Reviewed by Jim Young
Professor Christine E. Hallett
Published by Oxford University Press
The backbone of this book is book is the nurse. The stalwart, relentless application of good nursing care and management in the face of almost overwhelming adversity literally saved the lives of thousands of casualties during the First World War. If it is to be called the “Great War” then these were Great Nurses. But were they heroines? Or was this an artefact of the authorship of the contemporary journals that were coloured by the sometimes abrasive, sometimes collaborative relationship between voluntary versus trained nurses? Professor Hallett’s book looks at these questions and at the independence of action that was facilitated for these early volunteers by way of their wealth and connections.
From the early days of the war when the deluge of unexpectedly large numbers of casualties needed innovative responses for triage and evacuation, all through the barbaric days of military attrition on the Western Front, and on past armistice day where the ravages of Spanish flu needed skilled nursing care – the trained nurses were there working, and working unbelievably hard to save lives.
The book visits all the front lines from the western trenches, to Gallipoli, from the Middle East to Russia and describes the particular demands these environs presented for nursing both the casualties of war and the similarly huge numbers of combatants suffering from endogenous diseases. Which of course also affected the nurses. The relocation of surgical and resuscitative care close to the front lines was one of the innovations that helped to save so many lives by establishing wound care before the long process of evacuation started.
The extracts from the diaries of the nurses takes us to the mud and blood of the front lines and also to the red raw emotions of young women who were caring for young men with horrendous injuries. The pages are moist with their silent tears of exasperation when they were unable to save many young men due to the logistics of the sudden influxes of casualties from battles whose names still resonate with horror today, and the inability of the lines of evacuation to cope.
But the nurses did cope! Throughout the book one is immersed in nursing care and the ability of true nursing competence to win through. The importance of basic ward cleanliness and management alongside the science of wound care are the facts of the matter. The photographs of nurses (both British and Commonwealth) and their patients are poignant. Whilst recoiling from the tears of their exhaustion and exasperation the reader is wrapped in the blanket of care that was draped around the ramrod dedication of the nursing sisters – and we long to reach out to help. At the same time nurses the world over will identify with these nurses and say “Yes, this is what nurses do”.
The book is a resplendent testimony to the nurses of the First World War and it is reassuring to remember that these attributes are human traits that can, and may resurge in the uncertain days of the 21st century should the dire consequences of pre antibiotic era ever return. Unfortunately as wars go on, antibiotic resistance increases.
As the chlorine gas burned out the eyes of the soldiers and drowned their lungs I heard the words “Oh death where is thy sting? Oh grave where is thy victory” for these nurses were there at the edge and brought many, many men back from the grave!
At the hundredth anniversary of WW1 this book bleeds and pleads for an end to war by lancing the mythological abscess of heroic nationalism. It is a testament to heroic nurses or more accurately to heroic nursing.