Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review: "Nurses of Passchendaele Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns 1914 - 1918" by Christine Hallett

Christine Hallett puts her wealth of experience as a trained nurse, historian and professor of nursing to very good use in this fantastic book.    This is not just a book about the nurses of the First World War – it also explains the background to the conflict and, as the title infers, to the battles for the little strip of Belgian soil known as the Ypres Salient.  The aim was to reclaim the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge which were captured by the Central Powers early on in the war, and from whence their submarines inflicted terrible losses on allied ships (p. 93).   Drawing on, and quoting from, letters, accounts, diaries and books written by those who were there - American, Canadian and Australian as well as British - Christine builds us a very clear picture of what both patients and medical staff had to endure on the Western Front.

It is very difficult indeed to pick out just a few interesting references for the purposes of this review but I was particulary interested to learn about the Haldane Reforms that led to the creation of the Voluntary Aid Detachments in 1909 (p. 20) and the admission of women to Talbot House (p. 81). I was surprised to learn that American nurses were trained as anaesthetists which amazed the British and led to British nurses being instructed in the administration of anaesthetics (p. 91). The Epilogue (p. 162) reminds us that the nurses’ work was far from over when the Armistice was agreed in November 1918.

You will find in the book all the well-known women of WW1 such as Kate Luard, Helen Fairchild, Mabel St. Clair Stobart, Edith Appleton, Elsie and Mairi and Nellie Spindler and lots more British, Canadian and Australian nurses, as well as doctors, surgeons and specialists who cared for the wounded on the Western Front.  The book also covers many other aspects of tending war wounded, including Trench Foot, Gas victims, Gas Gangrene and so on, and gives detailed descriptions of the various types of hospital, Casualty Clearing Stations and hospital trains/ambulances in use on the Western Front.  Also described in detail are the challenging illnesses and infectious diseases the medical teams had to try to cure with very limited resources and in unbelievable conditions.

The weather just prior to the start of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres), which began on 31st July 1917, was very stormy and several men were struck by lightning and killed before the Battle began (p. 101).   During the Battle, Kate Luard, one of the many nurses featured in the book wrote : “…dreaming in those cornfields and woods at St. Pol in June, I used to think a lot about this offensive, but I didn’t think it would be as stiff as this” (page 120 – from “Unknown Warriors”, p. 226).

If you thought that, as one gentleman informed me, women were kept safely out of danger behind the front lines, it may surprise you to learn that: “Patients often expressed their surprise that nurses were stationed so close to the battlefield. Many were indignant that women should be put in such danger, seeing it as ‘man’s job’ to go off to war – to protect the women and children who, naturally, should remain at home.” (page 121).  And you will find horrific details of the many times Allied hospitals, though clearly marked with red crosses, were deliberately shelled and bombed, causing death and destruction.

With copious notes, a bibliography, a detailed index and some wonderful black and white photographs, this is a fantastic book and really good value at £12.99.  I recommend that you read it.   My thanks to Christine Hallett for researching and writing this book and to Pen & Sword for publishing it. 

“Nurses of Passchendaele Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns 1914 – 1918” by Christine E. Hallett, published by Pen & Sword, Barnsley, Yorkshire, 2017.  Available from good bookshops.  For further information please visit

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