Nursing as part of the British Army

There are records of nurses caring for sick and wounded soldiers as far back as the English Civil War1. At this time sick and wounded soldiers were usually cared for by the local population, and often at the expense of the village or town. Parliamentarian forces had the ancient London hospitals (Bridewell, Christ’s, Bethlehem, St Thomas’s, St Bartholomew’s and Sutton’s Hospitals) to support them. In these hospitals nurses cared for sick and wounded soldiers as they would any other patients admitted to their wards.

The first hospital built to support the military was in 1683 at Portsmouth after the campaign in Flanders in the reign of Charles II2. Although this hospital was for sick and wounded soldiers the staff were all civilians. Other than this small hospital the remaining soldiers were still left to be cared for by the civilian population.

During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) a hospital was set up in Portugal with Mrs Sullivan as Matron and a number of British nurses as staff3. During the Peninsular (1807-1814) and Napoleonic (1903-1815) Wars soldiers continued to be looked after by civilian populations. In addition, regiments allowed a number of the wives of soldiers (4-6 per company) to accompany the regiment on campaign. These women helped with cooking and in the upkeep of uniforms as well as providing some basic nursing care. They were not obliged to help the wounded but most did, and some were killed on the battlefields, including Waterloo.

By the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856) medical support was more organised but nursing care was left to orderlies who may have been trained, or who might have been drawn from the regiments taking part in the campaign4. The story of Nightingale has been well documented and requires no further expansion here other than to note two points: firstly, this was the first deployment of any sizeable body of nurses from the UK to support a military campaign overseas; and secondly, that Nightingale remains possibly the only nurse associated with military nursing to have been afforded a “heroic” status that overshadowed the contributions of her colleagues5. The nurses who went out to the Crimea were all civilians who came under the protection of the Army but were not part of it. The formation of the ANS in 1881 enabled the flexible deployment of nurses whilst retaining a chain of command and reporting.

Army Nursing Service

In 1881 the Army Nursing Service (ANS) was formed. Nurses wore military uniform and were employed directly to care for military patients. The ANS, although nominally a military formation was not an established part of the Army and did not sit within any of the directorates of the War Office. Army Nursing sisters served in support of many of the campaigns that took place between the Crimean War and the Boer War.

Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service (Reserve)

The small number of full time nurses in the Army Nursing Service, was always going to be a problem in a major conflict. In 1897 an Army Nursing Service Reserve was established, run by a committee chaired by Princess Christian, hence it was known as Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service Reserve (PCANSR). In wartime it came under the direction of the War Office. During the war in South Africa the PCANSR underpinned the employment of some 2000 nurses from all over the world.

Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service

The experience of the Boer War in South Africa, led to reorganisation of the Army Nursing Service and in 1902 Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) was established , followed by the QAIMNS Reserve in 1908. These nursing services mobilised for duty with the Expeditionary Force, serving through the war years on every front. In World War II, the QAIMNS & QAIMNSR served in every campaign, nursing the sick and wounded and sharing the hazards of warfare. Many nurses lost their lives, and some spent many years as internees.

Territorial Force Nursing Service

The Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) was originally formed to staff the territorial force hospitals at home, and the majority of its members spent their wartime service in the United Kingdom, not only in the 25 territorial hospitals, but also in hundreds of auxiliary units throughout the British Isles. Within a short time they were also employed in the eighteen territorial hospitals abroad, and alongside their QAIMNS colleagues in military hospitals and casualty clearing stations in France, Belgium, Malta, Salonica, Gibraltar, Egypt, Mesopotamia and East Africa.

Territorial Army Nursing Service

The Territorial Army Nursing Service (TANS) was formed in 1920, when the Territorial Force was renamed the Territorial Army. It existed until 1949, when both regular and reserve nurses joined the QARANC. Territorial Army nurses served alongside QAIMNS nurses all over the world, and in all campaigns during WW2.

Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps

On 1st February 1949 the QAIMNS became Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC). In July 1950 the first non-commissioned ranks were admitted to the Corps, and in 1954 the first nurses to undertake State Registered Nurse training within the Corps successfully passed their examinations. However, the QARANC was still an all-female organisation as male nurses at this point, were members of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), and it was not until April 1992 that male nurses transferred to the QARANC.

1. von Arni, EG. (2001) Justice to the maimed soldier: Nursing, Medical care and Welfare for Sick and Wounded Soldiers and their Families during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum, 1642-1660 Aldershot: Ashgate
2. von Arni, EG. (2006) Hospital Care and the British Standing Army, 1660-1714 Aldershot: Ashgate
3. Dobson, J. (1964) The Army Nursing Service in the Eighteenth Century. Annuls of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. 14(6): pp. 417-419
4. Taylor, E (2001) Wartime Nurse: One Hundred Years from the Crimea to Korea 1854-1954 London: Robert Hall
5. Rappaport, H. (2007) No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. London: Aurum Press

Author: Lt Col (Retd) Dr Keiron Spires QVRM TD