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Florence Nightingale: The Spark That Lit the Slow-burning Flame of Progress
Women have always followed the war drum. Throughout history, observers have described the masses of wives and lovers that followed their husbands and companions into battle. Even as late as the Napoleonic Wars of 1808-1815, the Wellington-led British forces consistently trampled into battle with a band of exhausted-looking ladies hot in pursuit. Deeply in love and worried about having to survive by themselves, these military wives drew lots that decided whether they were “Not-to-go” or “To-go.” Of those who were unfortunate enough to draw the “Not-to-go” lot, many sobbed openly and threw themselves at their husbands during the war departure ceremony.1 Merely reinforcing the Romantic and Victorian era images of women as being more helpless than helpful, these ladies of the Napoleonic War had no idea that by the end of the 19th century, their breed would become extinct. Between the end of the Napoleonic battles in 1815 and the start of the Crimean War in 1854, Great Britain enjoyed peace and downsized their military.2 Eventually dragged into protecting Turkey (part of the former Ottoman Empire) from the Napoleonic-like expansion of Russia, Great Britain jumped into the brawl quite unprepared. Standing on the palace balcony just as the sun began to rise over the majestic towers of nearby Westminster Abbey, Queen Victoria proudly waved to the immensely patriotic crowd that had gathered to watch the parade of troops marching off to the East.3 Victoria had always been proud to call herself a soldier’s daughter, and it was “in the triple role of wife, mother, and sovereign that Victoria
Brigadier F.C.G. Page, Following the Drum: Women in Wellington’s Wars (London: André Deutsch Limited, 1986), p. 22-23. 2 Helen Rappaport, No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War (London: Aurum Press Ltd., 2007), p. 4. 3 Ibid., p. 7.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper greeted [the men], bowing and waving from her balcony.”4 Although no one realized it at the time, the flick of Queen Victoria’s waving wrist did far more than celebrate England’s military majesty. Unknowingly ushering in a new age of legitimate female war involvement, Victoria might as well have been guiding women like Florence Nightingale to the Eastern front alongside the troops: within the year, reports returned from the frontlines about Britain’s “Crimean disaster” and the dearth of male orderlies helping the wounded masses.5 The resultant outcries led to the quick arrival of female nurses in Crimea. Published in newspapers like The Times, these troublesome tales quickly galvanized female nurses who decided to act. With proactive women like Nightingale clamoring to organize supplies and help combat cholera epidemics among the soldiers, the collective British consciousness experienced a shock. No longer were the women at the front simply serving as helpless companions, cooks, laundrywomen, and seamstresses for the troops as they had in all previous wars; instead, this new brand of (ironically) Victoriainspired military women implemented bureaucratic and organizational changes and became renowned for their skills as nurses. Despite the fact that the British forces desperately needed Nightingale and the other female nurses, Victorian sensibilities of separate social spheres and the collective historical memory of women serving as laundresses and seamstresses during previous wars prevented a rapid social acceptance of these new female nurses. In fact, it was only after 1898’s Anglo-Boer War that
Ibid., p. 7-8. Sue M. Goldie, “I Have Done My Duty”: Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War 1854-56 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), p. 3.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper professional female nurses were widely accepted and began to enroll in the hundreds, eventually culminating in thousands participating in the First World War.6 Part of the reason women like Florence Nightingale “engaged in a Laocoönian struggle with [male] officials to try and reduce the vast chaos of the hospitals to some sort of order and regularity” was the poor reputation past female war followers had earned among the Victorian-minded men.7 In previous wars, the main occupation for wives included “cooking, and mending and laundering their husbands’ clothes, perhaps earning extra pennies by washing for batchelor soldiers also. Most wives were content to follow the drum.”8 In historical accounts of these battles, the sources consistently praise the female accompaniment for providing some semblance of divine domesticity for the rugged soldiers. Accounts of such interactions read like a modern-day morning routine. The morning brought further troubles to add to Mary [Anton]’s misery. James went off to carry out his duties, leaving her to do the housekeeping. She spent rather more than they could afford on some bread and wine to replace the lost rations and then set off with her purchases to join James, who was on an advanced picque. She had only gone a little way along a steep and narrow path when her foot slipped and she fell down the slope. Fortunately she was not badly hurt and escaped with a nasty shaking and a bad fright. More seriously, in the fall she had lost her precious parcel. With great determination she returned to the camp, dipped once more into their dwindling stock of money, bought another loaf and more wine, and set off on a second attempt to reach her husband, who had gone on duty without food … she had used up her final resources and sank to the ground, weeping bitterly.9 In addition to spending most of her time sewing, Mary Anton failed to prove that she could effectively provide food for her husband or manage their finances. In direct contrast to later female followers of war like Nightingale who successfully balanced long
