Women and the Great War

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By | From the Collections

This year has seen a huge amount of activity relating to the centenary of World War I. As March is Women’s History Month it seems appropriate to think about the sources we hold relating to the massive contribution to the war effort made by women, which formed a significant factor in the eventual grant of the suffrage.

Dr Letitia Fairfield in army, 1917. Photograph by Royal Hardie (Salisbury). Wellcome Image no. L0034543

Dr Letitia Fairfield in army uniform, 1917. Photograph
by Royal Hardie (Salisbury). Wellcome Library reference no. GC/193/A/4/5


Involvement in the work of tending to the sick and injured did not trangress, as other forms of service might do, ideas of essential womanliness. Many women joined the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD), and indeed some had already begun training with these before the outbreak of the European conflict, when they were established in 1909 to provide auxiliary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service.

The Library holds a number of items concerning VADs, including:

  • a set of lecture notes from a member of ‘Detachment L100’, based in Kensington,
  • Rose Louise Hunt’s ‘Journal of a Red Cross VAD member on Special Service during the Great War’ (in Malta), 1915-1916 (GC/40),
  • a few items relating to the VAD career of Florence Jane Watkins (MS.7891),
  • and some memorabilia of Dorothy Waller’s service as VAD nurse at 3rd Southern Hospital, Oxford (GC/97/5-7).

There is also some material to be found, especially photographs, among the RAMC Muniments Collection. However, the major source for researching VADs is the Red Cross Archives.

World War One: hospital ward on a French canal barge.  . WI reference no. L0009291

World War One: hospital ward on a French canal barge. Wellcome Image reference no. L0009291

Sister Mary Ethel Corry Knocker was already a trained nurse when she volunteered for war service: a small group of her papers (GC/258) includes a memoir of her service on the Western Front, as well as her diaries for the period, along with memorabilia and photographs.


Women doctors initially received a dusty answer from the War Office when they offered their professional services for the war effort, but, undeterred, undertook employment under the auspices of the Red Cross on the various war fronts including France and the Balkans. Their work is reflected in:

  • the archive of the Medical Women’s Federation (SA/MWF/C.157-175 and C.253),
  • in Nellie Insley’s “story of a great adventure.  The history of the foundation of the English Hospital for French Soldiers, at the Old Chateau at St Malo, September 1914” (GC/22),
  • and in Louisa Martindale’s notebook covering her period of service with the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont (MS.3472).

The success of this women-run hospital sufficiently impressed influential army medical personnel that the women doctors were assigned to run the Endell Street Military Hospital, an enterprise described by one of the founders, Dr Flora Murray, in the book Women As Army Surgeons (1920) and recently discussed in a podcast for the BBC, The War At Home: London.

Endell Street Military Hospital: women strecher bearers

Endell Street Military Hospital: women stretcher bearers, from 1919 Calendar. Wellcome Library reference no. SA/MWF/C.173/2

The Nation’s Fund for Nurses developed from an initiative originated by the Actresses’ Franchise League to support the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and make provision for injured and disabled servicemen.

The by then rather elderly Dr Lilias Hamilton went to Serbia under the auspices of the Wounded Allies Relief Committee: her papers include her correspondence relating to this venture (PP/HAM/A.9) and her scrapbook of press cuttings (PP/HAM/A.29) includes material on this phase of her adventurous career.

An account of Dorothea Nasmyth’s service in Belgium, France, Serbia and the Mediterranean was edited from her diaries by her son (GC/219).

Women doctors also served in other capacities: Letitia Fairfield served as a medical officer in Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps and the WRAF, although her papers (GC/193) are a little scant on this phase of her career.

A number of women doctors were active in the National Council for Combatting Venereal Diseases (f. 1914) aimed at raising public awareness of these diseases which were proliferating under war conditions, and ensuring adequate knowledge of diagnosis and treatment among medical professionals.

The impact of war on routine home front practice in Sheffield is reflected in chapter 8 of ‘Dr Lucy’: a biography of Dr Lucy Naish (MS.8034).

How the War affected India can be seen in Margaret Ida Balfour’s letters home to her sisters (PP/MIB/A), as she organised a women’s medical unit  for Bombay war hospitals, and mentioned other effects of the situation.

Other professions

Women with other qualifications also put these at the disposal of the war effort. The Almeric Paget Massage Corps provided trained physiotherapists to work with the rehabiliation of injured soldiers. The archives of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy include the minutes of the Advisory Committee (SA/CSP/F.1) as well as photographs (SA/CSP/Q.14) and cartoons (SA/CSP/Q.21) of members of the Corps at work.

‘The Big Push’: The Almeric Paget Massage Corps at work. Wellcome Library reference: SA/CSP/Q.21

‘The Big Push’: The Almeric Paget Massage Corps at work. Wellcome Library reference: SA/CSP/Q.21

Dorothy Minnie Newhall was a woman Sanitary Inspector whose diaries record her work on the Balkan Front in Serbia, 1915-18 (GC/219).

Women scientists also supported war aims: Harriette Chick’s work in nutritional research relevant to rationing can be found both among her own papers (PP/CHI) and in the archives of the Lister Institute (SA/LIS) where she was based.

Another area in which women were doing their bit was, of course, in munition factories: Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s case cards  from 1916-17 (PP/SPI/A/3) record early instances of the lethal effects that working with TNT had on these ‘canary girls’, whose skin was turned yellow by the dangerous substance.

Further information on these holdings can be found via the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

Author: Dr Lesley Hall is a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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