When it comes to choosing a course to study, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level, narrowing down your choices is no mean feat, but when I heard that the University of Sheffield offered their English Literature students the opportunity to undertake a work placement, the process was made considerably easier.
I heard about the opportunity whilst I was writing my undergraduate dissertation at Sheffield Hallam University. At this time, I was eager to expand my knowledge of texts and their authors by delving deeper into the cultures that inspired them. This interest was reflected in my undergraduate dissertation, which was entitled ‘An investigation into how far the Second World War is visible in the fiction of Daphne du Maurier’. In this investigation, I argued that du Maurier wrote several “accidental war novels” that were unintentionally shaped by the dominating events of the Second World War.
My placement was a chance to discover more about the impacts of conflict. During this time, I worked as a researcher within the University of Sheffield Library’s Special Collections department. I was assigned the task of researching the department’s collection of The War Illustrated magazine, which provided war news through photographs and illustrations. It ran weekly issues throughout the First and Second World War. I was given free rein over which topic I wanted to investigate. I chose to focus on the magazine’s representations of Red Cross nurses from the First World War.
Although I was entirely unfamiliar with the magazine prior to my placement, women’s wartime roles have always been an area of interest to me, both inside and outside of my studies. In the early twentieth century, women were in the middle of an important battle against oppressive, patriarchal ideals, with organisations such as the Suffragettes campaigning for women’s rights. The First World War was a catalyst for change in so many ways, and I have always been fascinated by the different ways women responded to it, or, as War Illustrated puts it, the extent to which the mobilisation of women during the First World War ‘helped to solve the “Woman Question "’.[Footnote 1]
I have referred to newspaper articles in my past research, but I have never studied anything quite like War Illustrated. Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, the Special Collections department was closed to visitors and so a substantial amount of my research had to be done remotely. I received special dispensation to visit the library on several occasions, where I was able to work with the material in the reading room. But considering my limited time with the collection, I decided to purchase a digitized, collector’s edition of the magazine, entitled The War Illustrated Album de Luxe. Therefore, a lot of my time in the reading room was spent comparing the original issues with the collector’s edition, which had been revised to correct mistakes, rearrange pages, and insert new colour plates. In some cases, pages had been entirely rewritten. The discrepancies between the two versions were particularly telling.
Take, for example, a page from the 27th November 1915 issue of the magazine entitled ‘Soldier’s First! Nurses’ Devotion on Sinking Ship’ (pictured above), which included a full-page artists’ illustration of nurses giving up their places on lifeboats to fighting soldiers. The original caption for this image reads as follows: ‘It is curious that so little publicity has been given to what is one of the most heroic episodes of the war’. Although the name of the ship is not disclosed, I was able to identify this important ‘heroic episode[s]’ as the sinking of the Marquette, which took place a month earlier, on 23 October 1915.
The Marquette was intended to carry troops and ammunition but unfortunately, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, it was also transporting a group of nurses. Ten nurses from the New Zealand Army Nursing Service sadly drowned. Had the nurses been transported on a hospital ship instead of an unmarked transport ship, their lives would likely have been spared, since hospital ships marked with the red cross emblem were, theoretically, safe from attacks. The sinking caused outrage amongst the New Zealand public. Not only this, but some survivors also contested the accounts provided by newspapers at the time.
The amended version of War Illustrated from 1916 attempts to divert attention away from the event, altering the caption so that it reads: ‘It is inevitable in a great war that some of the most heroic episodes should escape wide publicity at the time. This one must be saved from oblivion’.[Footnote 2] The event captured by War Illustrated was no longer intended to be viewed as ‘curious’. Whilst the magazine acknowledged that the tragedy should not be forgotten, it did not, it seems, want to invite unnecessary scrutiny. Instead, the lack of attention it received was presented as just another ‘inevitable’ consequence of war. In this instance then, my comparison drew attention to the fact that details from the original issues were later changed to create a narrative that better suited the magazine’s patriotic, propogandist vision.
My placement was also an opportunity to explore the personal impact of the First World War and I spent a considerable amount of time researching some of the individuals named in War Illustrated. I was particularly enthralled by the story of V.A.D nurse, Lady Rosemary Leveson-Gower, who is featured in War Illustrated for her devotion to duty (pictured above, top right). Whilst nursing in France, romance blossomed between Rosemary and one of her patients, who just so happened to be the heir to the British throne, the Prince of Wales. It appears that they were very much in love. Sadly, although the royal family were fond of Rosemary, they could not condone the match. Lady Rosemary’s story was certainly one of the most riveting I encountered during my research of War Illustrated. Just think how different things might be now if the marriage was allowed to go ahead.
The purpose of my research was to create a resource or teaching aid that would be suitable for all ages. I decided to produce a pamphlet outlining the various roles of the women who nursed during the First World War. Drawing inspiration from War Illustrated, I issued my pamphlet with the title, ‘The Red Cross Heroine’, a popular phrase within the magazine (see example below).
I will admit, the thought of condensing approximately five months’ worth of research into a short pamphlet felt like an impossible task. But, taking a leaf out of War Illustrated’s book, I decided to let the images do most of the talking. I condensed my findings to just seven pages that I believed encapsulated the figure of the Red Cross heroine. Some of the images I used are typical of the period, in that they emphasize the nurse’s subservient role during wartime as a caregiver. Other images are much more progressive and draw attention to those who were closer to the action. My pamphlet was intended to introduce the topic of First World War nursing to a varied audience and tempt readers to pursue their own lines of enquiry. It can be found on the University of Sheffield library’s blog page.
Following my interest in the different representations of women’s wartime roles, I also compared the information provided in the magazine to the life writing of women who nursed during the First World War. I was specifically interested in the letters and memoir of Vera Brittain, who was a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D). Brittain’s story has received a significant amount of attention, from scholars and the media alike. My intention was to combine the public representations of volunteer nursing presented in War Illustrated with Brittain’s experiential accounts to corroborate and challenge some of the claims made in both publications. I presented my conclusions in an essay entitled, ‘‘The V.A.D. in Theory, Popular Fiction and Practise’: Representations of the Volunteer Nurse in the First World War’. I was largely inspired by a caricature I found on the British Red Cross Museum and Archives online catalogue, which satirizes the divergences between public perceptions and individual experience.[Footnote 3] What I concluded was that the volunteer nurse was something of a paradox.
My placement with the University of Sheffield granted me the opportunity to examine rare material, and this has enabled me to introduce the voice of a lesser-known publication into what is arguably a popular wartime narrative. I would urge anyone who is interested in the events of the First and Second World Wars not to ignore popular magazines such as The War Illustrated. What these publications lack in quantity of written material they certainly make up for in the quality of their composition. Every image and word used has been purposefully chosen and meticulously placed to give maximum impact, with the hope of inducing readers to accept certain political, patriarchal, and patriotic viewpoints. The War Illustrated certainly provided me with much food for thought.
Sidney Low, M.A., ‘Problems Solved by the War’, The War Illustrated Album de Luxe, ed. by J.A. Hammerton, vol. 4 (London: Amalgamated Press, 1916), p. 1404.
J.A. Hammerton, ‘Soldiers First! Nurses’ Devotion on Sinking Ship’, The War Illustrated Album de Luxe, ed. by J.A. Hammerton, vol. 5 (London: Amalgamated Press, 1916), p. 1739.
Olive Mudie Cooke, Caricatures: 'The VAD in theory, popular fiction and practice', digital copy of a lithograph, British Red Cross, c. 1920-1921, <https://museumandarchives.redcross.org.uk/objects/42> [accessed 09 April 2021].