North Wales Western Front Association

Book  Review

Nurses of  Passchendaele

Christine E Hallett

 Pen and Sword  2017

s/b 196 pages, Illustrated,  £12.99 

“The Ypres Salient saw some of the bitterest fighting of the First World War.

 The once-fertile fields of Flanders were turned into a quagmire through which men fought for four years. In casualty clearing stations, on ambulance trains, and at base hospitals near the French and Belgium coasts, nurses of many nations cared for these traumatized and damaged men.

Drawing on letters, diaries and personal accounts from archives all over the world Nurses of Passchendaele tells their stories, faithfully recounting their experiences behind the Ypres Salient in one of the most intense and prolonged casualty evacuation processes in the history of modern warfare. Nurses themselves came under shellfire and were vulnerable to aerial bombardment and some were killed or injured while on active service.

Alongside an analysis of the intricacies of their practice, Christine Hallett traces the personal stories of some of these extraordinary women, revealing the courage, resilience and compassion with which they did their work”

So reads the back cover of this book, I had to read it!

Christine Hallett is Professor of Nursing History at the University of Manchester.  She is a trained nurse and practised in the North of England before she moved into teaching and research.

The book is not just about the nurses.  It explains the reason for the Battle of Passchendaele. She tells how important to the Belgian people was that little piece of Belgium that was known as the Ypres Salient.  The ultimate aim of the battle was to try and reclaim the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. She even mentions the plans for an amphibious landing on the coast of Belgium (operation hush) east of Nieuwport.  We now know that this plan did not happen, and the battle turned into one of the worst in the war for conditions and casualties.

Of interest to me was the planning of the medical support, and the decision to move three casualty clearing stations so close to the front line. The casualty clearing stations were grouped in threes. When one was full of casualties it closed, and then the next station took in casualties. They rotated them.

Also how the conflict of the VAD's and the trained nurses was up to a point resolved.  The book talks about all of the other nationalities involved. The American doctors and nurses were the first to go into the front line, weeks before any of their fighting troops. To the great surprise to the British, some of the American nurses were trained as anaesthetists but this led to some of the British nurses being trained as anaesthetists, so relieving the doctors of that work.  (Editor’s note: by this stage there a thousand American doctors in the BEF, including as battalion medical officers.)

The book covers all the aspects of the injuries inflicted on the soldiers, not just the terrible wounds but also the gas victims and the problems of the conditions that the men were in, eg trench foot, trench fever and some of the illnesses and infectious diseases the men suffered. It also explains the development of the medical teams, how they improved over the course of the war, and how doctors and nurses worked in teams, on a shift pattern to cover the twenty four hours. The three casualty clearing stations No 44 British, No 32 British and No 3 Canadian which were formed as the Advanced Abdominal Centre were situated at Brandhoek, very close to the front line. This enabled the doctors to treat the patients within one hour of them been wounded.  It was at Brandhoek in these casualty clearing stations that one of my heroines, staff nurse Nellie Spindler was killed on the 21st August1917 in a shelling and bombing attack by the Germans. The account of this in the book is very well documented.

The book features many of the well-known women of WWI, Kate Luard, Edith Appleton, Kate Maxey, Minnie Wood, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm.  The resilience of the nurses comes out in their humour. They gave names to some of their casualty clearing stations: No 46 was known as Mendinghem, No 47 as Dozinghem and No 62 as Bandaghem.

Sister Kate Luard was visited by Sir Anthony Bowlby, Consulting Surgeon to the BEF whose idea it was to move the casualty clearing stations close to the front. On a visit to Brandhoek, he said to her    

“How d'you like the site this time? Front pew, what? Front pew, dress circle”.

He may have thought it funny but Kate's reply is not recorded. One American nurse, a Miss Gerhart, was so liked and respected by the British that they first called her “American Sister” but later this changed to the more affectionately “Cat-Gut-Katie” .

The book is very well researched and written, with a full Bibliography and Index. It is a wonderful and inspirational read and at £12.99 a bargain. I highly recommend it.

Keith Walker