The work of military nurses at Passchendaele transformed the perception of women’s war service, showing they could perform life-saving work and risk their lives at the front.
In the summer of 1917, hundreds of military nurses were moved from base hospitals on the north coast of France to casualty clearing stations (CCSs) and field hospitals in Flanders. Travelling through French and Belgian farmlands, many noted in their diaries how beautiful the fields were in June and early July, full of flowering poppies, marguerites and cornflowers. Yet the further east they journeyed, the more powerfully the First World War – the war they believed would end all wars – forced itself upon their consciousness. The roads were choked with tens of thousands of soldiers making their way to the front, jockeying for space with horse-drawn artillery limbers and wagons filled with ammunition. While still many miles from the front, they could hear the distant thunder of the bombardment – part of the escalation of warfare in the days leading up to the Third Battle of Ypres. On arriving at Brandhoek, where the CCSs were only three miles from the reserve trenches, Australian nurse May Tilton noted in her diary that: