Nursing at the Front: The Forgotten Heroes of the Great War

Trawling through the newspaper archives from 1914 to 1918 I came across the occasional story of awards for nurses, for their courage under fire at the front. Given the current global situation we find ourselves in, and all the praise rightfully directed at the amazing doctors and nurses of the NHS, I decided that this was worth a little more investigation.

Nurses at the Front

Stories of courage and gallantry from the fighting men at the front are easy to find and are so numerous that it would be impossible to research and write about them all. Was I did find rather odd was the lack of stories about the red cross nurses, who worked tirelessly all along the front, rarely complaining, just quietly getting on with their vital work. The stories that did find their way to print very rarely named the nurses who were to be commended officially.

There is the story of a Scottish physician, Doctor Elsie Inglis, who set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. Field hospitals staffed by volunteers, and set up on the battlefields of Belgium, France, Serbia, and Russia. At the outbreak of war Dr Inglis offered her services to the war office and was reportedly told to “go home and sit still!” Undeterred Dr Inglis set up her field hospital.

Dr Elsie Inglis

Where the British government had shunned the offer of support, the French government gratefully accepted, and the first hospital was set up in France. Another unit was set up in Serbia, which Inglis would lead herself. Volunteer nurses arrived in their hundreds, and eventually around fourteen teams were sent to battlefronts right across the continent.

Unarmed, often working under canvas which gave no protection from enemy air attack, and dealing with the most horrendous injuries, and diseases brought about by most unsanitary conditions in which they would also live and work, these courageous nurses, who rarely slept, would spend hours treating physical and mental injuries, comforting the men at their lowest points, and watching men die. Some of the nurses would succumb to the very diseases they were trying to treat.

Nurse Louisa Jordan

One of the volunteers for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals was Louisa Jordan from Glasgow. Jordan had worked at several hospitals in Scotland before volunteering for foreign service. She travelled to Serbia and joined the 1st Serbian unit. In 1915 Serbia suffered from a typhus epidemic, and Jordan was placed in charge of the typhus ward that was set up in response. She volunteered to look after Doctor Elizabeth Ross, who had answered an appeal by the Serbian Government for Doctors. While treating patients she had contracted typhus. Tragically both died of typhus; they knew there was the risk of this when they volunteered, and they volunteered all the same.

Dr Elizabeth Ross

This article is dedicated to all the Doctors and Nurses, past and present who have worked, and continue to work in hospitals, both civilian and military, all around the globe.

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