Violetta Thurstan (1879-1978)
“Field Hospital and Flying Column”
Violetta Thurstan, born Anna Violet Thurstan, was an English nurse and activist who nursed wounded soldiers in World War I field hospitals in Belgium and Poland. She described her experiences in her first book, Field Hospital and Flying Column (1915). She also nursed on the Eastern Front of the war in Russia, Serbia, and Macedonia. After the war, Thurstan gave lectures on her experiences to advocate for state registration of nurses. She also served as the secretary for the National Union of Trained Nurses and was later an administrator for the Women’s Royal Air Force. During World War II, Thurstan deployed her language skills to work in British Intelligence. After the war, she worked to secure the release of prisoners of war and resettling refugees. Later in life, Thurstan became interested in weaving; she served as an international textile arts advisor, working within the United Kingdom and as far away as Libya. She continued to write throughout her life and published a nursing textbook, an additional memoir, and two novels. Thurstan never married and died in Sussex at the age of 99. Though her memoir does not employ Modernist techniques, it is nevertheless an important document of the time for its reflection of the changing role of women as a consequence of their involvement in World War I.
Published during World War I, Thurstan’s first book is a lively and vivid account of her experiences as a nurse and supervisor of a team of nurses caring for the wounded behind the lines in Belgium and Poland. The book is one of a few memoirs written by women who worked close to the action, as nurses or ambulance drivers, who witnessed the terrible toll of the war.
Consider while reading:
- How would you characterize Thurstan’s voice? What is her attitude toward her challenges, the war, her fellow nurses, and her patients?
- What do you notice in Thurstan’s memoir about the way British and European citizens viewed the concept of war in 1915?
- How does Thurstan encapsulate this particular time and place for you? What scene or scenes do you find particularly memorable?
Written by Anita Turlington