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 9, 2021

No Man's Land: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran Britain’s Most Extraordinary Military Hospital During World War I,

by Wendy Moore
Basic Books, 2020
Ron Drees, Reviewer

Hospital Entrance

The Endell Street Military Hospital in London had almost no men but was staffed by women who were doctors, nurses, orderlies and in almost every other position, thus “No Man’s Land.” Counting the faces in the 1916 staff photo prior to the text, there are 144 women and 22 men. The primary surgeons—and doctors in charge—were Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson.

This is an unusual Great War book as the entire narrative takes place behind the lines in either Paris, Boulogne, or London. Gray-green clad troops were not the enemy confronted by female surgeons but chauvinistic social beliefs, sexism and moribund British army regulations prohibiting female doctors were.

Before the War, Murray and Anderson were suffragettes who were striving to get the right to vote for women. This was not a struggle for the faint-hearted as women were arrested, went on hunger strikes and then force-fed with sometimes serious injuries resulting. With the outbreak of war, such considerations were put aside with everyone trying “to do their bit.” Yet English medical practices continued to bar women from mainstream hospitals and major appointments. They were limited to treating women and children.

Murray and Anderson recognized the opportunity the War presented, even though the army barred them from medical practice despite the shortage of everything caused by the war. The pair, along with a team of nurses and support staff, went off to Paris to set up a hospital on their own in what came to be known as Claridge’s, a luxury hotel but a most inappropriate building for a hospital.

The massive numbers of casualties, the inadequate resources and the high explosives used for the first time were far different than the neat bullet holes of the Boer War, and everyone was found to be inadequate for military surgery. Frontline medical treatment and the evacuation of troops to the channel coast during the opening days was ghastly, with many casualties abandoned as medical staff fled just prior to the German advance. Great War medical practice was a continual learning exercise. One lesson learned in 1915 was that steel helmets would better protect troops. Also, BIPP (bismuth, iodoform, and paraffin paste) proved very helpful in treating septic wounds. Some lessons, such as leaving gas gangrene wounds open after surgery, had to be relearned during WWII.

When the war shifted toward the Channel, the staff moved to a sugar warehouse in Boulogne. Then, in February 1915, Murray and Anderson were given a large thousand-bed hospital in London to be commanded and staffed almost entirely by women. The “hospital,” a former workhouse on Endell Street which may have inspired Charles Dickens to write Oliver Twist, was filled with rubbish and had to be thoroughly cleaned before being put to use. Despite their earlier successes, the two doctors continued to endure obstacles and antagonism until the end of the war.

1916 Staff Photograph
(Click on Image to Enlarge)

The description of the Endell Street hospital was so cheerful as to be almost unrealistic. Antibiotics were unknown, x-ray equipment was just coming into use, and the suffering must have been unimaginable considering how many casualties needed to be treated quickly. Thus I found the book’s credibility to be lacking here. I did not see how matters could be so upbeat, considering the number of casualties from the Somme and other major battles. However, about two thirds of the way through the book, the tone definitely changed.

Moore also tells the stories of a doctor from Australia, a patient from Canada, of medical schools opening to female applicants and the struggle of new volunteers to adjust to the grisly and exhausting work. While it became known that suffrage would be offered to women after the Armistice as a reward for their war work, discrimination continued in the form of lower pay, fewer tax benefits and the War Office’s refusal to grant equal rank to women doctors. After the War, Winston Churchill led government objections to various equality measures.

What makes this book particularly worth reading are the ongoing descriptions of the home front: London’s social life and suffering, rationing, feelings of desperation, fatigue, German bombing, the women casualties in France, bacterial infections, and the onslaught of flu which possibly killed six times as many as the Great War did. These are aspects of the Great War rarely discussed in other texts.

Finally, peace returned along with discrimination against women who wanted medical careers. Medical schools began again to deny admission to women. But the war did not end for Endell Street as the wounded kept coming, necessitating operations, laundry service and all the other functions of a hospital. The flu returned, deadlier than ever, probably fueled by troops returning home in cramped ships plus jubilant celebrating crowds. Death could come in three days and was violent and ugly.

The Endell Street Military Hospital was closed in October 1919 and torn down years later to be replaced by public housing. Not until 1975 were medical schools forced to accept women on an equal footing.

Ron Drees


  1. Another level of interest in the Great War. Thank you for this excellent review. Cheers

  2. It's great to read of "behind the scenes" like this--and that a lot of war histories don't touch on. Thank you. Ron.