Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War
Reviewed by Editor David F. Beer

Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War
by Christine E. Hallett
Published by Oxford University Press, 2014

If, like me, you're an avid follower of the TV series Downton Abbey, then you have probably admired the aristocratic Lady Sybil. During the Great War she devotes herself to the duties of a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) who, with minimal if any training, helps to take care of wounded soldiers on the grounds of her family's lavish estate. Also, if you've read Vera Brittain's classic Testament of Youth you may recall Brittain's own account of her good and bad experiences as a VAD during the war. Other literature has also portrayed the VAD as a hardworking, courageous, and long-suffering voluntary "nurse". Thus it's not surprising that such publicity has led us to neglect or ignore the fact that most of the professional and effective nursing of the troops was carried out by qualified, trained, and skilled nurses, not VADs.

A British Nurse Cares for Her Patients

Christine Hallett sets this record straight in her highly informative, thoroughly researched, and admirably organized book. Veiled Warriors above all brings home to us that behind the sometimes mythical or romantic image of the VAD lies the reality — in hospitals at home and in all the combatant countries, near or far from the front lines, in casualty clearing stations (CCSs), in tented or open aid stations, in mud, rain, and bombardment, there were to be found dedicated and trained professional nurses who had volunteered to help fight the war by taking care of wounded and dying men. This included volunteer American nurses, who, while their country remained neutral, were working for the armies of both sides of the conflict.

These professional nurses, dedicated and skilled, were nevertheless women of the early 20th century. Besides the war, they often had other battles to fight. This was a time of the suffragette movement and the struggle for women's rights to vote. British nurses, unlike their peers elsewhere in New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States, were still struggling for official professional recognition in the form of registration and certification. Moreover, male chauvinism in the medical profession, as elsewhere, could easily be found — often the outcome of prejudice or questionable logic:

. . .for many members of the military, the presence of any woman-trained or untrained-at the bedside of the wounded soldier was dangerous: the female military nurse put not only herself but her patient and, indeed, the whole army in danger, because she disturbed the masculine balance of warfare-confusing the thinking of the male combatant and softening his approach to his mission (p. 268).

Order Now
Yet political and social problems paled next to the actual duties the nurses had to perform and the conditions they often worked under. The changing nature of battles and campaigns frequently dictated where nurses must be and the kinds of medical challenges they might face, whether in Europe, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Serbia, Romania, or on hospital ships off Gallipoli. We are given explicit descriptions, often in the words of the nurses, of the horrors they faced — the dreadfully wounded, maimed, and disfigured men who were brought to them, frequently in overwhelming numbers. The author does not hesitate to provide graphic details of these challenges. Another war to be fought was the constant danger of infections:

Patients with anaerobic wound infections required frequent dressing changes to remove pus, apply antiseptics, and give the wound a chance to heal. Gas gangrene could often only be halted by amputating the infected limb. In some cases, nurses found themselves in the heartbreaking situation of dressing an amputation stump only to find it infected with gas gangrene. In some cases, patients returned to theatre several times, to have more and more of a limb removed as the deadly infection spread (p.82). On top of surgical nursing, these caretakers were required to feed, wash, toilet and comfort their patients, many of whom were in terrible pain or hardly able to breathe. Such labor-intensive work, as Hallett points out, couldn't have been achieved without the help of dedicated orderlies and volunteers such as VADs.

It's difficult to describe all the qualities of such an impressive book as Veiled Warriors. The author's prose is lucid and flowing, and although she uses numerous letters, diaries, and other written materials from the nurses themselves, she has the knack of providing direct quotes only where they are most telling. Her seven chapters are preceded by a useful introduction and summed up by a conclusion. Thirty illustrations — each actually a photograph — help bring her material even more alive, and copious endnotes accompany each chapter. A 21-page bibliography shows the extent of the author's impressive research and a detailed index guides us to specific topics or people within the text.

In reading this book I feel I got not only a fresh look at the history of the war but also a new and full insight into the role nurses played in it. Many of these women were no less heroic than the men they cared for. Their working conditions were often as frantic and challenging as those of the trenches. Some were stranded behind moving battle lines and had to trek hundreds of miles to get home. Many were killed while others were wounded either physically or psychologically, and it's no wonder that a home for damaged nurses was set up in England after the war. Eventually their profession gained the international recognition it deserved, but their sacrifices during the Great War are little remembered. We can be grateful that Christine Hallett's Veiled Warriors now exists to so effectively set the record straight.

David F. Beer


  1. Since 1883 British military nurses have been recognized for distinguished service by the award of the Royal Red Cross (not to be confused with the organization), a decoration exclusively for nurses.

  2. Good review Dave, this is a topic that deserves a book such as this.

  3. THANK GOD for the nurses... And they still do the job today.

    1. All U.S. nurses in WW I were American Red Cross certified nurses who were recruited from the ARC into the Army and Navy. They were without officer rank in WW I...though treated like commissioned officers. The WW I nursing story, especially during the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 in World War I, is very impressive.

      Dr. Lisa Burdeau wrote an excellent commemorative tribute to U.S. Army Nurses in World War I entitled, "Answering the Call: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1917-1919: A Commemorative Tribute to Military Nursing in World War I" (see: ).

      David Thompson, February 21, 2015


  4. One of the bright and shining moments for nurses in WW I was in the biggest battle of the war..."The Battle of The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918."

    American Red Cross, US Army & US Navy nurses leaped to the forefront in this battle that infected over 25% of the 4.7 million American forces and killed 22,000 troops with the AEF and 30,000 in training bases in the US in the fall of 1918. It also infected 25% of the US population of 101 million and killed 675,000 Americans. In the end, 296 American nurses lost their lives, mostly to the flu, caring for flu victims.

    Many American nurses were decorated for their bravery in this terrible battle (4 Navy Cross', 3 DSC's, 25 DSM's, 28 Croix de Guerre's, 69 British Royal Red Cross medals), but were quickly forgotten in our post-war narrative of WW I along with the the story of this battle with disease that killed 58,000 troops, more than all the Americans killed in combat in WW I.

    No WW I Monument makes notice of how many WW I veterans were infected (25% of the 4.7 million armed forces) or died in this battle, nor does any memorial exist in the United States to the 675,000 Americans who lost their lives in this battle...the greatest disaster in the history of the United States. Only one monument outside of the ARC HQ in Washington, DC to Jane Deleno, founder of the US Army Nurse Corps, mentions the sacrifice of 296 nurses in WW I, with no mention of cause of death...mostly to the flu. No US nurses were killed in combat in WW I.

    For a great story of a US Navy nurse fighting in this battle with disease during WW I in September-October 1918 at the Naval Training Center Great Lakes, IL, go to the U.S.Navy History and Heritage Command website for the story (see: ).

    For the larger story of this battle with disease in WW I, Dr. Carol Byerly gives an excellent synopsis of this battle in her book, "Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I" and in a recent Public Health article (see: ).

    This is a great story of WW I that is rarely included in US Military History of WW I or in textbooks of 20th Century American History today. These nurses deserve our honor and respect for their courage and sacrifice during World War I.
    David Thompson, February 21, 2015

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