STIFF caps pinned to their heads, once-white aprons valiantly attempting to protect their clothes from blood spatter, and with only a handful of bandages, hot water and a bottle of iodine to tend to the bullet wounds and shrapnel damage of injured soldiers caked in the mud of the trenches, the nurses battled to keep them alive.
With the constant threat of cholera, typhoid and tetanus at the ward doors, and the daily horror of dealing with injuries inflicted by enemy bayonets, bombs or bullets, the women who volunteered to go to war to offer care and medical aid found themselves in conditions which they would never have imagined in their worst nightmares.
Yet they were as essential to the war effort – be it in Crimea, South Africa. America, or the trenches in France – as the men who volunteered to bear arms.
And while many of their names are now held in high regard – Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, and of course Dr Elsie Inglis who came second in Edinburgh’s 100 Greatest people list – there were hundreds of others who worked in makeshift hospitals with little equipment and medicine to try and help save the lives of the endless flood of injured soldiers.
Their importance to war efforts throughout history are at the heart of a new exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons, Words and Deeds: Women, Warfare and Caregiving – a joint project between the College and Edinburgh University. While the exhibition shows how a “disproportionate number” of Scottish women went to the front lines – especially during the world wars – including Edinburgh nurses such as Madge Neill Fraser, Jessie Jamieson and Jessie Murray, whose Scottish Women’s Hospitals Service medals are on show, it also questions why women would give up their home comforts for the danger of war.
“It’s one of the big questions,” says Chris Henry, director of heritage at the Surgeon’s Hall who curated the exhibition along with Yvonne McEwen of the university’s Centre for The Study of Modern Conflict.
“Why would any woman want to be involved with that? It’s more understandable with men who want to show their bravery and courage by volunteering, but at times when women couldn’t even practice as doctors, to go abroad to deal with the injuries of soldiers seems really astounding, especially when they were faced with injuries that they would never have seen before.
“Our military collection here shows the advance of medicine as far as surgeons were concerned, but we wanted to look at what women were also doing at this time.
“They had a pivotal role in saving people and we’re looking at the period from the Napoleonic to the end of the Second World War, showing what they had to contend with and how that changed during different conflicts as warfare and medicine advanced. That they went to war willingly shows the depth of their commitment to their profession.”
Yvonne adds: “There are so many stories of these amazing women, and it’s quite frustrating that this exhibition only really scrapes the surface of what they went through.
“Some went to war because they were Suffragists, or because they wanted their profession as nurses to be officially recognised. Others because it gave them a chance to show their skills, to prove what they, as women, were capable of.
“And yet their efforts have for the most part been forgotten.
“It always infuriates me that when people talk of the casualties of war they mean the soldiers, never the women who were also there caring for all the injured, and who were also killed.
“How did they think these soldiers got better – by magic? It’s as if nurses were just ‘there’ because they should have been. But they didn’t need to – they went because they were humanitarians.”
The stories of Nightingale and Seacole and the Crimea have been well told, but less well known are those of the women involved in America’s Civil War and the Boer War in South Africa – including the ‘curious’ tale of James Miranda Barry, an army surgeon whose hospital had the most successful recovery rates during the Crimean War.
At the time he graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University women were not permitted to study medicine or join the army. So when Dr Barry died and the body was laid out, it came as a shock to discover that he was in fact a woman, born Margaret Ann Bulkley.
“She trained here though was originally from Ireland, and qualified as a doctor when women were not allowed to study medicine, which was why she needed the deception,” says Chris. “She kept that up for more than 50 years which was remarkable, but medically she did amazing things.”
Yvonne says that pioneering women such as Bulkley paved the way for women to be taken seriously in medicine, although by the time of the First World War Dr Elsie Inglis was still told by government officials to “go home and sit still” when she first suggested establishing the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Service.
Of course she ignored such advice and went on to establish one of the most successful war hospital services ever – setting up 14 medical units to serve in Corsica, France, Malta, Romania, Russia, Salonika and Serbia, providing nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks and orderlies.
Her service attracted hundreds of other women such as Madge Fraser – who was a renowned golfer – and staff nurse Jessie Jamieson.
Yvonne, who compiled the first comprehensive Rolls of Honour of nurses who lost their lives in the two world wars and is chair of the Nurses’ War Memorial Committee, adds: “So many women went as doctors, nurses, orderlies. . . one that stands out for me particularly is Kate Luard.
“She nursed in the Boer War and went straight to France in 1914 and was there till 1918.
“She wrote about her experience in the Great War in a book, Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, which was published in Edinburgh by Blackwood.
“It was published anonymously because she was the first to break the silence around the heinousness of what was happening at the trenches. Not a man, or a journalist, but a woman and a nurse.
“She knew what she was bringing on herself because it wouldn’t take five minutes to figure out who she was and she could have been drummed out of the army nursing service, her brothers could have lost their positions in the army and navy and she could have been ostracised by society.
“But she felt it was important people knew the truth of what was going on.”
Lack of exhibition space has meant that Yvonne had to leave out two women she’d loved to have highlighted in the exhibition: Elizabeth MacAuley, the matron of Craighouse Hospital before the war who was the first nurse assigned to a shell-shock hospital in France and spent the rest of the war caring for those soldiers and writing policies on their care – and Frances Rhind who worked with the Women’s Hospital in Serbia and then became matron of Edinburgh’s shell-shock hospital Kingston House at Craigend Park on her return.
“These, and many others, are the women we don’t talk about yet we owe a great debt of gratitude,” she says. “There were female doctors and nurses developing new ways of dealing with wounds and complex fractures, designing gowns to let patients be more comfortable and access to wounds easier, one nurse invented an audiometry machine after realising her patients from the Royal Artillery were losing their hearing, and we still benefit from that today. They are so inspiring.”
And, says Chris, it can’t be forgotten that the women also suffered the same kind of traumatic deaths as the soldiers, dying from shrapnel injuries, and illnesses like typhoid, malaria and cholera.
“They were also in danger of aerial bombardment or even being torpedoed as they sailed,” he says. “And in work, the major thing they faced was the horrendous conditions and the sheer number of casualties something that we can’t really grasp.
“As modern warfare developed the casualty numbers grew and by the time of the First World War nurses were having to cope with thousands of patients in a way that just doesn’t happen these days.
“What these women went through and did, deserves to be celebrated.”
• Words and Deeds: Women, Warfare and Caregiving is on at Surgeon’s Hall Museum until November 1st. Call 0131-527 1711 for more information.
Better care, but still scary
MODERN day nursing in war zones is a far cry from the days when fighting cholera was as important as stitching up wounds.
Facilities and medicines are vastly superior, but one Edinburgh nurse knows just how terrifying it can still be to work near the frontline.
Helen Singh MBE, below, works in critical care at Edinburgh’s Western General hospital, but in 2010 she was stationed for three months in Camp Bastion in the Helmand Province as part of the 205 (Scottish) Field Hospital (Volunteers) to help deal with soldiers ands civilian victims.
The facility there, says the 47-year-old from Duddingston, included 50 beds and nine trauma wards, and Helen says she had to learn much more about paediatrics as many of the injured were Afghan children.
But what hasn’t changed over the centuries are the cries of the wounded waiting for help, wondering if their damaged limbs will be saved or amputated.
She says: “You never knew what you were going to be faced with. You would hear the helicopter blades heading your way and had to brace yourself.
“It can be very frightening for children especially. They are hurt and they have no idea what’s happening to them. Dealing with that calmly is the way to help them calm down.
“But the thing that will never leave me is the guys’ courage and determination. I suppose it’s part of their make-up, a robust mind set, but it was a real privilege to look after them.”