• Health and Wellbeing
  • Families

Who provided medical care in the First World War? 

Discover how people cared for the wounded in the First World War, how they used their skills and resourcefulness to make sure the injured were cared for.

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Carers - Part One

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.  

Ahoy! Welcome on board, come on in. I was just looking at one of the objects that's been collected by the museum I work for. I'd love to share it with you, come aboard. My name is Ngaire, I work at Imperial War Museums and for now I'm at home aboard my boat but does give us a lot of time to look at some of the stories and objects that Imperial War Museums has been collecting since the First World War and it's to the time of the First World War this Adventure in History is going to take us today.  

Telling stories about real people and how their lives have been affected by war and conflict is part of my usual job at Imperial War Museums and this object is a great example of how something it can reveal a small part of a real person's story. It was handmade sewn and decorated by someone 100 years ago. Here is another example from the collections of the Imperial War Museum. Both of these objects are heart-shaped pincushions, and both would have been made by soldiers who were recovering from their wounds, and this was part of the medical care that they had received. I think this is a really important object because it shows that the people who care for us think about our physical well-being but also about our mental well-being as well.  

So, this object, which was stitched together from two pieces of material and then stuffed, has been decorated by the wounded soldier with beads. Each bead being placed on a pin and popped into the pin cushion to create the designs that the soldier wanted to make. So, it didn't matter if you are a good sewer or not and in the same pinning fashion there has been applied another piece of fabric right in the middle which says the Bedford Regiment, that's probably the regiment that this soldier would have served in and just like the one you saw on your screen, there's also a silk piece of fabric containing words that say, “think of me”. 

This object shows that medical care can be about bandages and medicines but also about learning a craft as a distraction, as a way of learning new skills and producing something beautiful at the end of it and it's a frustrating object as well because it's only telling us part of its story. We don't know the name of the man who created this object, we don't even know who he was thinking of when he pinned in that fabric that says, “think of me”. It's a little bit like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, you only have some of the pieces and you're never going to get a full picture but by looking at this object it has made me think of some other stories that the museum has been collecting and looking after for over a hundred years, so we can think about in today's Adventure in History we're going to look at some people who particularly wanted to go and help care for the wounded in the First World War. Care for the physical wounds of that war but also to provide other types of care that kept up spirits, an important part of recovery. The people that we're particularly going to look at were not part of the Army, they weren't ordered to go to the fighting front, they were people who volunteered, who wanted to use their skills and expertise to care and to help.  

One of those people was a woman called Ruby Ord. Ruby left quite a good job to go and join up as well. When the First World War started in 1914, Ruby was the first woman to work in the pharmaceutical laboratory for Boots the Chemist in Nottingham. Ruby was also a suffragette - that's one of the women that campaigned for the right to vote in elections.  

When the war started, Ruby was determined to do her bit and she went and volunteered for any role that she was able to, but she was turned down on every occasion and told that she was not 21, which was the minimum age for most of the roles that women were allowed to do. However, by 1916, something called the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps - the WAACs -had been created and their minimum age was 19, so Ruby went, volunteered and was accepted. Although Boots were really keen to keep her on and tried to persuade her to stay. Ruby remembers that once she had joined up, she and her other recruits were down in Hastings, and she says Hastings is very nice, but their training was oh so awful. 

She said they had to get up at 6 a.m. in the morning to do PT and a route march. PT is like having your PE lesson at 6 a.m. and your last meal was 7 o'clock the night before and she remembers that they had to do lots of marching, lots of going from straight lines into squares called drills, which is something that soldiers were more used to and she remembers the men laughing at the women because this is something that they just were not used to and they were being expected to train and march around in very impractical clothing as well. So, when you look at photographs of WAACs you can see they've got these really, really long dresses with very, very long skirts which just were not very suitable and got all caught up in your legs as you were trying to do all this marching. Worse still, once the women got to France as they waded through trenches and battle-scarred lands, these skirts just got full of mud. It made walking backwards and forwards really challenging and doing your job. 

Ruby was an ambulance driver so walking out to get the wounded into her ambulance was also made challenging by this impractical long skirt. Ruby describes herself as a bit of a rebel and she took the scissors and cut the skirt to the 'lengths that I needed it to be'. Now the reason I know so much of Ruby's story and can quote some of her words to you is because she was one of 34,000 interviews that have been made by the Imperial War Museum, starting with people who remembered the First World War.  

Apparently if you took the whole of the Sound Archive and listened to all the interviews from today, from now, for 24 hours no stopping, it would take you nine months to listen to every interview that the museum has recorded. So Ruby Ord was a very skilled and determined member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps but when she was working at the field hospital, it might take patience a long time to get to her care from the battlefields and so it was really important that lots of people knew how to give first aid if necessary and appropriate. So, this object will tell that story for us. It's a field dressing and it would have been carried by every single soldier in their kit.  

So, we could say that every soldier was a nurse. If it was possible, they could use the field dressing to identify where the wound was and wrap it up to stop the bleeding and that also acted as a barrier to stop germs getting into the wound and making it worse. Now of course the field dressing is not going to heal the wound, but it provides enough primary care to be able to get that patient back to hospital where they could be treated. It's a little bit like the primary care that paramedics offer and sometimes they are called first responders, which is another type of care. Now if it surprises you to think that every soldier could technically act as a nurse, our next story might be even more surprising because we've got two women who by an act of parliament were actually treated as soldiers. They were known as The Madonnas of Pervyse. 

Pervyse because of the place in Belgium where they set up their aid post like a mini hospital and the Madonnas because of the care that they provided. This photograph shows our here women in 

the First World War. Their names are Mairi Chisholm, and Elsie Knocker and they were determined to deliver the highest standards of care and if you look at the photograph you can see a strange mixture of uniforms. They've got their nurses uniforms on but look at their feet they are wearing very long lace up boots, and they've got helmets. A real mixture of a nurse's and a soldier's uniforms - and I love details like this. 

