Field nursing was an uncommon, if not altogether absent, component of British military operations during the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to the Crimean War (1853-1856), the term “nurses,” within the context of British imperialism, was applied to women (usually soldiers’ wives or members of religious orders, particularly Anglican nuns) who cared for the sick and injured, as they would have cared for members of their own families. These “nurses” had no formal training and often went without compensation for their assistance to the servicemen in their care.
As a collective group, nonetheless, nurses of nineteenth-century military conflicts have remained in the background of the canon and critical scholarship of the Victorian period. Unlike the generation of nurses that followed them, Victorian nurses (with one notable exception, of course) have almost entirely faded into obscurity. The irony of their disappearance from literary scholarship is even more pronounced considering it was the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, that gave rise to nursing as a profession for the women of England.
In the span of one decade (from 1843 to 1853), field nursing became not only a prominent appendage to British military organization but also a necessary component of British success in the Crimea. The term “appendage” is used deliberately here because of its pejorative connotations; the early departure of trained nurses for the Crimea was met with conflicting responses from the British public as many mid-Victorian Britons struggled with the idea of women leaving the domestic sphere to pursue nursing as a profession in England and in colonies abroad, while others rallied in support of the nurses and donated money to various funds that facilitated the nurses’ travel costs, living expenses, and compensation. By the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March 1856 and the end of the Crimean War, however, public sentiment toward nursing would be changed forever.