When we think of iconic First World War imagery, it is the mass casualties, fallen soldiers, battlefields and warfare weaponry that generally spring to mind. Women too are present, yet we tend to visualise their vital roles on the home front, where, for example, they took up the challenge of work in munitions factories, textile production, administration and medical roles, in addition to extending domestic labour and familial responsibilities.
However, less is known about British women who contributed to the war effort overseas, and more specifically a unique group of women who pioneered medical care abroad during the Great War, often dangerously close to the front lines. The new temporary exhibition at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, “Field Notes: Reflections of Camp Life at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals’ , will highlight the work of these pioneering women through artistic interpretation of our collections of lantern slides. The evocative artwork created by Edinburgh artists Joan Smith and Susie Wilson will undoubtedly stay with you for some time.
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) for Foreign Service were the brainchild of Elsie Inglis, LRCSEd, being established after her offer of a ready-made medical unit staffed by women was turned down by the Royal Army Medical Corp. By the close of the war, nearly 1,500 women had served in France, Romania, Russia, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica and Serbia, in mostly all-female staffed medical units, where they cared for sick and wounded soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war in the heart of war zones, as well as providing assistance to refugees. Women worked as nurses, doctors, orderlies, cooks, administrators, secretaries and drivers, mainly as volunteers. They carried out a range of physically demanding tasks such as preparing camps with operating theatres, wards and x-ray rooms and treating severely wounded soldiers. SWH staff also had to confront language barriers with the sick and wounded in an effort to relieve suffering, as well as local villagers.
“You can imagine we have plenty to do when you hear we have 900 wounded”, wrote Elsie Inglis in a letter sent home from the Serbian front in 1915, encapsulating the sheer scale of the challenge.
Moreover, much of this work was carried out in testing environmental conditions, particularly in the camps of Greece, Macedonia and Serbia (and less so in the stationary hospital at Royaumont, although they had their own unique difficulties). Diseases such as typhus, challenging terrain and remoteness became part and parcel of camp life, as did the ever present fears from proximity to firing lines, with the threat of enemy bombing mentally daunting. Most significantly, these women, many from comfortable backgrounds, had to deal with the traumas associated with the horrors of war and the constant arrival of wounded and dying soldiers.
RCSEd Library and Archive is home to several Scottish Women’s Hospitals collections of photographs, correspondence, medals and journals. Yet it is our glass lantern slides that illuminate the war effort of these pioneering women most poignantly, and which have inspired the exhibition. Photographs taken during the war were printed onto glass slides, and projected to audiences through a magic lantern (a later version of the 17th century magic lantern), often for propaganda purposes or to attract recruitment, in this case, to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.
The evocative and almost-ghostly quality of the slides capture ‘camp life’ especially well, projecting women directly from field hospitals near the front lines, leaving a lasting impression.
For the past 18 months Edinburgh-based artists Joan Smith and Susie Wilson have been working with our collections. They hope to bring the story to the attention of a contemporary audience through their creation of drawings, prints, artists’ books and paintings, all of which have been inspired by the lantern slides and notes created by women on the front line. Joan and Susie’s ethereal, subtle yet striking artworks add something indelible and a bit different to archetypal wartime imagery of army and battlefield, where the women have arguably become part of the landscape itself, and which stay with you.
Joan Smith is acting Head of Art at Edinburgh College of Art. In her research and teaching Joan has a longstanding interest in medical history and anatomical collections. Joan was inspired by the glass lantern slides showing images of the nurses who volunteered to set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in the First World War. Her paintings on copper respond to the material qualities and scale of the lantern slides as well as their haunting images. The strongest presences are those of the nurses themselves, dressed in pristine white as they go about their business. The paintings capture and preserve moments in time from this important period of women’s history.
Susie Wilson, a trained printmaker, was invited Artist in Residence at Edinburgh College of Art Library in 2016. Susie teaches for the Centre for Open Learning, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh Council, Leith School of Art and community groups in and around Edinburgh. The work Susie has made for ‘Field Notes’ has concentrated on the images of nurses, tents and a written description of the ‘discomforts of camp life’. Working on a small scale, often in similar dimensions to the slides themselves, her prints and drawings convey the ambiguous, blurry quality of the glass slides with the stark whiteness of the clothing, tents and mosquito nets.
‘Field notes: Reflections of Camp Life at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals’ opens to the public at Surgeons’ Hall Museums on the 10th of November and will run until the end of March.
In addition, the Library and Archive at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh will be launching a digital collections website in November 2018, developed by TownsWeb Archiving. On this digital portal the public will be able to view and download images from collections of photographs and lantern slides associated with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.