Dr Islam Issa, curator of the exhibition and lecturer in English at Birmingham City University, recalled how e-mails and letters from descendants of Muslim soldiers were full of gratitude, often with the qualification that ‘we didn’t think anyone cared’.
In 1914, Laurence Haward, the first Director of the Manchester Art Gallery, began collecting important works of war art. Haward spoke of modern war not as a romantic adventure or performance of heroic make-believe, but bitterness and courage, folly and waste. The artist, he concluded, was in tune with the meaning and impact of war, and ‘will reflect that world and the human emotions it arouses’. Haward’s words made a powerful testimony for the artists of the period who strove to communicate the sensation and impact of modern war.
The First World War saw over 2 million soldiers from Britain and the Dominions wounded. Whether conscript or volunteer, officer or other ranks, British or colonial, military medical organisations played a pivotal role in evacuating the wounded from the frontline to the casualties and treating patients in order to return to the front. Artists depicted the chaos of the frontline casualty, the wounded soldier’s experience of pain and helplessness, and medical attempts to alleviate the agony of wounds or the shock of witnessing the death of comrades. Countering such images of pain, were also images of men’s suffering relieved, seen in the efforts of stretcher-bearers and nurses. Doctors also shared the personal cost of the war, with thousands killed and wounded. Artists, many with frontline experiences as soldiers or as medical workers, often confronted what they witnessed as the inhumanity of modern war with gestures of both collective pain and humane attempts to provide assistance. Paul Nash, for instance, depicted ashen-faced stretcher-bearers carrying their wounded burden across a landscape pitted with charred trees (Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918).
Under the lurid green sky, almost gangrenous in tone, the arduous journey of evacuation transforms an everyday occurrence on the frontline into an apocalyptic scene.
Combining pathos and intimacy with epic power, Henry Lamb recreated the medical encounter of the First World War in his monumental oil painting, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma, 1916 (183.6 x 212.3cm). Lamb finished the work in 1921, but before that he had worked as a doctor for the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece. This front has received far less attention in the commemoration culture of the last few years, but it held a deep meaning for Lamb. The campaign around the river Struma aimed to push back the Bulgarian advance into eastern Greece. The area was targeted for the liberation of Serbia from the Central Powers. From the position of a medical officer, Lamb witnessed the casualties engaged in the British push across the river towards the strategic city of Serres in Greek Macedonia.
The scene of a dressing station set deep in the forest is modernist in design but bears strong religious overtones that lend emotional weight to the image of helping the wounded. The central group focuses on the relationship between a wounded man and a stretcher-bearer, who attends him with a cup of water, a great relief that many soldiers wrote about as the comfort given between men. Thirst and cold were understood much later in the war as signs of hemorrhage and shock. The bearer’s hand gently touches the wounded man’s head, providing comfort symbolic of the pietà (Christian iconography of Mary cradling Jesus’ corpse).
Indeed, the pietà was often used in war-time humanitarian images of nurses caring for wounded men. But Lamb transforms the theme into an effigy of masculine care and the intimate brotherhood of shared suffering. Placed on the ledge of a shallow trench, the stretcher resembles an altar. In the right hand corner is a Thomas splint used for compound fractures, from which soldiers could die. Pathos is also created by the figure on the left, head in hand, perhaps affected by malaria, a common disease of this front, or perhaps a reference to psychological suffering. The central figure stands over the patient, staring pensively into the distance. Made three years after the end of the war, the composition of this painting symbolises the pain and succour of the entire conflict.
In May 1918, he arrived on the Western Front where he suffered gas poisoning and was invalided home ahead of the Armistice. Lamb exhibited a number of drawings and watercolours at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1920. One of these prompted the Gallery Director, Lawrence Haward, to commission Lamb to make this major painting as the beginning of a war art collection for Manchester City Art Gallery.
This was on display among other works at the award-winning Whitworth Art Gallery, co-curated by Senior Curator David Morris and Ana Carden-Coyne (Centre for the Cultural History of War, University of Manchester). Visions of the Front, 1916-1918 and ended on November 20, 2016, although a descriptive video describing the picture is online.
In this post, New Generation Thinker Dr Sam Goodman (Bournemouth University) reflects on the role female nurses played in WW1, and on how the reality is embellished in historical dramas such as Downton Abbey.
