decision was made that there were no instances where a married woman could continue to work in the theatre of war in which her husband was serving:

Received reply from D.G.M.S. in answer to our enquiry, saying that the ruling given to the effect that nursing members may not serve in the same Command as their husbands, applies to all cases.[204]

     With the main thrust of the war firmly rooted in France, the ruling meant that fewer married women continued to work in France and Flanders during the final year of the war. As battalions returned to the Western Front from Italy and Egypt, nurses who had been settled and happy in base hospitals and casualty clearing stations suddenly found themselves transferred back to the United Kingdom through no fault of their own. While at times marriage in wartime caused problems for the authorities, every nurse, whether trained or untrained, was important to the continued running of the nursing services and the importance of retaining them was recognised. However, after the war, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service returned to their pre-war state of being open only to single women and widows.

     As demobilisation gathered momentum during 1919 married women were advised that it was not only impossible to continue as members of the military nursing services but even retention on the ‘reserve’ list, or as demobilised members of the TFNS, was no longer possible. A few women challenged this stance. Norah Gozney was one of many forced to leave her post. She joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service on 2 September 1914 and was demobilised on 6 October 1919 having served for more than five years. However, when she forwarded her yearly declaration of intention to serve in January 1920, the Matron-in-Chief was quickly in contact with Miss Innes, Principal Matron of No. 2 Northern General Hospital, Leeds:

I am directed to inform you that it has been decided that all T.F.N.S. members must resign on marriage. I therefore regret that it will be necessary for Mrs. Gozney to leave your unit. Will you kindly ask this member to send in her resignation, through you, officially to this office as soon as possible.[205]

Mrs. Gozney, the wife of an officer still serving, did not withdraw without complaint. The following week she wrote a personal letter of reply to the Matron-in-Chief, Dame Sidney Browne:

I beg to point out that I was married nearly a year when the order was issued that all T.F.N.S. members should resign on marriage. I was married in April 1918 and with full permission from you. I would deem it a great favour under these circumstances to be able to continue as a demobilised member of the T.F.N.S. and in case of another war to be mobilised as previously. Awaiting your reply.[206]

Despite her plea, no special favour was afforded her and she was forced to resign. What had been considered useful during the war was no longer thought appropriate for peacetime, a situation that was to continue through another six decades.


[189] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3988, 12 April 1915
[190] Ibid., 16 April 1915
[191] Ibid., 20 April 1915
[192] Service file of Emily Hay, The National Archives, WO399/3663
[193] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3989, 3 January 1916
[194] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3989, 24 March 1916
[195] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3989, 27 March 1917; No.30 C.C.S. was at that time situated at Aubigny
[196] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3989, 20 February 1916 and 30 April 1916
[197] Ethel Becher, Matron-in-Chief, War Office, London and Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief, France & Flanders
[198] War Diary of Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3988, 16 August 1915
[199] Ibid., 18 August 1915
[200] War diary of Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3988, 19 November 1915
[201] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3990, 12 July 1917
[202] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3990, 23 October 1917
[203] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3990, 12 November 1917
[204] War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief, The National Archives, WO95/3991, 2 July 1918
[205] Nora Gozney (née Booth) service record, The National Archives WO399/11587
[206] Ibid.