‘The Touch of a Man’: Gender and Male-Caregiving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WW1

By Jessica Meyer

In 1907, The British Journal of Nursing published an article announcing the foundation of ‘a society to be known as “The Navy and Army Male Nursing Co-operation”, the objects being to enable First Class Orderlies to find employment in civil nursing upon leaving the Service.’[1] As other newspaper clippings went on to explain, the purpose of this body was not simply to provide employment for a specific group of ex-servicemen, but also to fulfil a perceived need, ‘more generally acknowledged than supplied’, for ‘properly trained [men] who can be trusted in emergencies to lend assistance, or who can be given responsible charge of special cases’ in the provision of long-term nursing care to men.[2]

This issue was generally construed as one of gender sensitivity, based on a clear understanding of separate gender roles within medical caregiving. As Sir Dyce Duckworth, the Co-operations President, argued, ‘There would always be cases of disease and ailment for which men alone were appropriate. There were certain cases not fit to be nursed by women, and a great many men objected to being nursed by women.’[3] While Lady Tree, a patron of the Co-operation, told one newspaper that ‘she had been privileged to visit lately many military hospitals, and she had always been struck by the extraordinary tenderness and gentleness of the Army male orderlies. It seemed to her that a man could go on tip toe far more softly than could any woman … and she believed that in nursing, the touch of a man was much more gentle than was that of a woman.’[4]

Despite the case made by the Co-operation, both during the First World War and into the early 1920s, that a specific organization for the employment of male nurses was needed because men who were ‘seriously disabled [in the war] … would prefer as nurses a male comrade who had served in the great war to a civilian who had been in England the whole of the past four years’,[5] the organization appears to have become defunct by the mid-1920s. However, its existence throughout the years of the First World War points to an important facet of medical caregiving in wartime: the role of male caregivers besides those who are doctors.

Much of the historical literature around British medical care in the war has focussed either on the technical and organisational developments in treatment and evacuation,[6] or on the roles of doctors and female nurses as caregivers.[7] Yet a huge amount of caring work was undertaken by men, not just doctors but also non-commissioned servicemen of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), the stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers and medical orderlies. The Navy and Army Male Nursing Co-operation sought to find employment for these men as trained caregivers in the war’s aftermath. As the comments of Sir Dyce Duckworth and Lady Tree indicate, the work that these men undertook in their war service was gendered in distinctive ways. It was not merely that the provision of medical care was gendered, but also that the identity of those to whom care was being provided, and the types of illness and disability for which care was required, also influenced understandings of caregiving as a gendered practice.

While historians such as Santanu Das and Christine Hallett have explored the significance of gender to the work and experience of female nurses, no equivalent study exists of their male counterparts. In this post, I want to argue that the RAMC during the First World War presents a particularly useful context through which to explore understandings of wartime masculinity in relation to medical caregiving. This context was shaped by three factors particular to the RAMC as a branch of military service: the relationship of the Corps to the military hierarchy in the years before the war, wartime recruitment practices, and the roles which medical service personnel took on. These aspects of the RAMC shaped a particular definition of caregiving masculinity in wartime, which, in turn, posed its own challenges to the hegemonic ideals of service masculinity during the First World War.[8]

One of the most fundamental ways in which the RAMC served as a unique space for the formation of masculine identity during the war was its organisation as a branch of the British military. The British Army had in 1908 undergone major reorganisation under the Haldane reforms. These reforms saw the introduction of the Territorial Army as the primary source of home defence and the replacement of the Militia by the Special Reserves. Within this revised structure, the Royal Army Medical Corps gained its own Territorial Corps, organised through county-based Voluntary Aid Detachment organizations which received training from the British Red Cross Society and the St. John’s Ambulance Association. The effectiveness of this was such that John Blair, in his centenary history of the RAMC, could claim that, while Kitchener’s ‘”New” … Armies trained in parallel with the teeth arm of the T[erritorial] F[orce] [after 1914], … the medical plan [Sir Alfred] Keogh had set up was sufficiently well-established to be unaffected. Kitchener did not need a “New” medical service; there was one in training already.’[9]

The efficiency of the RAMC(T) as a reserve medical unit was, however, in stark contrast to the RAMC as a military establishment. The necessity of a military medical service beyond that provided by regimental medical officers supported by regimental bandsmen acting as stretcher bearers, had been identified in the wake of the Crimean campaign of 1853-6. However, the result of the 1857 Commission of Enquiry set up to examine military sanitation resulted in the ‘Gilbertian situation’ of the creation of the Army Hospital Corps, a body which ‘had no officers, but consisted of men of “regular, steady habits and good temper, and possessed of a kindly disposition”, [and] the Army Medical Department [which] consisted of officers only.’[10]

This confusing separation of powers was compounded by the fact that, throughout the late nineteenth century, the War Office continued to reinforce the distinction in status between the medical and military arms by refusing to allow service doctors to hold military rank and ‘enjoy comparable treatment with other officers, both socially and professionally.’[11] The struggle to recruit sufficient trained medical servicemen eventually led to the formation of the RAMC as a unified corps in 1898. This newly embodied unit faced its first test during the Second Anglo-Boer War but even then, ‘the services providing medical care in the Boer War were as much civilian as military’[12], with units such as the Volunteer Medical Staff Corps and the Imperial Yeomanry Bearer Company providing as much caregiving as the RAMC itself.

