Since late 2021, an increasingly large group of volunteers has been working its way through record series WO 399, which comprises records of women who served in the military nursing services during and after the First World War. These records are available to view through our digital download service through the catalogue, and as a result we have volunteers from across the world taking part.
At the moment, there isn’t very much detail about these files in the catalogue, but as a result of our volunteers’ hard work, we will be able to expand the catalogue description further in due course to include details like rank and the parent unit (for Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) nurses), and confirm both married and maiden names as there does not appear to have been much consistency in whether the name was changed on a file after a nurse married, across the services. We’ll now be in a position to include both names, where applicable, which may make tracking down nurses who served under their maiden name but whose file is listed under their married names much easier!
We’re also going to be able to add actual dates of service to the catalogue description, as a combination of papers within the files allows us to determine this to the day for almost all the nurses in this series. For Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and QAIMNS Reserve nurses, most files include their enrolment forms, which give us a lot of detail. It’s unusual to find enrolment forms for TFNS nurses, but there are other details which allow us to work this out. Across the files, the appearance of an Army Form W 1365 or 1365(a) “Claim for a Gratuity on Cessation of Service” gives covering dates for a nurse’s mobilisation and demobilisation where she served in the First World War.
It’s been fascinating to spend so much time looking at these files, and this has given us a much better sense of the richness of these records. We know now, for example, that enrolment forms rarely survive in files belonging to nurses who served with the TFNS, but are almost always present in the files of QAIMNS nurses. On the other hand, confidential annual reports appear in virtually every TFNS file, but rarely appear in QAIMNS files. Correspondence within the files tells us that these reports were made for QAIMNS nurses but these seem to have been systematically weeded out. When the project began, it wasn’t clear that there were such clear differences between the records kept for the different units, but it is becoming apparent that the surviving files for the two main nursing services are distinct in terms of contents.
Both sets of records reveal a wealth of biographical and personal information. This project has also revealed the presence of Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses in the midst of the TFNS files, which was entirely unexpected. In due course, we’ll be comparing notes with the collections held at the British Red Cross archives to see what crossover there is too. We’ve also uncovered a number of files for women who served in the TFNS after the First World War, and the details of many women who served from the founding of these units before the war, sometimes up until the outbreak of war in 1939.
In addition to the facts and figures collected in the files, as we work through the files we are inevitably collecting a wide range of stories and anecdotes about the women who worked in the nursing services. Although some of these files are quite heavily weeded (and were so before they arrived at The National Archives), nonetheless it is possible to get a real sense of the women whose service they document. It’s also possible to trace relationships and friendships between women who worked in the nursing services.
Gertrude Allpress (WO 399/9427), for example, a staff nurse who was enrolled with the TFNS between 1916 and 1918, based in the 1st Eastern General Hospital at Trinity College, Cambridge, was very poorly with septicaemia before she was permanently invalided out of the service. Her file shows that the Matron-in-Chief, Dame Maud McCarthy, not only wrote to her during her convalescence to wish her a speedy recovery but also sent her a parcel of magazines to read at her leisure. This rather remarkable gesture of kindness, from the most senior nurse in the service to one of the most junior, was a really lovely find.
There is still capacity for the project to take on some more volunteers, so if you are interested or know someone who might be, please encourage them to take a look at the project page here, and get in touch.