In this time of renewed focus on the First World War, both in a commemorative and also a cultural sense, we are confronted regularly with the experience and imagery of suffering. Arguably, TV and film productions that dramatize the war have a responsibility to depict its various horrors, from the squalor of the dugouts through to the trauma of violent injury in battle, and very few shy away from doing so. Of equal importance as these male perspectives on war in the trenches though is the female experience of conflict. In many ways, the roles played by women in the First World War offer more varied accounts than their male counterparts, as they include the stories of those women in Britain either employed in industry or waiting for return of a loved one, or those overseas working in a range of capacities in support of the military. Of all of these roles, one of the most recurrent is that of the nurse. The nurse and her experiences are a staple of popular fiction, and have proved evident in recent televisual productions such as The Crimson Field and Downton Abbey, as well as the film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth.
The representation of nursing in these productions typically follows a similar narrative pattern – a young and headstrong woman desires greatly to contribute to the war effort often in defiance of her parents’ wishes, her class status, or some other obstacle. She overcomes initial resistance and gets her wish but her ideals and illusions are shattered by the brutal reality of modern warfare, leaving her emotionally scarred but ultimately changed for the better as a result of her experiences. This is certainly the case with a character like Sybil Crawley from Downton Abbey, whose growing consciousness of the difference between her parents’ values and her own manifests itself successively in daring fashion choices, romance with the family chauffeur, and then a decision to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1916. Sybil’s actions cause all manner of narrative tension but her compassion and dedication to helping others ultimately convinces her parents that nursing is a respectable occupation befitting her social standing. Sybil’s experience appears to deliberately echo Vera Brittain’s journey in Testament of Youth, though does not, as in Brittain’s case, result in a life-long support for pacifism.
Whilst Downton is entirely fictitious and some liberties are taken with the events in Brittain’s memoir in the adaptation, the image of the ‘daring’ or ‘rebellious’ nurse that these texts project is not one created with dramatic licence. The history of nursing had always owed a great deal to the efforts of driven and determined women. At the beginning of the First World War, a professional, organised nursing service was still a relatively recent development within the world of the armed forces, and had only just begun to gain the respectability it would later acquire. A generation earlier and a professional, trained nursing service was a novelty, and a near practical unknown. Until the late nineteenth-century, nursing was mainly the work of religious orders or organisations, or relied on the voluntary actions of individuals; in the Crimean War of 1853-56, women such as Mary Seacole and, of course, Florence Nightingale would be celebrated for their charitable actions, conducted without any organisational support, and little interest from the military command they were aiding. Subsequently to the Crimea, nurses such as Nightingale and Ethel Gordon Fenwick would be instrumental in developing rigorous and professionalised training programmes and a national register for nurses within the United Kingdom. These schools later became affiliated with hospitals and, as a result of the efforts of Fenwick and others, as well as influential royal support, nursing grew into the organised body on which the modern service is based. With the founding of the Army Nursing Service (ANS) in 1881, the Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in 1902, the British Army’s First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in 1907, and the VAD in 1909 nursing became more widely known and respected, and these services would provide crucial medical care when war came in 1914.
Of course the romanticised ideal of the Edwardian woman escaping the strictures of the household for a life of emancipation and liberation in the service of nursing owes a good deal to the recruitment drives mounted throughout the war. The image of the nurse created by the war was one of selflessness and sacrifice, determined to provide care no matter what the personal risks may be, a perception fuelled by the public feeling over the execution of Edith Cavell for espionage in 1915. Of course far more Edwardian women were already in work before the outbreak of war than most people assume, and the virtuous image of wartime nursing was ruthlessly satirised in Blackadder Goes Forth (1986) in which Miranda Richardson’s Nurse Mary Fletcher-Brown smokes, drinks and dryly declares that ‘it’s good to have someone healthy to talk to for a change’. However, for some women, service in VAD, QAIMNS, or FANY did nonetheless equip them with skills and experience, and instil confidence that they otherwise would not have had opportunity to acquire. Any fictional focus on these experiences, even if they do bend the truth a little for dramatic effect, plays an important part in remedying the notion that the First World War took place only in the trenches.
In this guest blog, Jessica Meyer introduces the many people a wounded soldier would meet on his evacuation from the front.
The first people a soldier was likely to encounter after being wounded would be very familiar. Regimental stretcher bearers were drawn from combatant units and were trained in basic stretcher drill and first aid. During action, they exchanged rifles for stretchers and stood ready to bring wounded men in from No Man’s Land. They would help apply field dressings, and carry the injured to the Regimental Aid Post. The men there would, again, be familiar figures as part of the man’s regiment. The Regimental Medical Officer, a Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) officer, was the military equivalent of the GP, dealing with day-to-day illnesses and accidents as well as wounds sustained in action. Servicemen regularly encountered their medical officer and the orderly who accompanied him on sick parade or during inspections for trench foot and the like.