Anne Summers, Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854-1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988), p. 1-2. 7 Goldie, p. 4. 8 Page, p. vii. 9 Page, p. 39.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper ledgers for unit-wide military supplies, these earlier women who followed the battle drum earned reputations as relatively helpless women whose primary benefit was reminding their husbands of home. Contributing to the nuisance reputation that these women had earned among the military commanders were instances in which women fell behind the ranks after stopping to shop in nearby villages or when women occasionally bought bread that had been earmarked for the troops (the latter of which embarrassed the commissariat staff who had to explain the situation to hungry troops).10 Chauvinistic military officials had dealt with meddling females since the eighteenth century when the “raggle-taggle of camp followers …had [become] an integral part of the workings of a regiment.”11 While most military men did appreciate the traditional cooking, laundry, cleaning, and sewing roles wartime women filled, the men did not view those women as universally helpful, particularly during battles when the female camp simply made it more difficult to retreat.12 In fact, warring armies periodically captured women and children in order to use them as war pawns. Sergeant Costello of the 95th Rifles recalled how the French raided the enemy camp and stole several children and donkeys. “In a few days, however, the French, desiring to be as little encumbered as ourselves with children, sent them back with a flag of truce.”13 During the Napoleonic Wars, “many of the women found it difficult to keep up with the column” and that resulted in a nearly universal opinion among the soldiers that the costs of having women accompany columns far outweighed the down-time benefits.14 After observing how fluidly the French forces were able to retreat and move, British soldiers often remarked how “the French had been far more
Page, p. 27. Rappaport, p. 28. 12 Ibid., p. 27. 13 Page, p. 32. 14 Ibid., p. 27.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper judicious in leaving their women at home.”15 Both Wellington and Napoleon agreed that women who followed men to war were equally as bad as men, if not worse, when it came to plundering. Historians even quote Napoleon as saying, “Women when they are bad, are worse than men, and more ready to commit crimes. The soft sex, when degraded, falls lower than the other. Women are always much better, or much worse than men.”16 More than simply alluding to the logistical problems posed by women who got ahead of the columns, blocked the road, or lagged behind, Napoleon’s statement also reflects the pervasive Victorian thought that God had endowed women alone with qualities like gentleness and sympathy, and it was the ‘woman’s mission’ to utilize those calm gifts in a benevolent manner, far away from a violent, public, and masculine world like the army.17 Reports of the “hardened’ women accompanying the troops surfaced after the capture of Badajoz in April 1812. A British soldier recorded a telling event. An officer with yellow facings came out of the town with a frail one [woman] leaning on his arm, and carrying in her other hand a cage with a bird in it; and she tripped over the bodies of the dead and dying with all the ease and indifference of a person moving in a ball-room—no more care being evinced by either of them, than if nothing extraordinary had occurred. It was really lamentable to see such an utter absence of all right feeling.18 Unfortunately for the productive and ladylike women (like Nightingale) who experienced difficult prejudice as a result of the lingering impression left by earlier war women, unVictorian incidents like the Badajoz affair existed en masse. In November 1813, an injured Private Wheeler dragged himself away from the battle of Nivelle to dress his wounds and came across a shocking sight. Wheeler writes,
