Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Photos Left Behind

     Last week I was at the Royal College of Nursing in London listening to Professor Christine Hallett talking about her new book ‘Veiled Warriors.’*  In part it explores the myths surrounding nurses during the First World War – the nurse as a romantic figure, the nurse as heroine, and the myth of the overworked, mistreated V.A.D.  At the end, someone posed a question about the images used to accompany the talk. They asked, why, when trying to dispel myths, were the images used all supporting those same myths? Why were they showing a romantic view of the nurse and her patients; where were the wounds, the horrors – why were there no images of those to accompany the words of the women involved?

     As someone who relies heavily on images to add colour and detail to my own talks, it caused me to consider the whole range of photos, drawings and fine art that portray hospital life and medical care during the Great War. My first thought was how lucky we are to have them. So many snapshots of nurses, patients, hospital buildings, ships and trains; glimpses of the great variety of equipment used at the time – the operating theatre, beds, lockers, tents and huts; interiors, exteriors, wards, kitchens, nurses at work, nurses’ leisure time – reading, writing, walking, relaxing, tennis and tea. They provide a unique view of nursing and medical care in a form never seen before or since the Great War.

     In the spring of 1915 an Army Order decreed that it was forbidden for members of the British Expeditionary Force to carry a camera in order to take photographs of life overseas, except those acting in an official capacity and authorised to do so. For nurses, using a camera and passing personal photos to the press, even though they may have been taken in all innocence, was likely to result in them being returned to the United Kingdom or even in dismissal. Luckily for those of us who came after, many women were willing to risk the consequences of breaking this rule, and collections of these personal photographs have survived the years though many more must have been lost over the decades.

     What’s left today falls mainly into two categories; official images taken on behalf of the War Office, and personal images taken by the brave. Some photographs of wounds and various aspects of surgery and treatment were kept for clinical purposes and survive in archives and in the pages of medical journals and textbooks. Other than those, why would anyone have wanted to publicise the surgical horrors of war?  Official photos were important for propaganda purposes and were essential for showing the organisation and depth of our medical services to the British public, relatives, the men themselves, and also to the watching enemy. They display good care in calm surroundings; clean, well equipped hospitals and disciplined soldiers, happy though wounded. They show that our women were eager to be part of the war, professional and willing; they provide a picture of the British soldier as bloodied but definitely unbowed, ready to re-join the fight. Within this framework there was no place to display the brutality of what came before the wounded were transformed once again into upright, smiling figures – who would have benefited by it?

     With regard to personal photos taken by members of the nursing staff, they would have been well aware that there was a line that must not be crossed. The majority of their photos are also of happy groups, off-duty time, tennis, walks and holidays. Though it might be acceptable to go inside a ward with a camera, would anyone really have taken a photo of a wounded man in the process of having his dressing done to send home, or to grace newspapers or magazines?  Would any nurse think that was appropriate then, or even today, other than perhaps for specialist clinical reasons?

     We have to be content with what survives, which is so much, though of course it will never be enough. The full picture can only be reconstructed by adding in official accounts and the personal testimony of all participants.  But the calm and smiling groups will always remain the outward image of the Great War even though they may support a myth, because that’s what was created at the time and therefore remains the gift that is left behind.

*Veiled Warriors; Christine E. Hallett; Oxford University Press, 2014

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