Many of you will no doubt have heard of, if not yet seen, the recent film Testament of youth (based on a best-selling book of the same name) which tells the story of Vera Brittain’s experiences during the First World War. Brittain was studying at a hard won place at Oxford University at the time war was declared. However, as men she knew and loved started to die, she felt that she needed to do something for the war effort and so joined the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse. She, like many others, served in military hospitals both at home and abroad, tending to wounded soldiers, of whom there were soon to many to count……
But Vera Brittain was only one of thousands of women who enrolled into nursing services, such as the VAD, and military services, such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or Wrens) and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) during the First World War. These women made a huge and important contribution to the war effort and their roles must not be forgotten. So, during Women’s History Month this March, here at The National Archives we are commemorating women’s achievement by holding a number of events. These events include a poetry reading, which gives voice to the experiences of ordinary women living through these extraordinary times, and a webinar which will help trace your ancestors in the women’s nursing and military services.
During our research for the webinar in particular, we came across a number of interesting stories that highlighted women’s roles in the war. These stories, we felt, were too good not to share! So here is selection, giving you a snapshot of the lives of just a few of the thousands of women serving their country in the First World War…..
Nursing was one of the most common yet life changing duties undertaken by women during the war. They often worked very close to the front line, confronted by the horrific medical realities of conflict. We hold many records relating to such nurses, which can take many different formats, depending on the organisations the women served with.
One of the key record series is WO 399 which relates to the service records of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) and the Territorial Force Nursing Service during the First World War. These records often hold a wonderful level of detail, and can include character statements, information about the surrounding families’ status, and profession as part of the assessment.
We have the case of Mary Ann Brown, WO 399/1023, who served in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve): her service record follows her from Devonport in the UK, to the General Hospital at Alexandria, in Egypt. This is followed by a duty on the hospital ship Devantia, a stationing hospital in India, The Freeman Thomas Hospital in Bombay and No. 3 Bri General Hospital in Basra, where she worked until March 1919. She travelled widely, as many other nurses would have done. This must have been incredibly eye opening as most would have never been abroad before, yet they would now be shipping off to different theatres of war across the globe, experiencing previously unimaginable climates and cultures.