Their Perceptions of Their Work
Historically, there has been a focus on the way soldiers viewed their roles in the war and how they documented their experiences. But scholars like Andrea McKenzie point out that military nurses during the First World War also thoroughly documented their experiences through letters, diaries, and photographs. (pg. 318) They reflected on their work, what they were doing and who they were helping. As we understand the nurses’ living and working conditions, we should keep in mind the challenges they faced and how they viewed their work despite those challenges.
Scholars have pointed to many different reasons women became trained nurses and decided to contribute to the war effort. Some, like Henriette Donner, point to the power of nationalism, the appeal of seemingly feminine work, and the possibility of some emancipation from a restrictive society. (pg. 687-688). Regardless of the motivations, studying the experiences of these nurses and how they “experienced trauma as a result of their exposure to wartime work” allows us to look at the full picture of military nursing in World War I. (Hallet, Abstract).
This is page 46 from the diary of Dorothy Cotton, a nurse in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). This page talks about how she as a nurse took care of refugees during World War I. She talks about how they were provided with a small amount of food. It also states how cautious the refugees were in going into public to receive free soup and bread from community soup kitchens. This would have been, not only hard for the refugees, but difficult for the nurses, such as Dorothy Cotton, to psychologically endure and watch these refugees suffer from knowing that the refugees had to leave their lives entirely to trying to convince the refugees that there is food being provided in the public.
This is a letter from Ruby Gordon Peterkin, a trained nurse. In this letter, she states that they were only able to bathe in a teacup because the water shortage at the time was so vast. It is also stated that the nurses had trouble with getting enough food for themselves and their patients. In addition, the water that was cleaned to make coffee and “cocoa” was first cleaned with chlorine. This infers that their work took a lot of confidence and patience. Even through water and food shortages were present, they had to provide aid, as well as comfort to their patients, whilst staying psychologically calm while providing work in highly stressful situations.
This is page 48 of Dorothy Cotton’s diary where she included a photograph of a Russian monk that she met while abroad. Cotton was a military nurse who served as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This page is from a diary she kept from November 2nd, 1915 to July 1st, 1916. In the diary, she writes at length about the plight of the Russian refugees and how she views her role in whatever help she can offer. This documentation of one such refugee in her personal diary demonstrates the importance of the cause for her and the extension of her work from nursing to humanitarian action.
This letter, written by Sophie Hoerner to “Mollie” while she was serving as an active nurse aboard a troop transport ship in the late Spring of 1915 on its way to England. She writes that she finds military service thrilling when compared to the regular nursing she was accustomed to. In the letter she details the phenomena as having “all sorts of thrills and bubbles inside (her)”. She felt a sensation transitioning from civilian nursing to her new and her eyes more purposeful work and while she expresses her excitement to return to Canada and civilian life, she refers to the experience as something that “(she) would not have missed this for the world”.