Nurses of Passchendaele...


...Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns 1914-1918, from Pen and Sword


Title: Nurses of Passchendaele

Author: Christine E. Hallett

Publisher: Pen and Sword

ISBN: 978-1-52670-288-3

This softback book from Pen and Sword is a fascinating read.  It covers the story of the nurses who came to work on the Western Front, caring for the tens of thousands of wounded in the horrors of WW1 trench warfare as well as the diseases that affected so many as well.

Today, 100 years on from WW1 we are still talking about equality for women and these days the British army even has female soldiers in what would be front line infantry units.  This however goes back to a time of transition when war was considered a 'man's task' and not a place for women.  However, this highlights that there were other things going on at the same time, in particular the modern weapons of war, particularly the machine gun, the large scale use of artillery and the military use of aircraft and the huge numbers of troops of citizen soldiers.  At the outbreak of war the medical support for these changes was ill prepared.  Volunteer nurses came from the UK, America, Canada, Australia and South Africa.  The system that developed, and which became more refined with experience as the years of war went by, went from stretcher bears on the battlefield itself, returning wounded to a Regimental Aid Post, then transfer to a Casualty Clearing Station, then to a rear area Base Hospital and ultimately return to hospitals in the UK.

The book explains all the arrangements along with the more personal stories of the individual nurses thanks to records from diaries and letters, the work they did and the conditions they had to live and work in.  Some of the descriptions of the wounds they had to cope with and how new techniques were developed to cope with devastating effects of shell splinters and machine gun fire on a human body really make you think.   Some of the Casualty Clearing Stations were not too far behind the lines, and in areas where their own artillery was sited.  The result was that they became a target as well, from artillery shelling and aerial bombing.  There were casualties among the nurses, and there were times when they also were affected by poison gas drifting in from the front line, or from shelling.  Added to all this there was disease, from Trench Foot, Typhoid, and in 1918, Spanish Flu.

There is a section of archive photos showing us the faces of a number of the nurses whose stories are told in the text, and one photo of a stitched leg which I found a very graphic example of what they achieved.  There is a lot in this book which paints a picture not only of the invaluable contribution of the nurses themselves, but the wider context of the war itself.  I would go so far as to say that for anyone with an interest in the events of WW1 that this should be among your required reading.  Though over hopeful, maybe if some of the generals who launched their men over mud filled terrain in futile attacks that cost thousands of lives, just maybe it could have given them pause to think again.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for this review copy.