How to find World War One nurses’ records

Michelle Higgs explains how you can use free online records from The National Archives to trace the pioneering women who served as nurses in World War One

A nurse on the Western Front, Christmas Day 1914

The National Archives (TNA) in Kew reopened on 21 July, but fortunately for family historians a temporary change rolled out during lockdown remains in force. Remote researchers around the world can view thousands of its digitised records for free at home (they usually cost £3.50 per document).

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The collection of British army nurses’ service records for 1914–1918 is particularly interesting. Part of the War Office (WO) series and catalogued under WO399, it comprises more than 15,000 documents for individual nurses who served in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the QAIMNS Reserve or the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS).

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 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. Military nurses served alongside the British Army on hospital ships as well as in France, the Balkans, the Middle East
and the Mediterranean.

To access the records in WO399, 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 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 50 in a 30-day period. The documents can then be downloaded as PDFs.

Each 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.

In the file, there should also be the 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 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.

Conduct and personal correspondence

If you’re lucky, there will be other documents such as confidential annual reports about your forebear’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. 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.

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