Dutch Nurses and World War I: From Militarisation to Pacifism

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Leo van Bergen, Netherlands Institute for Military History
Before World War I the Dutch nursing trade was in a process of ongoing militarisation. The nurses were framed as caretakers of the wounded having but one quality: a good heart. This of course offended professional nurses in whose eyes nursing was a trade, that could not be done voluntarily by just everyone. 'The good heart'-argument, they suspected, was just a way of saying that women had to tend the wounded soldiers for free. Nevertheless they subscribed the militarisation, especially when in service of the Dutch Red Cross.

They did not, however, agree with the DRC-decision in August 1914 not to send ambulances abroad, until it was clear that the Netherlands would engage in the fighting, and this would not be the case before peace was signed.

Many of them therefore volunteered participate in the ambulances set up by private organisations. Some of them reported about their experiences, including the horrors they witnessed. Consequently questions were raised at the role of medicine in times of war, in Spring 1918 leading to a Dutch nurse suggesting that maybe medical care, and certainly all medical preparation to war work, should stop.

As a result, in the Inter War Years the Dutch peace movement made medicine one of its targets, even leading to a Nurses' Anti-War Group. But although they attracted attention, as before the war they still had not the numbers.

Opposition, also within nurses' ranks, was fierce. Not only would refusing aid to sick and wounded contradict the Hippocratic oath, but also, although the militarisation before the war had not raised questions, pacifism was politics and therefore stood outside the field of humanitarian medicine.

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