WW1, Belfast Workhouse and Nurses


This is just a little snippet from today’s work in the archives, specifically the Public Record’s Office of Northern Ireland where I am looking through the Minutes of the Belfast Board of Guardians from 1917. At this time the rest of Europe was engulfed in what had become a long and attritional conflict. And while most of us are aware of the thousands of Irish soldiers who fought as part of the British Forces (among others), we sometimes forget the other connections that the country had to what was happening on the continent.

This extract from the minutes was too long for a tweet, and far too fascinating not to share.

“…referring to the Nurses trained in the Belfast Infirmary… the Guardians had a list of 170 serving in connection with the War. They had Nurses in seven Hospitals in France, five Hospitals in Egypt, and some in Bombay, Mesopotamia, Salonica, Malta, and German East Africa. All the Nurses from the Belfast Infirmary joined as Staff Nurses, and in almost all cases they had been made Senior Sisters. The training they received in the Institution qualified them specially for looking after sick and wounded soldiers.” [1]

Hospital in Baghdad. Source: http://www.qaranc.co.uk/mesopotamia_world_war_one_photographs.php

Hospital in Baghdad. Source: http://www.qaranc.co.uk/mesopotamia_world_war_one_photographs.php

There’s not much mention of war time correspondence from the nurses but once the conflict had ended the minutes record various different letters coming from the nurses serving with the British Forces. In May 1919 the Guardians received a letter from a young woman from Killarney who had trained in Belfast between 1909 and 1913, informing them that ‘On her return from Salonica, after War Service, a few weeks ago she lost her luggage including her certs, and requests the guardians to furnish her with a copy.’[2] I wonder did she lose other precious letters, documents and perhaps even a diary in that lost luggage?

Earlier that month the guardians had received correspondence from two nurses, one in Bombay and the other in Mesopotamia. Miss B. who was on War Service in Bombay, had received demobilisation papers and was leaving India on 12th April. She notified the Guardians that she would report for duty at the Workhouse on her arrival in Belfast. Others decided to resign their posts and remain with the troops, including Miss T., who wrote from Mesopotamia (which corresponds to parts of modern-day Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey). She too had received the Guardians’ communications regarding demobilisation. Like all serving officers of the Workhouse her position had been held open for her but she decided ‘to remain in service in Mesopotamia’ and resigned her position. [3]

Nurse in Basra.  Source: http://www.qaranc.co.uk/mesopotamia_world_war_one_photographs.php

Nurse in Basra.
Source: http://www.qaranc.co.uk/mesopotamia_world_war_one_photographs.php

The injuries suffered on the trenches and beaches of Europe required medical attention long after the Armistice had been signed and some of the Irish women trained at Belfast decided to remain with the soldiers, treating them and possibly locals, in the hospitals of the conflict zone.

It is difficult to mention this region without thinking about the current conflict engulfing that part of the world. The British and French transformed (and not for the better) the Middle East in the decade after the First World War. Today persistent tribal and sectarian divisions have brought another devastating conflict to the region.

Click on the link for more on Mesopotamia during WW1;




[1] BG/7/A/97 – 19th June 1917

[2] BG/7/A/101 – 20th May 1919

[3] BG/7/A/101 – 13th May 1919.

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