Wendy Moore

Books: History | Medicine | War | Distaff

No Man's Land: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran Britain's Most Extraordinary Military Hospital During World War I (2020)

No Mans LandWhen the Great War broke out, two of the leading suffragettes, Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, decide to open a hospital, in the own battle to prove women deserved the same rights as men.

They soon were running an official military hospital, staffed almost entirely by women.

Murray and Anderson's unit was clearly identified as the suffragettes' hospital, while the Scottish Women's Hospitals, as Inglis's outfit was named, was closely allied with the suffragists.

They planned carefully, taking every element into consideration.

The uniforms were chosen with care. Anderson and Murray had picked the ankle-length skirt - daringly short by 1914 standards - and belted, button-through tunic so they would be practical yet feminine. The durable fabric, which Murray described as "greenish-grey," but was closer to a greyish-brown, mimicked British army khaki, so the women would be taken seriously in a military situation.

Their first hospital was set up entirely on their own, funded by donations.

Anderson and Murray decided that the four large salons on the ground floor would best serve as wards. These were situated surrounding an open courtyard. The ladies' cloakroom, with its tiled walls and floor, plentiful washbasins, and light-reflecting mirrors, could be converted into an operating theater, and the adjoining rooms on either side would become a dispensary and a sterilizing room, with fish kettles pressed into use as sterilizing units.

This book details not just the pasts of the women who would come to run the hospital, it also tells you how unprepared England was for the war.

Although medical advisers had requested motor ambulances before the war, the army's commanders had decided they were an unnecessary luxury. So the RAMC was entirely dependent on horse-drawn ambulance wagons and a few motor lorries to convey all the wounded and life-saving medical equipment.

Two siblings brought to France a private lorry that they themselves drove–including to the front to pick up wounded.

The result of this complete breakdown in organization was that the well-equipped base hospitals on the French coast were virtually empty in the first few months of the war, while thousands died of untreated wounds in the field.

There were also unprecedented numbers of head injuries, caused by sniper fire and artillery bombardment, until eventually -- in late 1915 -- it would occur to army chiefs that steel helmets might provide better protection for the men.

The book is unflinching in its look at the women and the hospital they set up, from the spin Anderson and Murray tried to put on things when they were interviewed for the papers, to the personality issues that arise in any large organization.

But primarily the story tells how the hospital came to be, how it ran during the war, and of the women who staffed it.

Major alterations were needed to convert the grim Victorian institution into a smooth-running military hospital. The exercise pens, padded cells, and iron chains once used to restrain workhouse inmates all had to be removed.

This book is quite clear that the two women were life partners, as well as partners in running the hospital, which is a refreshing change.

It's a fascinating look at a time that was well documented, but rarely spoken of for years, and women who have remained hidden–unknown despite the pioneering–and exemplary–work they did.

In a joint research paper published in The Lancet, charting their efforts to tackle septic wounds in one thousand patients in the first six months at Endell Street, they concluded that standard antiseptics were virtually useless. 59 They had slightly more success with three new approaches: Eusol (Edinburgh University Solution of Lime, a combination of bleach powder and boric acid first trialed in 1915), salicylic acid paste (a derivative of aspirin), and washing the wound with a salt solution.

Publisher: Basic Books

Rating: 9/10