Monday 25 April 2016

The Dead Nurses' Society

     The men and women who died on military service during the First World War are invariably  the group who attract the most publicity, most column space in newspapers and by far the most mentions on the web. Maybe that's understandable, not only because of the emotions that death during wartime arouses in people, but also because they are so much easier to research. Their names are on war memorials nationwide and the majority of those names are listed on the database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. With a couple of clicks it's possible to find relatives or local men and women who died while serving their country between 1914 and 1921. Their names truly 'Liveth for Evermore'.

     However, most of those who served their country didn't die but returned home again to take up employment, to marry and to prosper, or possibly to suffer from the effects of war throughout their lives, blighting their happiness. The majority of women were employed on the Home Front and although their work might have been demanding and stressful it rarely put them in immediate danger, though I must exclude munition workers here who often worked under dangerous conditions and who history has chosen to sideline more than any other group of women. The figures I'm using as examples are just a rough estimate but hopefully serve to make a point.

     Between 22,000 and 24,000 trained nurses served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, it's Reserve and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. The lack of service records in the public domain makes an exact figure impossible to estimate. The number of untrained nurses - members of Voluntary Aid Detachments -  is even more difficult to work out. They included not only VADs who performed nursing duties but also General Service VADs who from 1917 worked as drivers, orderlies, waitresses, clerks, typists, and store-women in military hospitals. Then there were the members of War Hospital Supply Depots whose work involved the sewing of garments, the preparation of dressings and packing of stores and comforts for distribution both at home and abroad. Together the Red Cross workers are likely to have totalled well in excess of 100,000.  If you include nurses working in the military wards of civil hospitals the total figure for nursing staff engaged in caring for military personnel during wartime is likely to have totalled more than 150,000. In addition to these it's believed that nearly a million women were working in engineering and munitions.

     Of this multitude of women workers, only a tiny percentage died during wartime, less than 1% of the total - and of those, very few deaths actually resulted from war service. Most died due to illness or disease that would have proved fatal in any conditions, such as influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, gastric ulcers and cancers of many types. Dead women are now 'celebrated' on websites such as Facebook where many pages are dedicated to women who served during the First World War.  But far from remembering them all, these pages are frequently crammed with information solely on those who died and resulting in bland, throwaway comments such as 'RIP,' and of course, 'We will remember them.' No, I don't think you will - another couple of days and you'll have trouble remembering what you ate yesterday and certainly not the names or causes of death of women whose pictures you briefly looked at. Photos of headstones on Twitter may tell us a woman died, but say nothing about the work she did and what her life was like.

Victory Parade, London, July 1919.  They lived!  They lived!

     Why, why, why can't we celebrate what nurses DID during the war without this mawkish tendency to concentrate almost exclusively on the tiny percentage who died?  After all, they're all dead now, and  deserve the same respect and remembrance. Make nurses famous for their deeds, their endeavour and their dedication, not just famous for dying.

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