‘Not Less They Earned the Victor’s Guerdon’: Medical Service Pensions and the Disabled Body

Posted by Jessica Meyer

One of the questions I often get when explaining to people that the Men, Women and Care project looks at gender and the provision of pensions after the First World War in Britain is ‘Did nurses receive pensions?’ The answer in the British case is ‘Yes’. The women who served with military nursing services, whether the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service or the Territorial Forces Nursing Service, or with the Voluntary Aid Detachments under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society, did not have the commissioned status of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, as discussed by Eliza Richardson. Nonetheless, they did qualify for disability pensions, and the 300-odd files which form the ‘Nurses’ subsection of PIN 26 have formed the basis of several excellent studies.[1]

While nurses have their own sub-section within the PIN 26 collection, it is worth noting that they were not the only medical care-providers to receive pensions for illnesses and injuries consequent to the war.  A small but significant number of men who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) were also in receipt of pensions. At present, the Men, Women and Care database does not contain a large enough sample to undertake any significant analysis of the number of these men or what percentage of the total sample they form. Nonetheless, it is worth noting their presence as, like the presence of women’s pensions, they highlight issues around the nature of the military service and sacrifice that the pension system sought to recognize.

The work of male medical care providers, particularly men of the ranks, has often been subject to a number of assumptions and generalisations, both during the war itself and by historians since. Their non-combatant roles, as defined under the Geneva Conventions, which were officially supposed to be undertaken behind the lines, led to accusations of shirking and cowardice, with RAMC Other Ranks being labelled ‘Slackers in Khaki’.[2] This was compounded by the association between the work of the voluntary medical services and conscientious objectors, with, for example, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit coming to an agreement with the War Office in 1916 to take conscripts who were unwilling to serve in combat roles but who were willing to serve in caring roles.[3] While RAMC servicemen were enlisted in the military, the fact that they too work Red Cross brassards and badges and carried no arms made conflation of their work with that of the voluntary medical services common. The fact that RAMC nursing orderlies worked in hospitals under the authority of female matrons further served to challenge these men’s claims to the heroic status of the combatant serviceman in wartime.

The Corps did, indeed, suffer low casualty rates in comparison to ‘teeth’ (combatant units), particularly infantry units, suffering a loss of 6,873 personnel of whom 4,139 were killed in actor on died of wounds. Yet the fact that Private SA received a 30% pension for a gunshot wound to the hand[4] provides evidence not only of some of the dangers these men ran, but also the ways in which such peril was gendered. Nurses’ pensions were predominantly for illnesses, both physical and mental, rather than injury. While a few orthopaedic injuries are listed in the files, including broken legs, thumbs and pelvises, as well as dislocated shoulders, they are very, very rarely attributed to the weapons of war, with Sister IW’s ‘bomb wound to the right leg’ standing out as an exception.[5] It was more acceptable for pensions administrators to acknowledge the war atributability of physical impairments for men than women, even when both served in non-combatant medical roles.

The other side of this coin is that, in comparison to the women examined by Richardson, the role of pensions in providing relief for the inability to act as breadwinner was far more contested in the case of male pensioners. As Joanna Bourke has noted, the assessment of disablement for men ‘came to centre on whether a man was better or worse off if he had lost this, that or the other part of his body. The criterion was not earning capacity.’[6] [My emphasis] The pension system thus appears to have objectified men’s bodies as tools of economic production in very different ways to those of women, reflecting the importance of embodiment to the gendered division of labour in this period.

Looking at the pension records through the lens of gender thus not only enables us to recognize the diversity of war service which Richardson points to, but also the complexity of the ways in which such diverse service was understood and valued by British and Canadian society in the years after the war.

[1] See, for example, Denise Poynter, ‘The report on her transfer was shell shock’: a study of the psychological disorders of nurses and female Voluntary Aid Detachments who served alongside the British and Allied Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, 1914-1918’, PhD. diss., The University of Northampton, 2008. Nurses’ pension files also form an important source for Alison Fell’s forthcoming book on the post-war commemoration and memory of nurses in Britain and France.

[2] Ward Muir, Observations of An Orderly: Some Glimpses of Life and Work in an English War Hospital (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd.,1917), pp.147-156.

[3] John Ormerod Greenwood, Quaker Encounters: Volume 1: Friends and Relief (York: William Sessions Limited, 1975), pp.183-4.

[4] PIN 26/233, The National Archives, London.

[5] PIN 26/20273, The National Archives, London.

[6] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1996), p.65.