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WWII: A Nurse’s Life

The wartime Emergency Medical Service was launched after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced Britain was at war with Germany on 3rd September 1939.

© Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

How was the Emergency Medical Service formed?

With careful planning, negotiation and cooperation between the government, local authorities, health bodies and the military; the Emergency Medical Service was so significant during WWII that it went on to influence the future structure of the National Health Service.

Thanks to forward planning by the government, drawing on its experiences of health care during the Great War, the EMS was already up and running immediately after the outbreak of WWII.

Studies about the impact of the 1914-18 war on Britain led to plans for a new hospital casualty scheme as early as 1926. A report commissioned by the government revealed a “woeful shortage of ambulances” during WWI, as well as a lack of hospital beds.

How did hospitals cope during WWI?

During the Great War, the arrival of casualties in Britain from the various war zones overseas totally overwhelmed the existing medical services. Military hospitals had existed in Britain since the 19th century, including some dating back to the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856.

Hospitals and other large buildings were converted solely for military use in 1914. Other new Territorial Force General Hospitals opened during WWI, including the 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham University’s Great Hall. They were staffed by Nursing Service personnel and volunteers.

Existing pre-war psychiatric hospitals known as asylums were also converted into hospitals. Even with these provisions put in place, emergency medical care for Great War casualties was still lacking in Britain.

In 1928, based on these experiences, a new concept for emergency care was established. Plans were drawn up for hospitals that would admit casualties in the event of another disaster, such as a war. London was seen as a potential prime target for enemy raids and it was estimated the capital alone would require an additional 36,000 beds. Plans were drawn up for similar hospitals throughout the country.

Planning for emergency hospitals in Britain was stepped up following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. A series of electoral victories by the Nazi Party led to a feeling of disquiet across Europe.

In 1938, the Ministry of Health took responsibility for ambulances, hospitals and first aid services across Britain, while the Armed Forces had their own dedicated hospitals, plus access to civilian medical services. This was the basis for the new Emergency Medical Service that could be up and running within days when needed.

How many hospital beds were there during WWII?

The government conducted a survey in 1938 and determined there were 500,000 hospital beds across the UK, including 130,000 in psychiatric hospitals. Not all were in the best of shape, as almost 25% of the hospitals were built before 1861. Only one-third had been built after 1891.

As a result, some lacked modern facilities, such as radiology departments and operating theatres, while others needed to upgrade existing medical facilities and provide heating and catering services for patients.

The Ministry of Health set up the EMS to oversee the most urgent renovations and to create 300,000 extra beds in hospitals for both civilian casualties and sick and injured military personnel.

Plans were also finalised to provide treatment and outpatient services in designated casualty clearing hospitals and fully equipped base hospitals. Those with specialist staff were set up to treat some injuries and diseases. Further convalescent hospitals were equipped for people recuperating.

As WWII began, many more suitable buildings were acquired such as schools, hotels, large private houses and any other building that was deemed suitable to accommodate hospital facilities.

What was it like to be a wartime nurse?

Nurses faced tremendous pressure during WWII, especially with the struggles for beds. Despite the extra capacity organised by the government, there was a constant stream of casualties from the war zones and it was the nurses’ day-to-day job to ensure as many as possible were cared for.

Initially, at the start of the war, nurses were required to do domestic work in the hospitals too, such as general cleaning, but there were protests, as there wasn’t enough time to complete their medical duties. It was then agreed they shouldn’t have to do domestic duties and could concentrate on healing the sick.

By June 1940, 6,200 Civil Nursing Reserve personnel were working in hospitals. Wartime nurses belonged to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, as they did during the Great War, and were nicknamed “QAs”.

Personnel of the Army Nursing Service served in every British military campaign overseas and at home during World War II. They were exposed to all kinds of dangers on the frontlines – some were even captured and held in prisoner of war camps in Japan.

Nurses and emergency hospitals played a crucial role in the war. There were an estimated 369,267 men wounded in battle among the British armed forces, plus other less serious injuries that still required medical treatment. The field hospitals in particular saved lives when soldiers required emergency surgery.

Nurses were in a high-risk job. It was the first time they had worked so close to the battle, but this was necessary to ensure they could care for the patients in an emergency. Conditions were harsh and dangerous, and snap decisions need to be made on life-or-death treatments in the field hospitals for severely wounded soldiers.

Gunshot wounds were often so severe that it meant the end of a soldier’s military career. Very serious injuries included flash burns from artillery or grenade explosions. Other conditions included hypothermia, dehydration, malaria and mental exhaustion – known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today.

Like the men fighting, the nurses saw and experienced some disturbing sights that left them with mental scars long after the war. In an interview for the BBC’s People’s War archive, Mary Goodhand, of Smethwick, Birmingham, spoke of her nursing experiences. She was a 16-year-old typist in 1939 when war was declared, but she was also a junior member of St John Ambulance Brigade.

She volunteered for duty as a nurse at a First Aid Post near her home and recalled it was quiet until the air raids began in earnest in the mid-1940s. She recalled how she was crossing the road to the waiting ambulances just as an air raid began and was shocked to see a number of incendiary bombs bursting above.

“Everyone shouted at me to take cover, but I was too stunned and just stood there, frozen to the ground!” said Mary. “Fortunately, there didn’t appear to be one with my name on it.”

Although not widely reported, it was said that many nurses in WWII experienced PTSD after the war, due to the horrific injuries they had witnessed and treated.

More than 400 British army nurses died on active duty.

We will remember them

On 11th November, Pipecraft will be observing the 2-minute silence, as we remember the brave men and women who gave their all during some of the darkest days the world has ever known.

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