|Women in warfare|
|Monday, 26 August 2013|
On 13 June, Words and Deeds: Women, Warfare and Caregiving opened at Surgeons’ Hall Museum – a new exhibition run in partnership with the University of Edinburgh
Words and Deeds spans the period from the Crimean War to the Second World War and tells the often neglected and understated story of women in warfare. By using the women’s own words, the exhibition narrative provides a deeply personal and compassionate view of caregiving during war.
The exhibition runs through the military surgery section of the RCSEd’s Pathology Museum and starts with the story of Edinburgh graduate and military surgeon ‘Dr James Miranda Barry’ – aka Margaret Bulkley. Barry rose through the ranks to the position of Inspector General (equivalent to Major General) before the discovery was made, on her death, that she was a woman. During the Crimean War (1854-56) casualties were sent to Barry’s hospital in Corfu, which had the highest recovery rates of the campaign. Barry died in 1865, the same year that Elizabeth Garrett became the ‘first’ female to qualify as a physician in Britain.
During the Crimean War, the desperate shortage of medical staff and facilities led to over half a million soldiers dying from wounds, disease, starvation and cold exposure. Women from all social backgrounds and nationalities travelled to the Crimea to give care. Mary Seacole, daughter of a Scottish soldier father and Jamaican mother, cared for the wounded from all sides and was known as ‘Mother Seacole’. Although her application to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing team was refused, Seacole travelled to the Crimea at her own expense and set up the ‘British Hotel’ with her relative Thomas Day. The British Hotel was used by Seacole to provide food, and treatment based on herbal remedies. Seacole would also travel by mule to the front lines of battle to take food, medicine and wine to the wounded and dying on both sides.
This exhibition highlights many women who deserve a prominent place in history but who are often left out. Indeed, Dr Barry was not the only female doctor practising in warfare during her lifetime. Dr Mary Edwards Walker was appointed physician during the American Civil War and was the first woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the Civil War, the bravery of Harriet Patience Dame was testified by General Gilman Marston, Commander of the 2nd NH Regiment, who said: “Miss Dame was the bravest woman I ever knew. I have seen her face a battery without flinching, while a man took refuge behind her to avoid the flying fragments of bursting shells.” Dame marched with the soldiers, treated them on the battlefield and was captured and released twice with ‘praise and apology’ from her captors.
The role of women increased dramatically during the First World War. At the outbreak of conflict, there were 300 trained nurses. However, at the time of the Armistice, over 10,000 trained nurses had served in this war and had been supported by a further 50,000 volunteer nurses. The remarkable courage of Dr Elsie Inglis, who established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during First World War, made an invaluable contribution to caregiving in warfare, sending over a thousand women to the front as doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers. In recognition of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, the Medical Women’s National Association adopted the name of ‘American Women’s Hospitals’ (AWH), establishing their first hospital in France, 1918. The surgeons and ambulance drivers of the AWH served over 20,000 patients in the course of one year.
Words and Deeds ends by paying tribute to the women who gave care to those wounded in the Second World War, looking at the role of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and the Territorial Army Nursing Service (TANS). As they had done throughout the First World War, nurses worked on ambulance trains, hospital ships, at casualty clearing stations and base hospitals. Due to the introduction of air evacuations, nurses also worked on the medi-vac flights. Accounts not only reveal the appalling sanitary conditions of warfare, but also the extreme danger in which the nurses worked: “We kept on the same pair of rubber gloves until they split, just scrubbing them in pure Lysol and washing them under the tap. The whole day we were being machined gunned from the air,” wrote Sister CM Butland, working in a field ambulance during the Dunkirk Evacuation.
The voices of women from the Crimean War, American Civil War, South African War, and First and Second World Wars tell the moving, harrowing and inspirational story of women who fought with opposition, often giving their own lives, to save those of the wounded.
The Museum would like to thank Yvonne McEwen and all of the contributors who have helped make this exhibition possible.