More than 2.2 million British soldiers were wounded during World War I according to official figures, and each of these men passed through the army’s medical system. Nurses played a crucial role in caring for these battle casualties. Around 50,000 British women served as nurses during World War I, in organizations like the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, the Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
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Types of field hospital
The British army operated a casualty system in which different medical facilities performed specific functions. Closest to the front line, dressing stations assessed injuries and carried out some basic treatment such as bandaging wounds. From here, casualties travelled back, often by bus or motor ambulance, to casualty clearing stations. Men whose wounds were not serious could be treated here before returning to their unit, but more severely injured soldiers were either operated on immediately or continued their journey to stationary or general hospitals, with some making the journey across the English Channel to the United Kingdom.
A sample of 48,000 casualties recorded in casualty clearing stations in 1917 reveals the sort of injuries nurses treated during World War I, writes historian Denis Winter. Arms and legs were the most commonly-injured area, accounting for 51 per cent of wounds, while head injuries made up 17 per cent. Only 21 per cent of injuries were to the body, but these could be the most serious, since more than 90 per cent of soldiers sustaining an abdominal wound died. On the Western Front, the mud underfoot meant that wounds easily became infected, making both tetanus and gas gangrene serious problems. Both complications were potentially fatal if not dealt with quickly.
Role of nurses
Nurses worked very long hours performing many different roles in military hospitals. When a soldier arrived dirty with mud from the battlefield, a nurse would wash the soldier and clean his wounds. Nurses also changed dressings and bandages, kept wounds clean and ensured the hospital wards were as sterile as possible. They also talked with the soldiers to maintain their morale, and often wrote letters home on behalf of soldiers unable to write for themselves.
Dangers and decorations
Nurses routinely faced difficulties and dangers as part of their work. Even general hospitals, located on the French coast far from the front line, could be targeted. In May 1918, a German aerial attack in Etaples in northern France killed three Canadian nurses on duty in two hospitals. Sixty-six of the Canadian soldiers they were caring for also died. Of more than 2,000 Australian women who nursed in the British army during the war, 25 died and eight were awarded the Military Medal for their bravery.
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