Rappaport, p. 41. Page, p. 31. 17 Summers, p. 3. Page, p. 32. 18 Page, p. 49.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper Outside the buildings were a great many wounded soldiers, some drinking and smoking, others rolling about, some half and others mad drunk, while a great many lay stretched out as if dead. Women too, who had followed up the rear of the army, had forgot they had come up in the laudable pursuit of seeking their husbands [and] had freely partaken of the damnable poison until they had transformed themselves into something more like fiends than angels of mercy.19 Forty years later, when “angels of mercy” like Nightingale answered the call to duty during the Crimean War, they served as direct contrasts to the earlier female drum followers; however, the “disreputable behaviour of some of the army wives at Scutari, who spent their time drinking and whoring” continued to cause challenges for nurses like Nightingale.20 Despite the challenges they faced once they reached the East and began to deal with uncooperative military leadership and atrocious health standards, Nightingale and company remained vital to the faulty British campaign and implemented many changes which ultimately legitimized their presence. As previously noted the British forces that Queen Victoria waved into the eastern sunrise lacked both manpower and trained preparedness going into the Crimean War.21 The “Conservative inertia” that followed the exhausting Napoleonic Wars failed miserably when the nation needed to rise to the occasion in 1854.22 As soon as they landed at Gallipoli and Scutari, the British forces
Ibid., p. 55. Rappaport, p. 98. Summers, p. 14. It remains important to note that pre-Crimean War nurses were not all bad. “Dickens’s fictional characters, the drunken and dissolute Sarah Gamp and Betsy Prig, have stamped our imagination indelibly with a stereotype of the pre-Nightingale nurse. But Sarah and Betsy are caricatures, not historical portraits. They would have caused great offence to such a woman as Elizabeth Davis, who was sixty years old when engaged for the Crimea; respectable, literate, the daughter of a Welsh dissenting preacher, she had supported herself by turns as domestic servant, hospital nurse, and private nurse.” 21 McDonald, Florence Nightingale: An Introduction to Her Life and Family, p. 27. “British and French troops invaded the Crimea 14 September 1854 and the Battle of Alma was fought on 20 September. Wounded men from the Battle of Balaclava, a great but costly victory for the British, were arriving at the Scutari Barrack Hospital (across the strait from Constantinople) just as the Nightingale group did. The Crimean War was the first war for British troops other than colonial expeditions in forty years and the Army was ill-prepared. Large numbers died, although probably not more proportionately than the Nanpoleonic Wars.” 22 Goldie, p. 8.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper noticed their lack of organization and preparedness compared to the French forces.23 With no Duke of Wellington to lead and inspire the troops, the combination of elder aristocratic soldiers who viewed the excursion as a sport and the younger, fresh-faced generation who had no war experience whatsoever proved unfortunate.24 In addition to their basic disorganization, the British army suffered immensely from the harsh Crimean climate. As the British army shifted into attack mode against Russia, it “was suffering severely from the unhealthiness of Varna. As the summer progressed, the heat became unbearable for the unsuitably clothed troops. Diarrhoea and dysentery became universal; by the end of July, a full-scale cholera epidemic was raging.”25 Further exacerbating the spread of cholera were the disgusting barracks that were rife with disease. With as much as 40% of the British army requiring treatment at any one time, the cold, damp, unventilated, foul-smelling, and crowded barracks created a veritable breeding ground for infectious disease.26 In mid-July 1854, cholera broke out in the Gallipoli encampment.27 Additionally, outbreaks of cholera both before and after battles like Alma, Balaklava, and Scutari necessitated a new type of medical coordination that did not exist within the diminished British military camp.28 In the midst of all the persisting illness, letters arrived at newspaper headquarters, and war correspondents like W.H. Russell of The Times directed tirades toward charitable middle-class individuals who had enough money saved that they could volunteer with the war effort.29 This journalistic call to arms received an answer in the form of upper class “ladies” like
Ibid., p. 16. Rappaport, p. 30. 25 Goldie, p. 16. 26 Rappaport, p. 21. 27 Ibid., p. 44. 28 Summers, p. 30. 29 Ibid., p. 34.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper Florence Nightingale, who had enough experience in related healthcare and organizational fields that they could effectively address the debilitating military issues. In answering the urgent nursing call to arms, Florence Nightingale and her British contemporaries represented a more acceptable Victorian solution to a militarily mortal threat. Nightingale’s own background so sharply contrasted the life experiences of those women who had previously followed the war drum, that the combination of her familial character and worthwhile deeds further legitimized female nurses in the eyes of a mildly disapproving society. Papers like The Times had emphasized the nationalistic nature of the nurse battle cry by even mentioning that the French