New Book: “Always Caring: The story of the Belgian Nurses during WW1”

The historiography of the First World War and nursing pays nearly no attention to the work of the Belgian nurses during the Great War. This book adresses research questions relating to who these nurses were and what they were doing during the war. Therefore different sub-questions were asked. How many nurses were trained during the war? What were their main nursing practices? Were they organised as a professional group? What was the image of the Belgian nurses? How did the profession evolved immediately after the war? By answering these questions their story is told and the history of nursing in Belgium during the First World War is reconstructed.

For centuries nursing in Belgium was the monopoly of nuns. This changed at the end of the nineteenth century. Schools for secularised nurses started in Liège (1882), Brussels (1887), Antwerp (1902) and again Brussels (three schools in 1907). In 1908 the government created a certificate for nurses, after a mainly theoretical schooling of one year. Although catholic and medical circles were highly sceptical, these new trainings became very successful. The different courses resulted in 4,477 trained nurses at the beginning of the war.

During the war, these courses simply continued. They were not confronted with obstructions by the occupying power. Schools were also created in London and Calais, with the aim to prepare nurses for Belgian military hospitals. 1,792 Belgian nurses were educated that way. At least 800 nurses, who were trained before and during the war, were involved in Belgian military hospitals.
One of the main questions of this study was about the practices of Belgian front nurses during the war. They suffered physically and mentally in their contacts with wounded and starving soldiers. A lot of nurses became exhausted and suffered  illness. Some of them were obliged to stop working by the pressure of the war. 34 nurses didn’t survive the war. Based on an analysis of more than 200 files, a profile of the front nurses was calculated: their average age was 31 years, 10 months and 28 days, and their average seniority 2 years, 8 months and 28 days.

During the war, attempts were made to organise the nurses and so trying to shape their professional identity. The main instigator was Marie Elisabeth Belpaire, who already created a women’s association before the war. In 1916 she started a monthly review especially for Belgian nurses in non-occupied Belgium, with the aim to stimulate a professional orgnisation. Her efforts met with no success. At the end of the war, an organisation for the moral support of nurses was created by the wife of Belgian minister Paul Hymans.

The building of the image of Belgian nurses during the war looked rather diffuse. The main image in nurses’ personal testimonies was that of the nurse as mother and as an example of care. There were also negative images, which depicted nurses as prostitutes or nymphomaniacs. The image of the white angel, which dominated the discourse after the war, was not present during the conflict. This proves that it was a post-war construction.

Finally, the analysis to investigate if post-war developments were influenced by the war resulted in an answer that wasn’t unidimensional. The nursing schools had problems with their recruitment immediately after the war and didn’t profit from the rather positive image of the war nurse. In 1921, the government created new legislation on the training of nursing, which took into account the war experiences. Stimulated mainly by front nurses, a professional organisation for nurses was created in 1922, although it was not an easy task to fight for their rights against the persistent scepticism of the medical world.

Did the war have an emancipatory effect on the nurses’ profession? The answer is rather negative. During and after the war nurses stayed in a subordinate relation with the doctors, the nursing schools couldn’t copy their pre-war success and their image wasn’t very well-known by a large part of the population. The agency of the Belgian nurses during and immediately after the war wasn’t very high.

Sometimes curing, most of the time relieving, always caring’ was mentioned on the medal of nurses in L’Océan, the biggest front hospital in non-occupied Belgium. It wasn’t easy for Belgian nurses to fulfill this triple mission during the four years of the war. But different sources, especially the war diary of the Belgian nurse Jane de Launoy, proved that they achieved this most of the time. The care – influenced by the catholic roots of nursing in Belgium – was the most important element. ‘Always caring’ is therefore the best summary of the work of Belgian nurses during the First World War.

Luc de Munck