The RAMC itself, meanwhile, struggled to assert its status within the military hierarchy. The orders of General Garnett Wolseley in 1900, at the Royal Review in Phoenix Park, Dublin, that ‘those medical people …return swords. Inform them that they are only civilian attendants upon sick soldiers’, remarks which unsurprisingly ‘rankled in the medical profession at large and in the Army Medical Corps in particular’,[13] serve to illustrate the problems of identity that the unit faced.

It is this ambivalent civil-military identity which makes the RAMC a particularly useful space to explore masculinity in wartime. The failure to recognise the unit as fully part of the military establishment was often cast in terms of professionalism and professinal identity.As Christine Hallett has demonstrated in relation to female nurses during the war, this was a particularly gendered debate in relation to military medical provision.[14] The low status of the Army Medical Services not only reflects the ways in which military service could undermine the status of medical professionalism, it also points to the ways in which medical caregiving (as opposed to killing) was valued as an aspect of military masculinity in the years before the First World War. The specifically non-combatant status of the RAMC under the terms of the Geneva Conventions of 1860, put them in a deeply ambivalent gendered space within the military. The problems arising when attempting to reconcile this ambivalence with both the professional dignity of the medical profession and the disdain of the military hierarchy expose some of the ways in which medical care in wartime could challenge dominant social ideals of wartime masculinities.

These challenges were reinforced by the recruitment practices of the RAMC during the war years. Between 1914 and 1918, the RAMC grew from 9,000 men of all ranks to 133,000, figures which do not include the expansion of the Territorial Force from 12,520 to 31,580 in the same period. The process of recruitment was not, however, a straightforward one. With priority being given to the recruitment and training of combatant troops from September 1914 onwards, the option of volunteering specifically for non-combatant medical units was swiftly halted for ranks of Staff Sergeant and below.[15] After the spring of 1915, no man deemed fit enough for enlistment in a combatant unit could be recruited to the Corps, while those already in training, and the Territorial reserves started to be ‘combed’ for those fit and willing to be transferred into combatant units. As a result, the RAMC increasingly looked to overage volunteers, those with less than A1 fitness grades and men who had been wounded but had recovered, though not to the extent that they could be returned to their units, to fill the ranks, particularly in Home and Base hospitals.

Ward Muir, a journalist who served as an RAMC medical orderly at the 3rd London General Hospital throughout the war, noted that, by 1917, his unit included ‘two recruits over sixty … [and] several over fifty,’ and ‘was kept up to strength by the drafting-in either of C3 recruits or of soldiers who, having been at the front and wounded, or invalided back, were marked for home duty only.’[16] As Muir’s comments indicate, the introduction of conscription streamlined the process of reinforcing the RAMC, with only men below a certain physical grading being sent to serve with the Corps.[17]

The importance of age and health to the process of wartime recruitment and reinforcement once again indicates how the RAMC problematized understandings of masculinity during the First World War. The importance of these aspects of masculine identity has recently been highlighted by Laura Ugolini in relation to civilian men in Britain during the war.[18] Exploring how they reflected on the masculine identity of the men serving with the RAMC, however, adds an additional level of complexity and serves to uncover some of the multiplemasculinities that existed within the military in wartime, as well as in wider society. In doing so, it complicates ideas of the ‘soldier hero’, so prevalent in popular culture in this period.[19] The compromises in terms of age and health that the RAMC serviceman posed to the ideal of the soldier in wartime creates a unique space in which to explore the nature and meanings of male military service in the context of total war..

In creating such a space, the RAMC performs a similar conceptual role for men to those of the nursing services, both military and voluntary, for women in wartime. Historians such as Hallett and Alison Fell, and literary critics, such as Margaret Higonnet and Santanu Das, have used the roles women undertook in wartime to explore the impact of war on female identity and constructions of femininity. On the one hand, the caring work of nursing was often specifically gendered as female in cultural representation; on the other hand, the actual labour of nursing could be deeply transgressive of gender norms.

Exploring the roles of the male medical caregivers of the RAMC can perform a similar function in exposing the complexities and contradictions of cultural and subjective constructions of masculinity. As Ian Whitehead has shown, the work of civilian doctors recruited into the medical services during the war had implications for the identity and status of the medical profession more broadly.[20] The extent to which the war played an equivalent role for RAMC rankers has yet to be fully explored, in part because they did not have an existing unifying professional identity.

