Lottie Almey, a third year undergraduate student studying English and History, writes about the hidden history of Mary Devas Marshall.

In Special Collections in the Brotherton library is a collection of diaries, photographs, letters and audio tapes of First World War nurse Mary Marshall. This outstanding resource is great for exploring the life of a First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps (FANY) and Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in the First World War and for dispelling some myths around nursing in this period.  

Mary joined FANY in 1912 and at the age of 21 in October 1914 she was sent to a hospital in France to serve as a nurse attending wounded soldiers with relatively little training and experience. 

Mary in uniform. Liddle/WW1/WO/077A/9. Image credit Leeds University Library.

The realities of hospital work in 1914 

Mary served at Lamarck hospital with the Belgian army from 1914-16. It was an old schoolhouse, with no bathroom facilities and two classrooms made into two wards – one surgical and one medical. Mary notes in her diaries that the methods they employed were often primitive, and the work extremely hard. She particularly remembers how typhoid cases required frequent changing of linen which was in short supply. Bathing is significant in Mary’s recollections as she states how they had to bathe at the station using hot water from vehicle engines, as an invasion of jelly fish had put an end to their bathing in the sea! There was also little off duty time and cleanliness was ‘a problem’. We can learn from Mary the harsh realities of nursing which are different to the romantic portrayals often seen in films.  

The FANY website mentions how the conditions were ‘arduous’ and that ‘the wounded were being brought in before the FANYs even had time to unpack’ .

FANY ambulance. Liddle/WW1/WO/077A/9. Image credit Leeds University Library.


The most striking part of this incredible resource is the autograph book her patients filled out at Lamarck hospital. There are notes of gratitude and praise for Mary’s hard work. The majority of the notes are in French, with one reading ‘God will bless you and complete your life with joy and happiness because you have sacrificed so many happy days to the healing of Belgian soldiers’. Many also attached pictures of themselves or illustrated the page. These heart-warming notes reveal the real-life impact nurses such as Mary had on their lives and the important role nurses played in the First World War.

Bravery under fire

From November 1916-1917 Mary moved to work in a French Hospital at Port à Binson. In 1918 she went to a hospital at a British RAF base in Marquise. On 23 September 1918 the base saw ‘the most devastating German aerial attack of the war on an aviation facility’. 50 were killed and 150 were wounded. Mary was awarded the military medal for ‘gallantry and coolness’ and for ‘displaying the utmost disregard of danger attending many seriously wounded cases’. It must be noted that few FANYs, let alone women were decorated with the military medal, demonstrating the bravery and dedication women like Mary displayed during the First World War.

Historical roll of honour. Liddle/WW1/WO/077A/4. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Demobilisation or punishment?  

What is striking about Mary’s life after the war is that she essentially returns to a life of domesticity. Her diaries show how she was ‘depressed’, ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘hated most things’. She is frustrated of ‘marmalade making’ and feels entrenched in the home with the responsibilities of being the eldest daughter, and unable to find work. This experience is what is lacking from popular history. After the war, women were expected to return to traditional domestic roles in the home in order to create jobs for men and rebalance society. Mary’s state of mental health was worrying during the period 1920-1922 demonstrating why histories such as Mary’s need more recognition. Despite her bravery and commitment, she was left with virtually no support after the war.  

July 1916 diary extract by Mary. Liddle/WW1/WO/077A/3. Image credit Leeds University Library.

With the release of films like 1917 (2019) and Dunkirk (2017) – which are extremely male dominated – it is essential that stories like Mary’s are unearthed and realistic accounts of the important roles of women such as Mary played are explored in popular history. The film In Love and War (1996), albeit being the story of young Ernest Hemingway, explores the tale of a nurse falling in love with him. We need to move away from the myth of the romantic nurse which obscures the nurse’s identity and appreciate the true role nurses like Mary played in the First World War. 

For more information and further reading:  

FANY Website 

Mary’s medals are held at the Green Howards Museum and more information can be found on their website.

Mary’s oral history can be found on the Imperial War Museum website.

Christine E. Hallett, Veiled Warriors: Allied nurses of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)