From there, the wounded man would be entrusted to a less familiar group of men, the stretcher bearers supplied by a field ambulance. These men were members of the RAMC rather than a combatant unit, and their wartime role revolved entirely around the transport of sick and injured men. They had better levels of training in both wound care and stretcher drill than regimental bearers. Indeed, as Emily Mayhew has argued, by the end of the war they had developed what might be defined as a professional identity as care providers, something they took great pride in (Emily Mayhew, Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 [London, 2013], 6). George Swindell, for instance, recalled in his memoirs the experience of transporting a man with an abdominal wound for two hours, only for him to die within ten minutes of arriving at an aid post when an infantry sergeant gave him water:
‘on our way back we looked up the men who had shouted at us, and told them we knew our work, that was why we were there, and as the result of an individual, who did not understand, that case was lying dead, we told them how his life would probably have been saved, but for the water opening up the wound again, and we also asked them to help us in future, not hinder us’
George Swindell, In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Ts. Memoir, Wellcome Library, RAMC 421, p.151.
The stretcher bearers transported men to the aid posts where they were treated by RAMC officers and tent units of a field ambulance. Tent orderlies increasingly developed care-giving expertise with a focus on wound care, first aid and the dispensing of pain relief. Like the stretcher bearers, they served under the authority of officers who were all medical professionals drawn from civil practice and the medical schools.
From the dressing stations, transport shifted from manual bearing to vehicles. Motor ambulances replaced horse-drawn ambulance wagons in the early years of the war, resulting in a change in the character of the transport providers. Instead of drivers drawn from the ranks of the RAMC, motor ambulances were primarily provided by the Motor Ambulance Convoys. Established in 1915 drivers had as much mechanical as medical knowledge. From 1916, as the war went on, and the manpower shortage grew more acute, female drivers from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps increasingly replaced male ambulance drivers.
At the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), the next stop along the line of evacuation, the wounded man would again encounter medical officers and tent orderlies. This was also the first place he might expect to encounter female nurses, exclusively professional nursing sisters serving with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service. As the war progressed, he might also encounter female anaesthetists and radiographers, as medical dilution in response to the army’s demands for manpower brought more women into these roles. In exceptional cases, a man might find himself in one of the few hospitals run entirely by women, such as those provided by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, although these units were under the authority of the British Red Cross or allied military commands, rather than the War Office. Indeed, Dr Elsie Inglis, who led the Scottish Women’s Hospital, was famously told by the War Office to ‘go home and sit still!’ when she offered her services to the war effort. The role of women working close to the front line remained a deeply contentious issue for British military authorities throughout the war.
It was on the next stage of his journey that the wounded man would be treated predominantly by voluntary, as opposed to military, medical units. The British military regarded medical volunteers, who did not come directly under their authority, with some suspicion and did not allow them too near the front line. Voluntary units did, however, provide staff for the hospital trains, barges and motor ambulances which transferred men between CCS and Base hospitals. These included both male units, such as the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, often formed of conscientious objectors, and female units of nursing Voluntary Aid Detachments. In 1914 there were 551 male detachments, as well as 1,823 female detachments; by 1918, there were 836 male and 3,247 female detachments. These units also served aboard the hospital ships, and volunteer units also provided ambulance transport between trains and hospitals in Britain, a service described as ‘a double role which truly merits the country’s admiration’, as it was carried out in addition to whatever regular work the volunteer did. (Ward Muir, Observations of an Orderly: Some Glimpses of Life and Work, in an English War Hospital [London, 1917], 207.)
In military hospitals, volunteers might provide nursing and general service, the latter performing the tasks of cooking, cleaning and mending that allowed the hospital to function while the former aided professional nurses and doctors in providing medical care. Red Cross hospitals were supervised by professional nursing sisters and all doctors were honourary officers. Those serving in home hospitals had probably been judged as unsuitable in some way for overseas service. This could be related to age, health, areas of expertise (in the case of medical officers) or character (often cited in relation to volunteers). As the war went on, home hospitals became increasingly feminine spaces, as women took on the roles of male orderlies who were increasingly combed out for combatant service. At Base hospitals, men deemed unfit for frontline service, often having suffered wounds or illness, were substituted for fitter orderlies.
In Britain, further social care was offered. Groups of women provided the food and cigarettes at train stations, similar to the comforts, while committees such as the Leeds War Hospital Entertainment Scheme, founded in 1916, provided entertainment to men confined by the tedium of recovery. The ‘lady visitor’ was mocked in hospital journals, personifying civilian ignorance and inconsequentiality. She was, however, only one of the many people who cared for wounded men both medically and emotionally on the long journey from battlefield to hospital.