William Spencer is the principal military specialist at The National Archives where he has worked since 1993. He served in the Fleet Air Arm for 13 years, including active service with 848 Squadron in the South Atlantic, and holds an MA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.
Although there were a number of nurses serving under the auspices of the Royal Navy and the British Army before 1914, it was the First World War period which saw the rapid expansion of military nursing and the entry into operational theatres, of a significant number of women.
Many nurses who saw service in the casualty clearing stations and hospitals overseas came into contact with the soldiers whose records can be found here. Private Cecil Richard Duncan joined the army twice during the First World War, initially serving for just 18 days in the Cameron Highlanders in late 1914, until discharged on medical grounds. Duncan volunteered again in early 1916 and was eventually mobilised in October 1916 with the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Arriving in France on 1 January 1917, Cecil Duncan was posted to the 6/7 Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers and within a few months he was wounded, passing through 47 Field Ambulance and 2 Canadian General Hospital, where he almost certainly would have seen nurses going about their daily tasks.
Evacuated back to Britain where he was sent to Bath War Hospital to recover, Duncan recovered from his gunshot wound and in the summer of 1917 was posted to Egypt where he joined 1/4 Battalion of his regiment. Duncan was again wounded in action but succumbed to his wounds on 11 November 1917.
Cecil Duncan’s record of service and the records relating to his British War and Victory Medals and the Meritorious Service Medal awarded for specific service in France can all be found on Ancestry.co.uk.
Now, at The National Archives we have also put one of the largest ever collections of women’s records online. This means more people than ever before can learn about the unsung heroines of the Great War who tended these soldiers and discover their military nursing ancestors. The records, dating from 1902 to 1922, include more than 15,000 nursing service records.
The majority of nurses found in this record series served in either the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) or QAIMNS Reserve (QAIMNSR). QAIMNS was established by royal warrant in 1902 and during the First World War there were about 10,000 regular and reserve nurses from QAIMNS serving the British Forces.
Nurses in the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) can also be found in this collection. TFNS was set up in 1908 as a dedicated nursing service to support the territorial forces following the introduction of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act.
Due to their non-combatant status, nurses saw very little front line fighting but they were exposed to enemy activity in the form of long range artillery and bombing by aircraft. They experienced the full horrors of industrial warfare when dealing with the sick and wounded from both sides of the front.
Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler from Wakefield, Yorkshire, joined the QAIMNS Reserve in 1916 but her time in the military nursing service was to be short lived. Less than one year after joining she was posted to the 44th Casualty Clearing Station in Belgium, which on 21 August 1917 was heavily shelled during battle, resulting in the young nurse tragically losing her life. She was 26 years old.
Such is the level of detail found in these records that her file records her death down to the minute it occurred, stating she was killed in action at 11.15am. It also contains the letter of notification sent to her mother informing her of her daughter’s death and details of her will.
She was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium, one of only two female casualties buried alongside 10,000 men who also lost their lives.
The files chart the nurses’ full service history including their date and place of birth, training prior and during the war, references relating to their suitability as military nurses, the hospitals, field ambulances, casualty clearing stations and other medical units they served in, and even confidential reports containing their superiors’ assessment of their performance.
Australian Maud McCarthy is described as “one of the most capable women who have served this country”. She served through two wars, was awarded with the Royal Red Cross and bar, and was mentioned in despatches three times. Her file contains personal correspondence and letters including an attempt by McCarthy’s brother in Australia who, unsure of her present location, tried to contact her via the New Zealand High Commission and the Head of the British Army. His letter stated “I just want to be sure that she will have a warm coat for her winter travelling” as “possibly the uniform may leave something to be desired”.
Her response sent through similar channels was that “at present she is not in need of such a garment”.