Caroline Bligh, Leeds Beckett University The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 8 (1) 2020

Negotiating nursing is a deeply explorative read which examines nursing work as a gendered construction and nurses’ space in the Second World War. Brooks draws upon the lived experiences of former Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nurses (Q.A.s) via oral histories, diaries, letters and memoirs to present the reality of how nursing sisters attempted to negotiate the inevitable cognitive dissonance which they experienced whilst nursing acutely injured soldiers during the Second World War.

Divided into five chapters (Salvaging soldiers, comforting men; Challenging nursing spaces; Nursing presence; Negotiating the boundaries of nursing practice; Reasserting work, space and gender boundaries at the end of the Second World War), Brook’s research lays bare to the reader the testing and unique situation in which this entirely female work force not only tested their gendered boundary expectations, but also necessitated them working through unanticipated medical and ethical challenges that reached beyond their acquired nursing knowledge.

Brooks demonstrates with sensitivity how the emergencies of war demanded that nurses adapt and extend their known nursing practice and internal resources in order to holistically nurse soldier-patients. This adaptation to new ways of working, including working alongside and in collaboration with male doctors, rather than solely under their instruction, proved for many of them to be a transformative experience. Indeed, on return to the UK post-war, military sisters appeared to find it difficult to accept and revert to the previous hierarchy and rigidity of regular hospital nursing, resulting in many leaving the nursing profession entirely, never to return.

Akin to Hallett’s (2010) study of nursing during the First World War, Brooks prioritises the unveiling of real life nursing experiences during the Second World War as she articulates with sensitivity how they struggled to internalise their own trauma when confronted by a series of acute casualty situations that they were psychologically unprepared for.

Brooks reaffirms key elements within Fell’s (2018) articulation of society’s gendered perceptions of the ‘angelic’ nurse during times of war. However, rather than focusing on the external societal view of the ideal nurse caring for injured soldiers on the frontline; Brook subsequently turns externally motivated and idealised views of the ‘perfect’ nurse inward, so as to explore resulting cognitive dissonance experienced by nurses in a war torn situation, as a consequence of ongoing and challenged preconceptions of the former feminised self against the ‘new’ self who is an autonomous woman taking the initiative and leading new working models in a male dominated war zone.

Not only does Brooks examine the nursing sisters de-feminisation as their role takes on a more masculine nature in relation to the societal views of women at that time, but she also considers the apparent role reversal of the male soldiers in that these formerly strong young men who as fragile and vulnerable. What is of interest is how the nurses adapted to these new needs, by making the medical units more ‘homely’ in any ways that they could and building up much more responsive relationships with the injured soldiers than might have been anticipated in a military hospital.

Noteworthy is the importance of collaboration and friendship at this time. Not only do friendships develop and strengthen between the professionals (nurses and the soldier/patients or doctors), but also between the men and women. Both soldiers and doctors appreciated the nurses’ caring attributes which were built more openly during the war-zone environment. These participatory collaborations appeared to be essential, whether it be for learning new skills or simply for ‘getting through it’ in these temporary spaces for the purpose of work, recovery or/and the end of life. Although many of the situations faced by these nursing sisters were not unique to the second world war, nonetheless the lens through which Brooks reveals the battle with the inner-self of these self-resourcing nurses is all the more profound when considering these experiences occurred prior to the opening of a new welfare state.

Despite many intelligent and professional women giving ‘their all’ during the war, they were nonetheless expected to leave the much loved vocation that they were highly trained for, and (especially so if married), to prioritise returning directly to the home as a wife and mother after the war ended. There is no doubt from reading these personal accounts of military nursing over the duration of the second world war, that the QAs were essential to the holistic recovery of the soldiers; physically, emotionally and psychologically.

This research has a potential wide reach. It may appeal to researchers drawing on qualitative methodologies who are studying the lived experiences of nurses during the second world war, while medical and psychology researchers who are examining cognitive dissonance may find this research of particular interest. In addition, the historical nature of the research might be appropriate for dissemination across university courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels within the disciplines of Health, History and Social Science.

Carol Acton, ‘Obsessed by the Obscenity of War: Emotional and Physical Wounds in Mary Borden’s Poetry and Lesley Smith’s Four Years Out of Life’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 11/4 (2018), 335-347.
Alison Fell, ‘Remembering First World War Nursing: Other Fronts, Other Spaces’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 11/4 (2018), 269-272.
Christine Hallett, ‘Portrayals of Suffering: Perceptions of Trauma in the Writings of First World War Nurses and Volunteers’, Canadian Bulletin of Medical History: Bulletin Canadien d’histoire de la Médecine, 27/1, 65-84.