Remembrance Day: Wartime nurses
Nurses attend to patients injured during wartime

The International Business Times is marking Remembrance Day with a series of forgotten stories of war.

The role of women is often overlooked, but with the recent publication by The National Archives of the First World War nursing records there is a new insight into the courage and dedication of the women who cared for the millions of injured soldiers.

As Britain marks the 93rd anniversary of Armistice on Nov. 11, it provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on the First World War and the efforts of those involved. Often forgotten are members of the women's nursing service who played a critical role during wartimes.

The National Archives in the UK recently published more than 15,000 First World War nursing service records online. Using modern technology to share the information with the public, the records offer a detailed insight into a fascinating part of history and reveals the life stories of the women who dedicated their lives to their nursing profession.

In one of the largest ever collections of women's records to date, the files depict an usually high level of detail and document the nurses' full service history including dates and places of birth, training prior to and during the war, units they served in and confidential reports containing their superiors' assessment of their performance.

Principal Military Records Specialist at The National Archives, William Spencer, said making the records available online was "a big step forward with digitisation" because the documents are now more accessible to the public.

"By making this vast collection accessible online, more people than ever before can learn about these unsung heroines of the Great War or even discover military nursing ancestors," he said.

"Unlike the men's rank records, these nurses' records are much more intact with regards to the amounts of data they hold. Nurses' records run to tens of pages... They're much more comprehensive. For these women they're very, very detailed."

Interestingly, the nurses' records also document the way in which they have been affected from their experiences during wartime, including notes on seeing the horrors of industrialised warfare and the effects of the war on their health - both mentally and physically.

In Dame Sidney Browne's file, her medical report states she is suffering from bad knees, has trouble walking and various other ailments which the doctor puts down to "war strain".

However, this may have been due to the fact that she served for 35 years, and across four different wars, remaining dedicated to her profession until the age of 68.

Among the many extraordinary facts revealed in the nursing records, the life story of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler from Wakefield, Yorkshire is particularly interesting. The 26-year-old was posted to the 44th Casualty Clearing Station in Belgium less than a year after joining the service, where she was killed in heavy shelling on Aug. 21, 1917. Her file includes the letter of notification sent to her mother and details of her will. Nellie was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium, and she was one of only two female casualties buried alongside 10,000 men who also lost their lives.

The Changing Role of Women During Wartime

The nurses' records not only show a good example of women in warfare but also demonstrate the changing role of women in society, notes Spencer. "[The records] highlight the role of women in the armed forces and the interesting ways society has changed over time."

The number of women working in a variety of roles during wartime dramatically reduced or disappeared altogether. But nurses retained their presence. "Nurses, although the numbers reduced, their services as such didn't disappear like others," explained Spencer.

Military nurses were deemed as highly qualified, dedicated to their profession and made a valuable contribution in their roles. Their prevalence in the community continues to be respected, even today, says Spencer. "The First World War set a very important precedence to women and their role in society in such a way that we've never regressed from."

Spencer emphasises the valuable contribution nurses made to society during a time of ongoing conflict. While they only made up a small portion of the overall military forces and teams, their roles were critical in providing assistance to those in need. "You've got all these women who volunteered to do their bit. They did a lot."

A major change in society occurred as a result, explains Spencer, where the woman's role became more recognised. "The armed forces have changed from being a very male dominated organisation to a much more balanced organisation," Spencer points out.

A Time to Reflect, Learn and Show Gratitude

Remembrance Day is a time to acknowledge the contribution of the people who played an integral role in the community at that point in time. Most people think of the ones who died overseas - they don't always think about the nurses or people in other roles locally who played equally important roles, Spencer says. "By reintroducing and reinforcing the role of women and their contribution during the war, they should be remembered."

Being well connected to wartime research and artefacts, Spencer says there's not a day that goes by where he doesn't have to deal with someone who sacrificed so much in serving this country. "I remember them every day," he said. "It [Remembrance Day] is for the armed forces and in many cases for the innocent victims who have gone forgotten."

Remembrance Day is a timely reminder for us all how much those sacrificed for us more than 90 years ago in the First World War and again in World War II, says Spencer. "And it's because of the contributions made by them that those of us living today don't need to be making the same sacrifices. We live in a better world today because of their sacrifices."

Spencer says the most important message that Remembrance Day can bring is a good reminder that we want to continue to live in a peaceful society. "The sacrifices that people have made will remain important and we will learn [from them] and continue to live in a peaceful world."