The Role of the Women

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Before war broke out there were only approximately 200 female doctors. There were many more trained nurses - about 120,000 in 1900.
Women carrying out nursing had become more acceptable thanks to Florence Nightingale's work during the Crimean War (1854 - 1856 fought near the Black Sea). She travelled abroad where she nursed wounded soldiers and cleaned hospitals. She also trained nurses.
Before the Crimean War, although there had been doctors in military hospitals, the people who looked after the hospital were often patients who had recovered enough to help. These helpers often had no interest in the patients and were bad nurses and cooks. Florence changed all this dramatically.
Staff Shortages
There was a shortage of trained medical staff during World War One. This meant that London Medical Colleges changed their admission policies to accept more women as medical students. In 1914, the London School of Medicine for Women had its largest intake ever recorded.
The war meant many changes for the roles of female nurses and doctors. It became much more common for female nurses and doctors to treat male patients. Before the war they had mainly treated female patients.
One hospital was run entirely by women. Endell Street Military Hospital in London was set up by Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. They were both suffragettes which means they believed in women having the right to vote.
The hospital was very busy, admitting sometimes as many as 80 casualties a day. Its surgeons were performing as many as 20 operations in one day. More than 24,000 soldiers were treated there.
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Doctor Elsie Maud Inglis of the Scottish Women's Hospital
Elsie Inglis was a Scottish doctor who worked for an organisation called Scottish Women's Hospitals.
In 1914, Elsie offered to help but the Army did not permit women doctors so she set up a medical unit in France instead. Elsie sent 14 teams of women volunteers to give medical help on the battlefields.
In 1915 Elsie went to Serbia, where Serbs were fighting Germans and Austrians. She faced many hardships, dangerous battles, freezing weather and being arrested as a spy.
From Serbia, Elsie went to Russia to work as a war doctor. Elsie returned to Britain in November 1917 due to cancer and she died shortly after her return.
Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses cared for wounded soldiers.
In August 1914 there were approximately 9,000 VAD members, by 1918 there were 23,000 nurses and 18,000 orderlies.

Nurse training
The Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance Brigade trained VAD nurses since they had not been nurses in peacetime. Most were women, though when VAD started in 1914 men could join as well. They were all volunteers, so they did not get paid.

Off to France
Thousands of women became VAD nurses, and some went to France, helping in hospitals close to the battlefields. VAD nurses cared for wounded and sick soldiers in Army hospitals and 'rest stations', where exhausted soldiers had a few days to recover, and in convalescent homes, where they could stay until they were as well as possible.
War Nurses
  • Edith Cavell, a nurse working in Belgium, helped Allied soldiers escape from the Germans by hiding them in basements before helping them travel to Holland. As a result of this work, Edith was sentenced to death. (more detailed information available)
  • Katherine Furse of the VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment] nurses later became commander-in-chief of the organisation, and came under fire during the Battle of the Marne in 1914.
  • Vera Brittain – linked to sction.
  • Aged 16, Marjorie Grigsby said she was 20 years old so that she could become a war nurse in 1916.
  • Flora Sandes went to Serbia in 1914 as a nurse, but became a soldier in the Serbian Army.
  • Agatha Christie the author was also a VAD.
  • Around 200 nurses from British military nursing services were killed or died during the wa

VAD nurses wore uniforms that included a blue dress and a white pinafore. The rules were strict: no make-up, no long nails, always look smart, always carry scissors, safety pins and a pencil! VAD nurses said they were 'willing to do anything' so would often wash and clean as well as nurse their patients.
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