RESEARCHING A NURSE
WHAT YOU CAN DO YOURSELF
It's often the case that the only thing you know about a family member is that she was 'a nurse in the Great War,' or perhaps you have a photograph of a woman in uniform without any further information. The term 'nurse' is used frequently and rather loosely in connection with the Great War. Women who worked as nurses could have been trained, partly trained or untrained. They could have been employed by the War Office; the Joint War Committee (British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem); the French Red Cross; any number of independent organizations such as the Scottish Women's Hospital, or in ordinary civil hospitals in the United Kingdom. They might also have worked with the military nursing services of Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand or the USA. A short article outlining the different types of British military nurses can be read here:
I've put a couple of pages on this website as an aid to identifying the uniforms worn by military nurses during the Great War, and they can be found here:
Trained nurses and the Great War - If you're looking for a trained nurse, the first thing to do is check the catalogue of The National Archives to see if she is included in class WO399, which contains all surviving service files of women who served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Since November 2011 these nurses' service files have been available to download from The National Archives DocumentsOnline at a cost of £3.36 a time. You never know quite what you're going to get for your money - it might be anything from a dozen pages to over two hundred, but compared to previous costs for photocopying or employing a researcher, it's quite a bargain. Start here and follow the links:
Who won't be found there? There are nearly 16,000 nurses' service files in the WO399 run of records, covering women who served in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, the Territorial Force Nursing Service and also a few untrained women who worked as Assistant Nurses and Special Military Probationers. However, in total about 22,000 trained nurses were employed in the military nursing services, so there is quite a shortfall. Although there is no official guide to what isn't there, over the years I've been able to work out why some are missing. The files were 'weeded' during the early 1930s - papers were removed if it was felt they were not particularly relevant, although these decisions were taken by clerical staff and don't seem to have been carried out on a uniform basis. During the same period, some complete files were destroyed if:
She was known to have married and have dependents, or to have moved permanently overseas at the time of the weeding process. There are some files for women in this category at TNA, but a considerable number are missing, so probably a case of different clerks working to different standards
Women who went on to serve with the military nursing services during the Second World War – their files will still be held by the Ministry of Defence and the link to find further information can be found lower down the page.
There are also a few files that have been mis-catalogued. It's always worth checking the actual TNA Catalogue (details at the start of this section) to look at similar names for likely mis-spellings.
If your nurse served overseas during the Great War with the Army medical services, the British Red Cross, or one of the recognised independent organisations, she would have been entitled to service medals and should have a medal index card at The National Archives. These cards, in themselves, don't give a lot of information, but if you're working in the dark they are particularly useful for finding which organisation a woman was attached to, and her position or rank. The search page for the medal index cards is here - scroll down to the bottom of the page:
For trained nurses, it's always worth searching the archives of the British Journal of Nursing which are complete and online for the period from 1888-1956 - a wonderful resource both for tracing nurses, and for general information on the history of nursing. It can be accessed here:
Use the 'Search Journals' link, and when using the search boxes, try and keep it as simple as possible – just a surname if it's unusual enough to stand alone. Not all trained nurses get a mention, but it's often possible to follow a woman's career for many years.
Nurses who completed a full three year training in England or Wales, and who continued to work after 1922 are likely to have registered with the General Nursing Council as a consequence of the Nurses Registration Act 1919, and their details should be found in at least one edition of the Registers of the GNC which are held at The National Archives in class DT10, and also by the Royal College of Nursing. These Registers contain details of name, number on the register, training school with dates, and address at time of publication. They are held in alphabetical order, but are not available online. Similar records for nurses trained in Scotland are held at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh.
VADs and Trained Nurses of the British Red Cross and St. John
Both trained nurses and VADs who worked for the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross and Order of St. John during the two world wars often have service records held by the British Red Cross Society Archives in London and it's always worth an enquiry. The address for written enquiries is on the following page:
British Committee of the French Red Cross - Many women went to France during the Great War to serve in French military hospitals, and most were sent out under the auspices of the British Committee of the French Red Cross. It's thought that after the war all records were deposited with French Archives, but recent enquiries and research strongly suggest that these records no longer survive. However, it does seem to be the case that the British Red Cross Society card index includes brief details of many of these nurses, and an enquiry to the BRCS Archives (link above) is recommended if researching a British member of the French Red Cross.
British Red Cross Register of Overseas Volunteers 1914-1918 - This book, originally published by the British Red Cross in 1918, lists all those men and women who went overseas between 1914 and 1918 in any capacity, while members of:
British Red Cross Society; Voluntary Aid Detachments, both nursing and general service sections; Order of St. John; First Aid Nursing Yeomanry; Friends Ambulance Unit; Serbian Relief Fund and the Scottish Women's Hospital. It gives full name, rank/position, passport and certificate number, department and destination. It was re-published in 2004 by Savannah Press, and is available at The National Archives and other large libraries and archives.
Scottish Women’s Hospital – a full list of names of women who served between 1914 and 1921 with the Scottish Women’s Hospital can be found by following the link to the SWH in the left-hand margin of this page.
Army Nursing Service - Going back in time, a limited number of service records are available at The National Archives for women who joined the Army Nursing Service between 1870 and 1891 in class WO25/3955. Unfortunately there are none for those who joined between 1891 and 1914 unless they went on to serve during the war and have a file in WO399, but their postings to different hospitals can be found by tracing them through copies of the Army List, available at The National Archives, and many other large libraries and archives.
If you know where your nurse trained, there might be surviving records held of her time at the hospital. The location of all surviving hospital records are held on a national database jointly held by The National Archives and the Wellcome Library. It can be found here
The details of each hospital will
give you the current location of the records, with scope and dates.
World War Two - I frequently get asked about tracing members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, and the Territorial Force Nursing Service who served in the Second World War. All service records for these women are still retained by the Ministry of Defence, and are only available to the nurse herself, her next of kin or their representatives. Full details and the address for all enquiries is here:
information is available for trained nurses who went to France with the British
Expeditionary Force between September 1939 and June 1940, at which time all
medical personnel were evacuated back to the United Kingdom. Lists of names and
hospital attachments can be found in at The National Archives WO171/14 and some
other unit war diaries. Many of these names can be found by using the 'WW2 Nominal Rolls' link in the left-hand margin of this page.
Nurses who were among the very first British military nurses, and joined the Army Nursing Service between 1881 and 1902
Members of the regular branch of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service who joined between 1903 and 1926.
Nurses who went to France with the British Expeditionary Force in late 1939 and early 1940, returning at the time of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Some of these are women who served during the Great War, and whose files are still retained by the Ministry of Defence.
Nurses who served with the Scottish Women's Hospital during the Great War.
These records can be searched here and are well worth a look:
Military Nurses on FindMyPast
A newly-published book is reviewed here which will prove invaluable to anyone researching a military nurse - it's thoroughly recommended and well worth seeking out.