Because for us, a hundred years after the photograph was taken, we get some clues as to the mixture of roles that Elsie and Mairi were performing. Determined that the soldiers would receive the best care and knowing that the best care was the care that was given as quickly as possible, they worked incredibly close to the fighting. So, an act of parliament was passed to give them permission to be this close to the fighting and they set up their aid post and they continued to work risking their lives, coming under fire until 1918 when they suffered gas attack and so they were withdrawn. In our final story today, we also meet another woman who showed great determination to be able to use her skills to help with the medical services in the frontline.  

Elsie Inglis was a qualified surgeon and like Ruby, who he met earlier, was also a supporter of the women's suffrage movement. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, she offered her services to the Royal Army Medical Corps. They told her that she should go home and sit still. Undeterred, Elsie set up instead her own medical organization. It was called the Scottish Women's Hospitals and she delivered care to the wounded soldiers in both Serbia and Russia. In fact, she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle which is the highest honour that 

Serbia can give. Elsie and her colleagues continued to provide care until the end of 1917. Those who gave care during the First World War knew that it was a difficult, exhausting and dangerous task and they also may have found that they will push to do things that they might ordinarily have not expected themselves capable of.  

They also realized that in order to give the best care they had to make sure they looked after themselves too. which brings us to our final object. It's a photograph. What can you see? What are they wearing? If I told you, you were looking at two doctors would you be surprised? Have you ever seen doctors with pom-poms on their uniforms before? It's 1917 and these two doctors are not off to perform surgery they are instead in Salonika in Greece where they were serving as medical staff, but they are about to go to a concert party to perform plays and to sing songs. It was known that in order to deliver the best medical care expertly and day after day that these people would have to keep up their spirits as well, which might involve going to a concert party or running races in sacks and wheelbarrows. Keeping up spirits and looking after the health of the body as well. 

We started today's film by looking at this object that was made by a soldier as part of his medical treatment to keep up spirits and to cope with his injuries. In Friday's Family Mission, Ben Shires has another task that relates also to well-being because sometimes going out into the natural world or looking at things growing can keep up our spirits as well. I think for this next bit, we'll take ourselves outside on deck. I'll meet you out there, so I don't drop you in the water. 

Fantastic you've made it ashore without falling in the water. We're now at the back of the boat because on Friday's Family Mission, Ben is going to talk to you about growing vegetables and making the most of your vegetable scraps. We found out today about people who helped in the First World War by using their medical skills. Children were encouraged in the First World War to grow vegetables which would also help the effort. There was - it's a little-known fact - rationing in the First World War. This is a ration book from someone who was living in Manchester in 1918 and so children were encouraged to grow vegetables to make the most of scarce supplies. 

Now here on the boats, don't have a garden, not a lot of soil around but I have managed to grow some rather fantastic I'm hoping strawberries and on Friday Ben will tell you more about growing your own vegetables or give you some tips about using your top tips. So got some carrots sprouting to new green growth for salads and don't really like to talk about leaks by the boat but this leek has grown in just a week, a really substantial amount and so you can regrow leeks from the scraps that you might normally throw away. To find out more, join Ben on Friday. Imperial War Museums is a charity and if you feel that you would like to donate to support our work in telling these vital stories and keeping history alive then please go to our website to find out how you can support us. Farewell, until next time! 


  • Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day: WWII (Key Stage 3 &4)                                                               
  • Warfare and British society 1250-Present (GCSE) 
  • To increase understanding of the lives of women, how they helped the war effort during the First World War providing care and medical assistance.                                                                                                        

Grow Your Own

Poster image for IWM's Family Mission: Grow Your Own

IWM and CBBC Presenter Ben Shires are back with a veggie-packed mission for you.

Taking inspiration from the children of the First World War we’ll be reducing our food waste and getting inventive with our leftover veggies!

Watch mission briefing>

Medicine in the trenches

A Royal Irish Fusilier attempts to draw the fire of a Turkish sniper to reveal the enemy position, Gallipoli, 1915.
Trench Warfare.

This week we're learning about medical care during the First World War.

Learn more about life in the trenches. IWM has created a learning resource and activities based on the real stories of six people who experienced trench life during the First World War. 


Explore now >

Explore Further

Adventures in History: Trench Tales - Part One
Home Learning

Trench Tales - Part One

Join IWM expert Ngaire this week as she helps us reveal fascinating personal stories from the First World War, from the trenches to the home front. 


A party of British soldiers being lead out of a sap
©IWM (Q 5100)
Classroom Resource

Living in the Trenches

Use these sources to learn about some of the challenges faced by people serving in different parts of the world.

Adventures in History: Carers Part Two graphic
Home Learning

Carers - Part Two

From paintings to personal diaries, join IWM expert Ngaire as she helps us discover the extraordinary stories of the people who cared for the wounded in the First World War. 

Book A Visit to IWM

IWM London Exterior shot
IWM London

School visits to IWM London

Discover the stories of lives shaped by war and conflict from 1914 until the present day. Step into the iconic atrium, explore the brand new Second World War Galleries and experience our new learning facilities.

IWM North landscape view
IWM North

School visits to IWM North

Purpose-built to tell the powerful stories of over a century of war, IWM North makes full use of its extraordinary exhibition space to deliver an award-winning immersive experience.

IWM Duxford Showcase
IWM Duxford

School visits to IWM Duxford

Walk through the same hangars and buildings as those who served at RAF Duxford. See aircraft take to the skies from the airfield that Spitfires first flew. And get up close to over a century of aviation with hundreds of aircraft and objects on display.