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Anna Elisabeth Gehl



Elsa-Neumann-Stipendiatin (2021-2023)

Female Gentlemen: World War One, Shell Shock, and the Women who Volunteered

My research focusses on the experiences of British female volunteer medical personnel during and after the First World War. Women working as volunteers on the Western Front witnessed the carnage of the War under similar circumstances as soldiers, and they too suffered psychological damage as a result.

Many VADs from middle to upper-class backgrounds (which, as VAD nurses were initially not paid, most were) adhered to the same emotional code of morals and behaviours as men from the same class, and perceived frontline nursing to be the closest they could get to equivalent participation. The FANY, an elite paramilitary group of women, who were the first to “officially drive for the British army”, were, even more so than the VAD, seen by contemporaries as disrupting gender boundaries. They held fast to ‘gentlemanly’ concepts of duty, self-control, endurance and honour which enabled them to continue to function under the pressures of providing medical care to soldiers, but which also cost them dearly in terms of mental health.

While nurses who suffered mental breakdowns as a result of their war service were initially included in the ranks of shell-shocked veterans after the armistice, the rise of the androcentric ‘soldier’s narrative’ came to dominate the discussion surrounding war trauma leading to an exclusion of the women who went to war which continues today.

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