However, current research indicates that the work these men did during the war had important resonances for their identities as men, both individually and collectively. Emily Mayhew has identified a growing sense of professional identity among stretcher-bearers over the course of the war, based on improved specialist training in bearing and first aid.[21] At the same time, much of the work undertaken by both bearers and medical orderlies, from running divisional baths to easing the fears of dying men on the moribund wards, from providing comfort during evacuations to cleaning, cooking and serving food in hospital wards, was that associated with women’s work in a civilian context. Thus the work of the men of the RAMC transgressed boundaries of the gendered division of labour in a medical context as surely as that of nurses assisting in operating theatres at Casualty Clearing Stations, and burning the blood-stained bandages afterwards.

Nor is it only the social perception of the labour undertaken which is significant for understanding the masculinities of men serving in a medical context. The specific physical labour of stretcher bearing provides insight into the place of the male body in wartime, beyond the stories of inspection, destruction and remaking that Joanna Bourke and Ana Carden-Coyne have discussed.[22] Similarly, the emotional labour of caregiving provides scope for the exploration of these men’s place within histories of psychology and emotion as explored by Michael Roper.[23]

Thus examining the subjectivities of the men of the RAMC, alongside evidence of their social standing within British society and their representations in British culture, opens up a field that has the potential to both extend the existing scholarship and shed entirely new light on our understanding of what it was to be a British man during the First World War.

Jessica Meyer is a research fellow at the University of Leeds. Her monograph on British soldiers’ masculine identity during the First World War, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Jessica’s current research project, entitled ‘Masculinity and Medical Care in Britain during the First World War’, examines the roles and experiences of military and voluntary medical caregivers during the war. This project forms part of the medical strand of Legacies of War, an on-going First World War centenary research and engagement hub at the University of Leeds, for which Jessica is strand leader. She also writes a blog, Arms and the Medical Man, about her research, cultural representations of the First World War and the centenary commemorations in Britain, which can be found at armsandthemedicalman.wordpress.com.

Image credit: Liddle/MUS/AW/118, Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library


[1] RAMC 1922, Wellcome Library, Untitled Article, British Journal of Nursing, 25th May, 1907.

[2] RAMC 1922, Wellcome Library, Untitled Article, Nursing Mirror, 16th October, 1909.

[3] RAMC 1922, Wellcome Library, Untitled article, Norwood News, 3rd December, 1915.

[4] RAMC 1922, Wellcome Library, ‘The Nation’s Nurses: Queen Alexandra’s Solicitude of the Army and Navy Male Nurses: Reception by Mrs. Donald Armour: A Brilliant and Successful Meeting’, newspaper unknown, 1914.

[5] RAMC 1922, Wellcome Library, ‘Nurses in War and Peace Times: Importance of Male Nurses’, Streatham News, November 8th, 1920.

[6] Mark Harrison, The Medical War: British Military Medicine in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

[7] Ian R. Whitehead, Doctors in the Great War (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013); Christine E. Hallett, Containing Trauma: Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); Christine Hallett and Alison Fell, eds., First World War Nursing: New Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[8] For a discussion of the hegemonic ideal of the soldier hero during the First World War, see Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp.5-6.

[9] John S.G. Blair, In Arduis Fidelis: Centenary History of the Royal Army Medical Corps (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1998), p.166.

[10] Redmond McLaughlin, The Royal Army Medical Corps (London: Leo Cooper Ltd., 1972), p.16.

[11] McLaughlin, p.18.

[12] Blair, p.62.

[13] Ibid., 42.

[14] Hallett, pp.12-13.

[15] For a discussion of the particular problems of recruiting the trained medical men who formed the officers of the RAMC, see Whitehead, pp.32-90.

[16] Ward Muir, Observations of an Orderly: Some Glimpses of Life and Work, in an English War Hospital (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., 1917), p.153.

[17] The voluntary medical services did take men who, upon conscription declared conscientious objection to combatant service, but these units, principally the Friends Ambulance Unit, were administered by the British Red Cross rather than the military authorities of the RAMC.

[18] Laura Ugolini, Civvies: Middle-class Men on the English Home Front, 1914-18 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[19] See Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge, 1994) and Michael Paris, Warrior Nation: Images of War in British Popular Culture, 1850-2000 (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

[20] Whitehead, pp.151-3. Hallett makes a similar point about that impact of the war on nursing as a recognized profession for women.

[21] Emily Mayhew, Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 (London: The Bodley Head, 2013), pp.18-19.

[22] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1996); Ana Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[23]Michael Roper, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).


  1. yvonne mcewen

    Good to read this excellent article. I highlighted their political treatment by trained nurses in my latest publication ‘ In The Company of Nurses:The British Army Nursing Service in the Great War’. Later this year I am hosting a conference on the’ Hidden Histories of WW1 Nursing’ and we will be covering the much neglected history of male care-giving in WW1. Hope to read more on this subject

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #39 | Whewell's Ghost

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