forces had far better medical care and barrack conditions.30 Consequently, by answering that call, Nightingale and her nursing comrades immediately legitimized their intentions in the minds of some military officials and British patriots. Unlike the wives who had traditionally followed the war drum for selfish reasons (e.g. feeling more comfortable by their husbands’ side), and then caused trouble, women like Nightingale shipped off to Crimea as a way of accomplishing their admirable patriotic duty.31 Despite the low numbers of Nightingale’s initial nurse party (38 women total: 8 sisters and 6 nurses from Anglican orders; 5 nuns from Catholic Convents of Mercy; and 14 secular hospital nurses), each woman was of such a respected social class, whether it be religious or social, that they dealt with none of the accusations of whoring and drinking which earlier drum followers had.32 Nightingale herself was born in Florence, Italy, to wealthy English parents; she had also reached a level of
Goldie, p. 16. Page, p. 48. Traditionally, “when the army went into action the general rule was for the women to remain with the baggage so that they would not be involved in the fighting.” Consequently, it remained quite clear that those women did not accompany their husbands to battle so as to benefit the overall war effort. 32 Summers, p. 38.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper fluency in French, Italian, German, Greek, and Latin.33 Nightingale and her contemporaries, who included Mary Stanley and Jane Shaw Stewart, all qualified as high class, learned women, and as a result, their participation in the war posed a surprising affront to the male Victorian sensibilities. On the one hand, their status as “ladies” made their presence in a dank hospital full of males a problem; however, this status also gave them the advantage of being qualified to supervise ward work while “being immune to sexual temptation from the lower-class patients.”34 Thus, as the embodiment of a living compromise between the realm of public service in the army (traditionally a masculine function) and their inherent upper class status, Nightingale’s nurses became willing public servants of the male military hierarchy. By transgressing the traditional upper class Victorian separate spheres, Nightingale and her contemporaries reflected the larger social movement that was occurring at the time. Because the Crimean War had been publicly declared a matter of nationalistic sensibilities, it had also blurred the line between the military and the rest of society. Unlike the Napoleonic Wars in which the “armed forces were essentially remote from the mainstream of society,” (while paid through universal taxation, nonetheless separate), the national wars (including the Crimean) of the mid-century involved all civilians—even women.35 And “only when war became a more general civilian concern … could [it] become a more general female concern.”36 Accordingly, If soldiers were no longer merely social undesirables or cannon fodder, then the women who organized hospitals for them and tended their wounds need not be dubious adventuresses or wretched camp followers.
Lynn McDonald, Women Theorists on Society and Politics (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998), p. 165. 34 Summers, p. 4. 35 Ibid., p. 5. 36 Ibid.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper They could be worthy citizens and even heroines, claiming their right to participate in the great national struggles of their day.37 Thus, the female nurse participation in this war made a lasting impression on British society at large, in a way that no other previous female participation had made an impression. So although the residue from the relatively unhelpful involvement in the earlier wars combined with Victorian sensibilities to cast a light of initial impropriety on Nightingale and her contemporaries, the class of the nurses combined with their overtly patriotic rationale for assisting with Crimea and resulted in a progressively positive association, which was only augmented in its power when letters about Nightingale’s deeds reached England’s shores. On a more literal level, the nurses so effectively implemented medical and military supply reforms that they even altered the connotation of the word “nurse” itself. Upon their arrival in Scutari, Nightingale and her small band of nurses had found “the Army atrociously under equipped medically and lacking in all kinds of essentials, including food and bedding.”38 In addition to the horrid conditions surrounding them (it was reported that Nightingale herself killed a rat while caring for an ill nursing sister), some of the doctors refused to accept the presence of Nightingale and her nurses.39 Through visible advancements in the organization of the military’s medical supplies [see attached supply ledger] and the vastly improved care for wounded soldiers, Nightingale and her fellow nurses achieved gradual accolades and fame. For instance, in a letter [attached] written Friday, January 19, 1855 by an eyewitness in the Crimean War, the author praised the noted change he had seen following Nightingale’s arrival in the East.
