Two years ago I wrote about nurses being regarded as 'brave' for their work during wartime and suggested that they were many other things above 'brave.' Since then, with the coming of the Centenary of the First World War, a great deal more has been written about nurses, mainly untrained VADs, and the concept that nurses were angels and heroines has become a strong thread running through their stories in books, the popular press and on television. So two years on I'm taking the liberty of repeating my thoughts of August 2013 on what motivated nurses to engage with the war and where bravery stood on their list of attributes.
I've always had quite strong views on Great War nurses being described as angels and heroines, and the assertion that they were all 'brave.' So I was interested in a thread on Twitter which went as follows:
Tweeter A. Army Nurse Corps took hot water bottles to bed with them then made tea with that hot water next morning!
Tweeter B. Some WW stories would be amazing to collate a brave history that we are loosing [sic] day by day
Tweeter C. Perhaps bravery comes behind professionalism, stoicism, determination and skill
Tweeter A. Bravery, the right choice under terrible circumstances, against all odds.
Obviously A. felt that brave was the best word to describe these military nurses but it made me think again about war, nurses, and bravery. The early 20th century was a time when British nurses were fighting to have their qualifications officially recognised through a process of registration, to ensure that poorly trained and inexperienced women could no longer pass themselves off as fully-trained nurses. Many of them relished the chance that war gave them - to know that they would at last have a platform to show off their skills in a public and wide-ranging manner - the eyes of the nation and the wider world were on them as they were released from the anonymity of their peacetime role.
I doubt if they were thinking about being brave when they first put on their new uniform and entered the doors of a military hospital. More likely they were thinking about being tested in a strange environment; about what skills they would need; how this new experience would give them an advantage in years to come as they climbed the nursing ladder. They must have wondered who would be working alongside them? Would there be any familiar faces from their training days? Would their pay and conditions be comparable to what they were already getting and would Army discipline defeat them? And when a few months later they added their names to the list of those wishing to go on active service overseas, did they do it because they were brave? I suggest that most of them were desperate to get nearer the action; to feel closer to their brothers, fathers and friends who were already abroad; to grasp the opportunity to visit places and see things they had never contemplated before. Nursing in France had an urgency and importance about it which was lacking in home hospitals - it made them special. And they wanted to be seen as special.
They knew how hard the work could be - the rushes, the pushes, the pauses; the long hours and early mornings; the boring patches and the restrictions. They knew that if they asked to be considered for duty nearer the front, at a casualty clearing station, they were nearer the guns, nearer danger, nearer the most badly wounded men. Did they go because they wanted to be brave? My view is they went because they wanted to make a difference, and to be seen as making a difference.
One of the few nurses who died as a result of enemy action is universally described as 'brave.' Nellie Spindler died in her bed, while sleeping, the result of a shrapnel wound during an enemy bombing raid on her casualty clearing station. Can 'brave' be the best word to describe her? Unlucky, certainly, but hardly brave.
There were nurses of all sorts, good, indifferent, and some very bad - bad behaviour, poor nursing skills, lack of tact, no sense of discipline. They were not all heroines, and of course, none of them were angels. Angels don't actually exist and trained nurses are very much of the real world. While there were undoubtedly individual acts of bravery by nurses during the war, it was not the lot of the majority. When they were in dangerous and difficult situations, being bombed or shelled or retreating with the enemy at their heels, they relied on their long experience, their skill, their confidence, determination, dedication and fortitude, and on an instant learnt response to emergencies. I would still say that all these came before bravery.