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First World War Nursing: New Perspectives ed. by Alison S. Fell and Christine E. Hallett (review)
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Alison S. Fell and Christine E. Hallett, eds. First World War Nursing: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2013. vi + 216 pp. Ill $125.00 (978–0-415–83205-2).

This very readable collection of essays, well timed for current commemorations, analyzes writings of and about First World War nurses in search of “important new (and, inevitably, gendered) perspectives on the experiences and legacies of war” (p. 12). The contributions are arranged in three sections—National Identities, Professional Identities, and the Nurse as Witness—and it is in the second of these that the contributions most closely match the editors’ “mission statement.” The essays of Christine Hallett and Janet Watson, in particular, show how popular perceptions of this topic have been skewed by the preponderance of volunteers’ memoirs in the published record, and explore the important differences between the experiences of volunteers and professionals in wartime. The former, having had at most weeks of training, often had great difficulty in putting emotional distance between themselves and their patients, and saw their professional colleagues as unfeeling martinets. (It might have been pointed out that many volunteers had not even been educated at school, and had little or no experience of teamwork.) The latter, still struggling in civilian life for nursing to be recognized as a genuine profession, feared a future in which their skills would be diluted and disparaged. Watson’s thoughtful and acute analysis of the diaries of Alice Slythe, a professional, shows how rarely war weariness and anxiety found expression there, making her occasional outburst and her midwar abandonment of nursing for marriage all the more telling. The war left a legacy of bad feeling in Britain, with volunteers’ memoirs winning a “war of words” while the professionals, at last achieving the goal of registration, refused to allow war service per se to count toward any part of three years of training.

Where national identities are concerned, there is an almost exclusive focus on Anglophone nurses, the exception being Margaret Darrow’s chapter on France. War nursing provides a novel and sharp lens on this topic, and this section of the book makes one wish for contributions on Russian women on the eve of the Revolution, Italian women four decades on from the Risorgimento, and Japanese women after several decades of top-down Westernization. Jane Potter contributes an interesting account of a young generation’s new sense of American identity, showing nurses impatient to bring a “redemptive mission” (p. 52) to the Old World, and reflecting on the longue durée of this theme in the foreign policies of the United States. Darrow convincingly portrays the secular Third Republic’s [End Page 582] eulogies of the religious nurse Sister Julie as an important contribution to the patriotic reconciliation of two opposed currents in French culture and society. However, it is wrong to assume that nursing nuns were, like the majority of French volunteers, “untrained in medicine but endowed with feminine courage and maternal instinct” (p. 29). As Colin Jones has shown, for much of the nineteenth century—whether secular medical science liked it or not—religious orders furnished the majority of trained nursing in French Hospitals.1

Angela Smith examines the painful situation of female British medical volunteers in Serbia after it became clear that the Allies were concentrating their efforts on the Western Front. The dilemmas of maintaining self-respect and a professional ethic, knowing themselves to be in some sense representatives of Britain, while witnessing what could be interpreted only as a betrayal of trust on their country’s part, have not been so acutely exposed in previous literature. However, the analysis here and in other contributions too often sacrifices context to text. There is no social distinction made between the paid professionals and the self-funding volunteers, and it is perhaps too easily assumed that they had the same sense of national identity. An imperialist sense of entitlement is not the same thing as a medical professional’s sense of duty: the “Britishness” of Smith’s title is a many-sided thing. Nor does Edward Said’s Orientalism offer an appropriate framework to interpret British women’s identification with the new nations of...