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Nurses at War
Women on the Frontline 1939-45
By Penny Starns

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Nurses at War
Women on the Frontline 1939-45
By Penny Starns
ISIS Large Print, (2000)
ISBN: 0-7531-5498-6
Genre: History - Great Britain, Women, World War II

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 3, 2002

In 1939, British nursing was in crisis. Trained, registered nurses were struggling to be officially recognized as professional workers. Worse, nursing was a profession that was having difficulty in attracting sufficient numbers to meet current staffing needs. In part this was due to the archaic scheme under which nurses trained, and the harsh conditions that they faced once they had completed their training. Infused with old-fashioned Victorian notions, British nurses were often forced to live in strictly controlled environments under rigid discipline, and they often lost their jobs if they married.

In Nurses at War Penny Starns provides an overview of history of nursing in Britain and the events that led up to the nursing crisis that had developed by 1939 and how the events surrounding World War II affect the role and status of British nurses. She also investigates why a large section of the nursing establishment felt that by militarizing the training and activities of the nurses, the overall status of the field would be raised.

Nurses at War is more than just an overview of the British Nursing during World War II, it is, at its core, a book which describes the lives of the nurses who served on the front lines - the jobs they handled, the dangers they faced, and the role they played in helping to win the War. The tasks they preformed and the circumstances that they found themselves in where often dictated by the current political mood, long-standing stereotypes, and the vagrancies of the war itself. Yet, no matter where they served or under what conditions, they were first and foremost, nurses. Throughout the war, most served with valor, often preforming heroically while under fire.

During World War II, Britain instigated a scheme where nurses often found themselves on the front lines and in the thick of battle. As a result, many nurses were killed or injured by enemy fire, and numerous nurses where taken prisoner. Many of these women, especially those taken captive by the Japanese, found that in addition to being captured they also had to endure being raped and tortured. They were also forced to work as slave laborers and they had to live with the constant fear that they might be murdered at any moment. Furthermore, these nurses were often faced with the challenge of trying to survive a variety of debilitating diseases, without proper medical treatment, on top of living on a starvation diet, throughout their ordeal as POW's. Throughout the war, the nurses faced many of the same dangers as did their male counterparts, but they did so with less pay and often with less respect. Even after nurses were allowed in the office corps of the various military services, they still had to fight for the same respect accorded male officers.

In addition to discussing the role played by nurses on the front lines, Starns also looks at the countless women who served in the VAD's (Voluntary Aid Detachments) and other volunteer organizations, who worked alongside the trained nurses, often serving as nurses aids and orderlies. She looks at the role nurses played on the home front during the war, both in traditional hospital settings and in such organizations as the Civil Nursing Reserve (CNR). Starns illustrates the added workload these civilian nurses carried as the military services began to actively recruited nurses, leaving the civilian sector bereft of sufficient nursing personnel. She also looks at the role that nurses from other countries, played during the war; including the fact that many German nurses were active participants in the Nazi killing machine, willingly and purposely killing Jews, disabled patients, and other "undesirables" in their care.

This book does not end with the conclusion of the war. Starns also discussed 'what happened next' and the role that the development of the National Health Service had in the status of nurses and the nursing profession in general. She also takes a hard look at the difficulties that many nurses had readjusting to civilian life.

This is an excellent history that is well researched and very readable. In many regards, this book can be viewed as an oral history project. Starns interviewed countless women while researching this book, and she has allowed them to speak, with their own voices, whenever possible. This book includes numerous excerpts from diaries, letters, and other documents that help to personalize this account. The book also includes maps, a list of abbreviations used in the book, a brief outline that chronicles the major events of the war from 1939-1945, and a similar chronology that highlights events of particular significance for the nurses.

Nurses at War: Women on the Frontline 1939-45 is a fascinating account of the role that British nurses played during World War II. It is well-written and extremely readable. This narrative will be of interest to anyone interested in medical history, women's studies, World War II, British history, or who simply is looking for a gripping story to read.

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