Friday 23 March 2007


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.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

The Difference Between...

Having written about the WO399 run of files at The National Archives, it's worth mentioning that included among them are some records relating to untrained nurses; VADs, Special Probationers and Assistant Nurses who worked in military hospitals [rather than Red Cross hospitals] during the war. Why some files have been retained isn't clear, but all those that I've come across refer to women who were employed in Territorial General Hospitals in the United Kingdom - some of them later went on to work abroad, but most started off serving alongside the Territorial Force Nursing Service. So although a long shot, it's always worth checking for an untrained nurse in the WO399 index at The National Archives. The 'VAD' is familiar, but what were the differences between her, and the less common Special Military Probationer [SMP] and the 'Assistant Nurse'?

VADs were employed by the British Red Cross Society through their headquarters at Devonshire House, and the majority worked in Red Cross and auxiliary hospitals, but if employed in British military hospitals at home or abroad, they would work under the control of the War Office, and take their day to day orders from the Matron of their hospital or her deputies.

Special Military Probationers were also untrained, and the terms and conditions of their contracts were virtually identical to those of the VAD. But they were employed by the War Office specifically to work in military hospitals, and had no connection with the BRCS. There is some evidence to suggest that the War Office did some 'cherry picking' - during the 3 month initial training undertaken by VADs in civil hospitals from 1915 onwards, some of the most able were offered contracts as SMPs, and the result was the perception that these 'War Probationers' formed a more elite group than the VADs. In fact, except for the difference in employers, their contracts and conditions of service were identical, but there always remained the inference that those employed by the War Office were superior as nurses.

As the need for trained nurses grew during the war, shortages began to cause great difficulties, particularly overseas, where the need for skilled nurses in forward areas resulted in Base hospitals becoming top heavy with VADs, and seriously lacking in experienced women. The grade of 'Assistant Nurse' became increasingly common, and these were women who had previously undertaken formal nurse training, but not to a standard sufficient to join Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service Reserve or the Territorial Force Nursing Service. They were women who had completed a set training as a fever nurse, a children's nurse, in a women's hospital, or as a midwife. Their pay fell half way between that of the VAD and the trained Staff Nurse, and they were likely to be given more responsibility in line with their training and experience.

As the war progressed, there were certainly VADs who became very skilled nurses and took on great responsibility. Many had hopes that their wartime work would qualify them for a reduced training as a nurse after the war, and that was a question that caused great unrest and discussion within the nursing profession. And was definitely not to be...