The First World War was a major step forward for women in the workplace. One of the ways thousands of women contributed to the war effort was through working as nurses on the front lines. By the end of the First World War, nurses and other working women had fully proven that they were as capable as men, earning some women the right to vote in the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

The Army Nursing Service (ANS) was established in 1881, after which service records began to be kept. In 1902, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service replaced the ANS and the Indian Nursing Service (INS). The TFNS was set up in 1908, made up of a reserve of trained civilian nurses who could be called on to serve in hospitals across the UK.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, there were fewer than 300 QAIMNS nurses. By 1918, this had increased to more than 10,000 (along with members of the QAIMNS Reserve). Over 8,000 were TFNS nurses, 2,280 of whom had served overseas following the successful completion of a medical. First World War nurses served alongside the British Army on hospital ships as well as in France, the Balkans, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

More than 15,000 First World War nurses' records, covering Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the QAIMNS Reserve and the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS), are held in The National Archives (TNA) records series WO399. To access the First World War nurses' records, you can search for the catalogue number via TNA’s online catalogue Discovery or go to the specific search page.

After clicking on a particular First World War nurse’s name, scroll down to the option for previewing the images; this confirms how many images are in the file. To download files without charge, you’ll need to create a free account and be signed in. You can order as many as 10 documents per basket, and up to 100 in a 30-day period. The documents can then be downloaded as PDFs.

Each First World War nurse’s file contains a number of documents, the core of which is the original application form for military service. This gives the nurse’s full name, date and place of birth; parents’ address; where educated and trained; details of nursing experience; and the names of referees including matrons and personal acquaintances.

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Each First World War nurse's file should also contain Army Form B103 (Casualty Form – Active Service) which lists all of the postings, any periods of sickness and the number of days that were spent on leave. This record was designed to keep a tally of days/years served, which was used to calculate pay, pension and gratuity entitlement.

Unfortunately, many First World War nurses' records are incomplete. For example, Dora Powys Woodhouse served for a year in Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece in the QAIMNS Reserve but there’s no detail about this posting on her B103 form, simply the date of her return. Service details before 1915 are often missing from a nurse’s B103.

If you’re lucky, there will be other documents such as confidential annual reports about the First World War nurse's conduct and skills. There may also be letters written by her, perhaps giving reasons for resigning, requesting leave or enquiring about her pension arrangements.

Some of these letters are truly heartbreaking. First World War nurses signed on for a year’s contract, renewed annually if they remained fit and healthy. However, the work was emotionally and physically draining. For example, in September 1918, staff nurse Winifred Greenwood wrote to resign after more than two years’ service. She “feared a nervous breakdown” after being on board the HMHS Britannic when it was torpedoed, and being buried by a shell at a hospital in France.

Other records to search are the Medal Index Cards (WO372) and unit War Diaries (WO95) on TNA’s website; and the campaign medal rolls (WO100) on Ancestry. Also, check TNA’s research guide about military nursing for details of offline sources. If your ancestor returned to civilian nursing, check the Nursing Registers on Ancestry.

Michelle Higgs is the author of Tracing Your Medical Ancestors (Pen & Sword 2011)