Service Scrapbooks: Nursing and Storytelling in the First World War - new website from Royal College of Nursing

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01 March 2018
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Personal stories and first-hand experiences of World War I nurses are available to the public via a new website launched by the Royal College of Nursing.
Service Scrapbooks: Nursing and Storytelling in the First World War - new website from Royal College of Nursing Images

Personal stories and first-hand experiences of World War I nurses are available to the public via a new website launched by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

Helped by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the RCN has launched the new website, which for the first time brings together the RCN’s collection of scrapbooks, diaries and photo albums belonging to nurses who served during the First World War.

Service scrapbooks showcases the stories of nine nurses and one VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). The project has digitised, transcribed and researched nearly 2,000 pages of photographs, poems, diary entries and illustrations, ranging from 1909 – 1919.

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It reveals the experiences of nurses who travelled as far as Greece and Italy to work in military hospitals or occupied the halls of Oxford University and tin huts in the New Forest, whilst treating wounded men who had returned from the frontline. The scrapbooks also contain paintings, sketches and poetry by the soldiers and officers that they cared for, offering a unique perspective of daily hospital life.

Over 15,000 nurses served during the First World War as part of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS). This collection brings their history into the digital age and shines a light on the unsung heroes of the nursing profession. 

One of the nurses featured is Mabel Pearce (pictured), who served in the TFNS. Her scrapbooks contain poems from soldiers expressing their admiration for her and their harrowing experiences of the war. One patient penned: “Sorry am I to leave you. But happy am I to know. That I have your kindest wishes. No matter where I go.”

A glimpse into personal lives

Commenting on the project, Dianne Yarwood, Deputy Chair of the History of Nursing Society, said: “Being able to handle and read a diary written by a fellow nurse more than a hundred years ago was a moving and informative experience.

“These first-hand accounts make a significant contribution to our understanding of the professionalism and skill of these women who were actively engaged in caring both for the wounded, and those who were sick as a direct result of their engagement in the war. 

“As we digitised and transcribed their diaries, autograph books and photograph albums, we were also able to catch a glimpse of their personal lives, such as taking tea at Lyon’s Corner House, trips home to visit family and of singing with patients and colleagues.

“From writing about a patient’s ‘serious condition with pneumonia, oxygen, digitalis and brandy’, to mentions of military convoys arriving at military hospitals and accounts of wounded men dying, it is clear these women embraced nursing during the First World War with professionalism, humour and humility, and we are pleased to be sharing their untold stories.”

Explore the website.

(images copyright Royal College of Nursing)