I often see queries asking whether nurses serving with the British Army during the Great War could be married. The answer is, of course, rather a complicated one. Prior to the Great War, women training to be nurses were required to be either single, or widowed, although it was not too difficult for a married woman with no dependants and living apart from her husband to stretch the truth. But in general, nursing, like teaching, was a profession of single women, and they were required to resign their appointments on marriage.
At the outbreak of war, all the members Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, numbering just over 300, were single, and although there were a few members of the Territorial Force Nursing Service who were married, this had occurred during their civil employment, and on mobilisation many chose to resign, or were retained for home service only. The intention of the Matron-in-Chief at the War Office was to keep the services staffed by single women, but this proved to be impossible. By the middle of 1915 the shortage of trained nurses, both at home and abroad was acute, and it was obvious that it would be necessary to retain the services of women upon marriage, unless they wished to resign. At first they were sent home from France, for ‘Home Service only’, and Maud McCarthy, the Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force thought that she would never get hard work and devotion to duty from women who had more than nursing on their minds. She was particularly opposed to married nurses and VADs who wished to work in France because their husbands were serving there, and described them as women with ‘their baggage at the Front.’ As the manpower shortage increased, marriage was looked upon rather more benevolently, and it was eventually agreed that as long as a woman informed the military authorities of her forthcoming marriage; observed all the correct formalities, and had good reports, she would be allowed to continue to serve, and remain overseas if she wished. Any woman who went on leave, and married in England without permission, would find herself looked on unfavourably, and probably refused permission to return to France, especially if she was a VAD, who were more easily recruited and not in such short supply.
Reading through the war diary of the Matron-in-Chief, it often seems as though there were many marriages happening at extremely short notice – the sort of ‘spur of the moment’ occurrences that wartime is famous for. I suspect that the phrase ‘marry in haste, repent at leisure’ haunted many a nurse throughout her life! And if the British military nursing authorities seemed very straight-laced about marriage, they could not compare with the Australians. Until the middle of 1917, a member of the Australian Army Nursing Service did not even have to bother to resign on marriage, as at that point her contract was automatically terminated, and she was returned to the UK, to continue her life as she chose – but of course, eventually the shortage of trained nurses changed that as well, and marriage became a necessary wartime evil for the AANS.
After the war, as the demobilization of nurses working on the QAIMNS Reserve was complete, the service returned to one of single women, a situation which lasted until the 1970s. Even married members of the Territorial Force Nursing Service, who returned to their civil employment, were not allowed to remain in the service – what was useful in wartime was found unacceptable in peacetime.