Researching Nurses During WWI & WWII

Military Genealogist Simon Pearce provides an insight into researching nurses during WWI & WWII 

During both world wars, volunteer and professional nurses made considerable sacrifices to tend to the wounded on both sides of the parapet, often under incredibly challenging conditions. Our handy guide offers hints and tips for researching nurses during WWI and WWII.

You may come across several nursing or aid-providing organisations during your research. British Army nurses served with units such as Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and were regular, professional army nurses. QAIMNS also had a reserve wing too.

Nurses also served with the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS). Established in 1909 as a sister organisation to the QAIMNS, its purpose was to supplement the regular service in emergencies, and all its members worked as nurses in civilian life.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), founded by the Red Cross and the Order of St. John, also provided nurses during both world wars. VAD members were civilian volunteers, not professional army nurses. Members could be qualified nurses or have no medical background at all.  

© Hulton Archives/Getty Images
© Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Where to begin

A service record is a great starting point and will give you unparalleled insight into your ancestor’s wartime service, often indicating when they enlisted and the units they served with. Access to such information will allow you to plot your ancestor’s movements and build a timeline of their service. The National Archives (TNA) holds a series of service records for British Army nurses who served during WWI with units such as QAIMNS, QAIMNS Reserve and the TFNS. 

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) holds service records for nurses who served with the armed forces during the Second World War. You can download the application forms from the MOD website.

Next steps

What if you can’t locate a service record or are unsure if your ancestor was a nurse? You will find references to wartime nurses in our WW1 & WW2 Nurses Records, compiled from multiple repositories such as TNA or the Museum of Military Medicine. Entries vary in content but may indicate the unit the nurse served with, their dates of service, where they served and if awarded for gallantry. The clues from these records may help you focus your searches on other nursing collections. 

Medals

Medal records are a valuable resource for a military genealogist, and if your ancestor served with the TFNS, then we have an excellent resource for you. Exclusive to Forces War Records (FWR) is the Territorial Force Nursing Service Medal Rolls covering awards for service during WWI. Information includes name, address, service dates and location of service. 

Another medals collection available on FWR is the Royal Red Cross Decoration 1883-1994. The Royal Red Cross, conferred to nurses who tended to the military’s sick and wounded, has two classes: First Class and Second Class. The collection may contain the nurse’s name, rank, unit, the date the award was published in the London Gazette and the theatre of the award. Entries may include a brief description of the circumstances of the award, such as: ‘in recognition of their valuable services with the Armies in the Field.’ 

Once again, the clues in these collections could help you search for your ancestor in other nursing or military records. 

My ancestor was a Red Cross nurse

Our members have access to the British Red Cross in WW1 database, taken from the British Red Cross Register Of Overseas Volunteers 1914-1918. VAD members were employed in various roles, such as nurses, air raid wardens, clerks and cooks. Entries may provide name, rank, certificate number, department and duty location. A positive entry may indicate that the individual served in a nursing capacity, and you should look out for shorthand in the Rank section, such as:

  • NS = Nursing Sister
  • WM = Ward Maid
  • Asst. Nurse = Assistant Nurse

A point worth remembering: rank is often recorded as ‘VAD’, a term regularly used for individual volunteers. You may need to consult additional collections to learn more about your ancestor’s service with the VAD. 

If you find yourself in that position, your next step should be to consult the British Red Cross (BRC) Museum’s online database of digitised WWI VAD cards. The cards can build on entries found in our British Red Cross in WW1 collection and may shed light on the specific roles of VAD members during the war. In addition, the BRC Museum holds War Service Record Cards for members who served during WWII, but these are not digitised. 

Further avenues of research

Another useful collection is the General Nursing Council Register of Nurses, providing information on registered nurses. While some results reference a military establishment, most entries concern domestic or civilian nurses. Nevertheless, some nurses recorded in this collection may have joined military or civilian nursing units during the war. 

Many of the nurses recorded in this collection who had qualified before or during WWII may have nursed the public on the homefront during the war, contending with blackouts, whaling air raid sirens and bombs dropping dangerously close. The registers include information such as name, address, date of registration and date and place of qualification, providing vital clues for the researcher. 

Newspapers are a fantastic source for military research and can contain anything from a brief reference to a detailed article or even a photograph of a service person. A newspaper article may contain specific details about a nurse’s background or service, which may not be recorded in traditional military records, adding further colour and context to their story. Try searching Newspapers.com for articles relating to nurses who served during WWI or WWII. 

Contextual sources

Gaining contextual insight into your ancestor’s military service can be a rewarding part of your research journey. If you know the unit or medical facility your nursing ancestor served with during WWI or WWII, it would be worth consulting war diaries held by TNA. War diaries provide a day-to-day account of a unit/medical facility’s work, allowing you to gain an insight into your nursing ancestor’s experience throughout the war. You may encounter references to individual nurses too. Many WWI war diaries are digitised, but WWII war diaries require a visit to TNA to view in person. 

Do you have any nurses in your family? Maybe you are researching them and your family's military history - search the Forces War Records site and fill in the missing pieces...

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