“Emotional Nursing”: Involvement, Engagement, and Detachment in the Writings of First World War Nurses and VADs

Christine E. Hallett

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In both historical accounts and cultural representations of the First World War, there has been a focus on volunteer rather than trained nursing, particularly in Britain, where the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse has taken center stage. This imbalance owes its origins to a number of important influences. Firstly, VADs were much more likely than trained nurses to publish commercially successful accounts of their experiences. It was these accounts, rather than the more precise and pragmatic memoirs of trained nurses, that people wanted to read. The writings of individuals such as Vera Brittain, Irene Rathbone, and Enid Bagnold take classic romantic forms and off er their readers adventure stories and “page-turners.”1 Yet, the power of the VAD war narrative goes deeper than this. Her writings were well-received because the prevailing image of the VAD was an essentially positive one. The woman who nursed voluntarily rather than professionally captured the imagination of the reading public throughout the twentieth century. She was a romantic figure: her self-sacrifice, her willingness to forsake the comfort of the drawing room for the rigors of the military hospital, and her acceptance of the harshness of military discipline made her a classic mid-twentieth-century heroine. She was presented as an individual who knew the importance of her place in a rigid class-and gender-based society and was able to convey to her readers a sense of her nobility in stepping outside that place for the good of others. VAD-writers had much in common with middle-class combatant-writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden.2 Their social capital, their class status, wealth, family connections, and educational opportunities enabled them to capture the market in wartime memoirs.3 And so it was that theynot only because their works were readily available, but also because (albeit within the narrow confines of a particular class-consciousness) they were saying something about women’s freedom to participate-were taken up by late twentieth-century historians and publishers and used to project a particular image of First World War nursing-an image that inevitably reflects only one part of the reality.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFirst World War Nursing
Subtitle of host publicationNew Perspectives
EditorsAlison S. Fell, Christine E. Hallett
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781134626922
ISBN (Print)9780415832052, 9781138952614
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Modern History


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