The National Archives has recently made available online more than 15,000 First World War nursing service records.
The records, which you can find at the Documents Online website, date from 1902-1922 and hold an unusually high level of detail, rarely seen in service records. Files chart the nurses’ full service history, including:
- date and place of birth
- training prior to and during the war;
- references as to their suitability as military nurses;
- hospitals, field ambulances, casualty clearing stations and other medical units they served in;
- confidential reports containing their superiors’ assessment of their performance.
‘Unsung heroines of the Great War’
William Spencer, Principal Military Records Specialist at The National Archives, says: ‘These First World War records represent one of the largest and most significant collections of women’s records to date. Rich in detail, they will serve as a valuable resource for historians and researchers interested in the changing role of women in the military, during times of war, in the workplace, and society in general. By making this vast collection accessible online, more people than ever before can learn about these unsung heroines of the Great War or even discover military nursing ancestors.’
Among the many extraordinary life stories revealed in the WO 399 files, we can find the story of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler from Wakefield, Yorkshire. The 26-year-old was posted to the 44th Casualty Clearing Station in Belgium less than a year after joining the service, where she was killed in heavy shelling on 21 August 1917. Her file includes the letter of notification sent to her mother and details of her will. Nellie was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium, one of only two female casualties buried alongside 10,000 men who also lost their lives.
Dame Ethel Becher, Matron-in-Chief 1910-1919. Described as ‘a worthy successor of the greatest of all military nurses Miss Florence Nightingale’, Dame Ethel Becher was awarded the Royal Red Cross on two separate occasions.
Dame Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief 1914-1919. Serving through two wars, the Australian Dame Maud McCarthy was described as ‘one of the most capable women who have served this country’ and was awarded the Royal Red Cross and bar.