Kudos to Hallett for a comprehensive yet concise history of the heroes who remain misty and unseen at the edges of the battlefields, military nurses of the first world war. She has tried to interview or access material about nurses from every single nation that participated on the Allied side, and it turns out that is a lot more countries than I had realized. Though she was limited by the fact that she does not speak many different languages and could not always get interpreters, she has done a remarkably solid job. Thank you to Oxford University Press and Net Galley for the chance to read it prior to its mid-October publication.
Hallett traces the evolution of the military nursing protocol, from hauling endless wounded from the faraway fields (prior to the development of the trench system) and treating those who survived the ungentle trip across rough roads in wagons, then later trains; to the mobile systems that went closer to the battlefield—different systems used in Western Europe than those used by Russia and much of Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and North America—and she notes the awareness of germs and need to flush the wounds before the development of penicillin. My back ached for the heroic nurses—both those professionally trained, known as “sisters” though they were not nuns—to the women from elite classes who decided it was time to man up and leave their gentrified hothouse environments and travel to places where they could do some good, to the military interns that later joined some of them. Initially they were treating patients who lay on the floor. In one situation, there were 8 nurses for 600 patients. Some nurses had to run when the enemy advanced, and others were captured.
She speaks about the term “shell shock” catching on, but how suspicious the British public seemed to be of soldiers who were sick, especially mentally ill, as opposed to those who came away without limbs or other visible injuries.
She described frostbitten toes actually falling off in trenches! I knew amputations often had to happen, but falling off? This was news to me. A shudder ran through me. And it happened again when she described the arcing of the Tetanus-ridden soldier’s body as every muscle seized. The horror!
I was outraged to hear that hospital trains and ships were fired upon by the enemy. In one such case, when the Turks fired across the bow, it was commented by someone in command that the enemy could have sunk the ship, but just wanted to remind the hospital ship to act like a hospital ship. This made me wonder whether any of the Allied forces were so unrestrained as to use hospital conveyance as a means to smuggle armaments, as was the case during the second world war when cruise ships and merchant marines smuggled armaments in their hold; but this is a digression and so of course, Hallett does not go there. But the fact that I read all this information and came away with new questions speaks to how informative and engaging Hallett’s work is.
If you have an interest in nursing history, military history, or a combination of the two, this is sure to answer your questions. I confess I would have liked more of a story-like quality to the prose, like a narrative nonfiction, but that is just a picky detail. Hallett’s research is meticulous—check the endnotes that comprise about 25% of the text; everything she gives us is fastidiously documented, and she has gone to so many sources that the ordinary reader could never access, the hallmark of worthwhile historical research.
Both the researcher and the humble blogger greatly appreciate the summaries included at the end of each chapter, which largely relieved me of the need to flag pages. This is especially useful given the lack of filler in this work. Every page was essential, and so I was flagging almost everything till I came to the summaries.
Strong work and well done, in short.
Every one of the Allied nations of World War I should award Hallett a medal of her own.