The History of Nurses of World War 1 for Kids

Close your eyes and imagine you are on a battlefield. You are in a trench with other soldiers waiting for the battle to begin. Night has fallen and you and the others are very cold. You look around at the other soldiers. They look nervous, too. Everyone knows the enemy isn’t far away.  Above the trench the sky is filled with dark smoke and small airplanes in battle. You tighten your grip on your rifle. 

In the distance you hear a loud “boom.” You duck into the trench as an enemy round explodes above you. You fall over and look at your arm, and realize you’ve been hurt. Others soldiers on your team have been hurt too. You close your eyes and lie back wondering how you are going to survive. Soon someone lifts you up and carries you to a nearby hospital. You lie on a clean bed with your eyes closed, just hoping you will be alright. Then you hear a kind voice and open your eyes. It’s a woman, a nurse wearing white uniform with a red cross on the front of her hat. “Everything will be alright,” she says, lying a warm cloth on your forehead. She looks at the wound on your arm and starts to work cleaning it. Then she bandages it and gives you a drink of water and some medicine. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she says. “Don’t worry, you’re in good hands now.” You feel relaxed and happy that someone is taking care of you.

All over the world, nurses play an important role in health care.  They help take care of people when they are sick or injured.  Their job can be very difficult and stressful.  But nurses are brave and they work very hard to take care of their patients.  This is true now and was true in the old days as well, and especially during World War 1.

Nursing has always been a difficult job. But it was especially difficult and dangerous work during World War 1. World War 1 was a war between Germany and the allied forces of England, France and America. Both sides had allies, or friends, so many countries were involved in the war. This is why it was called a “world war.” 

Most war nurses were ordinary women that signed up for the job because they wanted to help their country during the war.  Many women became nurses after losing someone special to them, such as a brother or their husband. Some women decided that instead of just being sad, they were going to take action and help out at the battlegrounds.  This was one way that they could help others who were similar to the people that they lost.  It was one way that they could help and also heal their sadness.

During WW1 many nurses didn’t have an education, so they couldn’t write.  Because they couldn’t write there’s not a lot of information about what actually happened to them. Those who told the stories of these nurses amazed others, and so their stories spread and likely changed, sort of like a game of telephone. This is how legends, stories that aren’t always true, often start.  

When the war started in 1914, everyone thought it was going to be short.  Women were expected to wait at home patiently for the men to return.  They were told to, “keep the home fires burning.”  This was a common expression at the time.  Some poorer women went to work in factories. These are a few reasons there weren’t many women at the battlefields to help the wounded soldiers.

But as more young men started dying, more young women wanted to help out.  American women, British women and women from other friendly countries joined in to help.  When women started signing up to become military nurses, they would go to a nursing service near where they lived and ask to join.  These were often in cities where they didn’t live, so they would have to leave home to get training.  They got some basic nursing training and after that, they were sent to the war.  This meant that most of the nurses at the battlefields during WW1 were untrained and therefore, didn’t know a lot about medicine.  That is very different than today, where nurses study at universities and colleges and get clinical training before they are allowed to practice.  At the time of WW1, there were some trained nurses, but it was still very difficult, since most of them had never worked with soldiers before.

Some of the first women to go to the war were wealthy and had the money to start military hospitals.  The most famous of the women that opened and ran a military hospital was the Duchess of Sutherland from England.  Her nickname was Meddlesome Millie, because at the time, some people did not think that women should get jobs and work outside of the home.  They did not want women to be nurses and they resisted the change that was happening.  “Resisted” means to try to stop something from happening.  

But the Duchess of Sutherland and other women like her continued to run their military hospitals and train other women to be nurses.  As more military hospitals were set up and the war continued, more and more women signed up to become nurses. With all their hearts they wanted to do what they could to help. 

In 1915, there was a large battle in Belgium in an area that was very important to both sides in the war. In this battle a lot of men got hurt or killed.  It was the first time an army used poison gas to against the other side, and many, many men were hurt. After this British and American armies started to let more women join the military as nurses.

Today when we see pictures of nurses from that time, with white hats and red crosses on their uniforms, we think of the work as being very clean and exciting.  But in reality, it was very tiring and sometimes disgusting work.  They were very brave women, but it was not a job that got a lot of attention. Nurses worked very hard every day and it was very stressful for them. Also, most women thought World War 1 was going to be short. Instead the war dragged on and on, but the nurses kept helping for many years. 

There were a lot of difficult things that nurses had to deal with at war that they did not have to deal with at hospitals back home.  Soldiers often suffered bullet wounds which were difficult to treat. There were many soldiers who were scared or sad, so the nurses not only fixed their wounds but also comforted them and did what they could to keep them calm and happy. 

Towards the end of the war, a new invention came out to help the soldiers. This invention helped a patient who was out of blood get more blood from someone else. When the healthy person donated the blood, it was shared with the sick person by using a long tube. This invention is still used today and is called a blood transfusion. During the war transfusions were used often and saved many people’s lives. 

When the war ended in 1918, most war nurses left the war service and went home. But back home there were not very many men still alive and well.  Many had died or gotten hurt in the war.  Because of this, many women replaced men in jobs and other roles usually held by men.  These women were very important in helping make things work again. Let us always remember and be grateful to those women and men who sacrificed so much and put their lives at risk to protect their countries and each other.Have you ever thought about the ways that you are brave?  Do you think that bravery is something that develops in people when times are tough?  Or is bravery something that we can all practice?  Like the nurses of WW1, we can all show bravery and try our best to being good to each other.  Helping others when it is needed and taking care of each other is one of the most important things we can all do.