Her War

Published by Janet Hargreaves on

Her War by  Amanda Lynn Gwinnup

I am a PhD student in my final year at the University of Huddersfield, my thesis, provisionally titled Invisible Illnesses and Hidden Disabilities due to be submitted in 2022, focuses on the post-war experiences of Britain’s nurse veterans who were left disabled due to their war service. The disabilities range from short-term to life-long disablement and include physical debility following illnesses such as malaria, dysentery, tuberculosis and influenza as well as disabilities, such as neurasthenia, relating to the psychological effects of war service. This research further defines war-related neuroses as it pertains to female medical workers and relates their psychological trauma to the conditions in which they served. The development of long-term debility in illness cases are examined to illuminate the link between the physical ailment and mental stress as those illnesses lingered and went from acute to chronic; a number of nurses were diagnosed first with a physical illness and then with neurasthenia as time went on.

This research examines the overlapping identities of the disabled nurses (for example as the professional nurse, the V.A.D, the woman and the veteran). It then relates those identities to the voices they utilized in communicating, via forms and letters with the Ministry of Pensions, various veteran’s organizations and individuals. The voice of the individual nurses often changes from one to another as needed, with the professional nurse stressing her training and the V.A.D stressing her sacrifice. The analysis of their communications has allowed for an in-depth review of their agency as they sought compensation and treatment and examines the responses they received from the male-centered organizations. Preliminary research has found that the women sought to replace their loss of identities (professional or otherwise) with that of ‘disabled veteran’ through the official channels established by the Ministry of Pensions. For the professional nurses, who felt their loss of livelihood the strongest, the desire to have their war service and resulting disability recognized officially appears to have mattered just as much as their need for financial compensation.

Over the past few months I have had the pleasure and honour of sharing some of my research on First World War nurses with April Fredrick and Jonathan Ruffle as they, along with a talented team, created the opera Her War. Her War tells the story of a nurse traumatised by her war experience and follows her struggles as she attempts to get help from an unsympathetic government. The V.A.D nurse portrayed by April, soprano, and written by Jonathan was a combination of real stories preserved in various sources. The opera creatively portrays the long-lasting psychological effects the war had on many nurses in a poignant and effective way and illustrates the obtrusive obstacles, represented by an authoritative disembodied voice, that nurses encountered in their search for help.

While the majority of nurse veterans were successful in their disability pension claims many were not and a few of them communicated their anger through letters to the Ministry of Pensions which expressed their frustration, disappointment and feelings of abandonment by the country they had served. The professional nurses had lost their ability to earn a living in a career they had trained for and the V.A.D nurses returned to a nation forever changed and unable to recapture what they had left behind.

There are big plans for Her War. The creative team are hoping to bring the opera directly to medical workers, in particularly nurses, with the goal to aid in opening a dialog about the stress and strain of working during this global pandemic. The interactive broadcast, which first aired on 29 July 2021 and is a recording of the original live performance, is available for viewing at https://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/her_war and should be available throughout August 2021. For anyone not accustomed to operatic singing and music, I recommend reading the script alongside. The script is available through the link above. Tickets cost only £1.