Ibid., p. 6. McDonald, p. 28. 39 Ibid., p. 28-29.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper I have been talking to my colour serjeant the other day who was wounded at Alma, he gives a much better account of affairs at Scutari, when he first went he was left for 7 days without seeing a Doctor. He survived it & says they are now much better off. Miss Nightingale and her attendant angels he [t]alked most enthusiastically about, they were every where among the sick, doing more good than any Doctors.40 Since historians argue that these types of writings are often simply “political critiques masked as letters,” it remains likely that a large group of soldiers supported this politically dominant issue.41 Other eyewitnesses also discussed Nightingale’s immensely helpful style of care-giving in their public discussions. Remarks about how Nightingale herself did the heroic work abounded. “[She] knelt in the dirt and bound up soldiers’ wounds, nursed the ill (there were outbreaks of cholera and typhus) and assisted at amputations. At night she visited the wards, giving rise to the image of ‘the lady with the amp.’”42 Another primary source, Sidney Goldolphin Osborne in Scutari, described how Nightingale’s bravery led her to the most difficult cases. Osborne writes, “The more awful to every sense a particular case, especially if it was that of a dying man, her slight form would be seen bending over him, administering to his ease in every way in her power, and seldom quitting his side till death released him.”43 Although some argued that Nightingale spent more of the war running operations in Scutari than she did physically nursing soldiers, there is no doubt her high skill level in both care-giving and organizing won her respect from some of her most ardent critics.44 In fact, “[many doctors] soon learned that going to ‘the bird,’ as [Nightingale] was jokingly called, was the way to get things done. She had supplies that the Army either did not have, or did not know that it
Harvard Widener Library Microfilm of the original letter. Mary A. Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, politics and the fiction of letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 113. 42 McDonald, p. 28. 43 Goldie, p. 8-9. 44 Rappaport, p. 110.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper had because its record keeping was so bad.”45 For a group of women who delivered visibly improved care and had an indirect publicity machine via the letters sent home by wounded soldiers, Nightingale and her fellow nurses set the ball of progress rolling. Arriving on the scene in the mid-1800s, Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses faced a period of tension. Somehow managing to embody both the traditional and the innovative, Nightingale herself cooked and washed (both traditional tasks) while still organizing Scurati (new bureaucratic job) behind the scenes.46 Although the taint of ignominious drum followers and Victorian sensibilities made it more difficult for Nightingale to work with some of the military officers, her upper class upbringing and well publicized good works eased the situation. Throughout Nightingale’s life, she had a constant give and take; there were consistently those who supported her and those who refused to do so. Similarly, although the war had both made the military more influential in society and opened the possibility for more fluid lines between male-female social spheres, some conservative strongholds continued to fight against a legitimized female medical presence in battle. Perhaps the long, slow struggle for progress begun by women like Nightingale is best expressed by the following timeline: In 1883, British nursing earned the ultimate accolade when the government instituted the decoration of the Royal Red Cross.47 Just 30 years later, however, at the end of WWI, female nurses who had been brought into the army hospital system “largely as numerical substitutes for men … [remained] far from being fully incorporated in society, [and the] women found themselves rejected as the ‘surplus two million.’”48
McDonald, p. 29. Goldie, p. 9. 47 Summers, p. 6. 48 Ibid., p. 9.
Kathleen Fitzgerald—Final History 10b Paper
Bibliography Favret, Mary A. Romantic Correspondence: Women, politics and the fiction of letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) Goldie, Sue M. “I have done my duty”: Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War 185456 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987) Harvard Library Original Microfilm Letters, 2007 McDonald, Lynn. Women Theorists on Society and Politics (Waterloo:Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998) Page, Brigadier F.C.G. Following The Drum: Women in Wellington’s Wars (London: André Deutsch Limited, 1986) Rappaport, Helen. No Place For Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War (London: Aurum Press, Ltd., 2007) Summers, Anne. Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854-1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1988)