As Sister on an Hospital Ship

November 2016   Comments

We present a first-hand account from 1918 of life on board a hospital ship. The author offers sometimes amusing (by today’s standards) practical advice on how to prepare, what to expect and how to cope, while delivering harsh assessments of the skills of the ship’s orderlies. The very real dangers of these sea journeys get little mention.

Preparation and realization

Those who may, at any time, receive orders to join one of our floating hospitals may be glad to know a few details of the life as applicable to long-distance journeys. The Channel trips are naturally entirely different, for, as a rule, the patients are on the ship for a few hours only.

To some Sisters the lack of certainty as to the when and wherefore of comings and goings possesses considerable charm, but it means that they must lay in a goodly store of necessities. In the East shopping is expensive, and some articles are very difficult to procure. Mufti is forbidden aboard, so Sisters should resolutely put aside any temptation to provide themselves with any attire except uniform. Ordinary garments take up valuable space, not to mention the extreme vexation of finding some cherished dress or coat eaten by the rats and cockroaches, which are no respecters of cabins.

A plentiful stock of easily-washed underclothing is essential. It is important to have different weights of this to guard against climatic extremes. A goodly pile of footwear is an economy in the end. White or grey shoes and stockings are allowable in the East, and are the greatest comfort in the extreme heat. A plentiful supply of every kind of mending is a great asset. Good ink, a fountain pen, and a liberal allowance of writing-paper should be provided. Trifles like one’s favorite soap and tooth powder should not be forgotten, and it is wise to triplicate any essential articles, such as toothbrushes and combs. A portable clock adds to one’s comfort if it is small and has a seconds hand, as it can be used in the ward should one’s watch suddenly fail. The wise Sister will also put aside a stock of garments and essentials in case of sudden illness.

The dangers of night chills

Body belts are a decided necessity in the East. It is difficult to realize the dangers which lie in the night chills, or how easy it is thus to contract even serious illness. It is a great temptation to lie on one’s bed very lightly clad, and try to get some coolness out of the stifling heat by allowing the electric fan to blow on one all night long. If one has a body belt and is covered by a light blanket in addition to the sheet, so that one is sufficiently protected, this luxury may be enjoyed almost with impunity.

Being one’s own washerwoman is one of the minor trials of ship-life. The length of time spent in any one port is usually too uncertain to allow of laundry going on shore. A large supply of Lux should be laid in, and washing blue must be remembered. Fortunately, clothes dry very quickly in the intense heat, and, if one invests in an electric iron, doing one’s own washing is robbed of half its worries. The ship’s carpenter will often be good enough to make an ironing-board for general use, and where heavy print dresses and large aprons have to be wrestled with, such a board is a great help. Print shoulder capes, faced with washable red, stand hard wear and washing much better than the usual alpaca ones.

If the Sister can afford the outlay, some thermometers, medicine measures, a really good hypodermic syringe, and several pairs of scissors are an immense boon in the many rushes of wounded on board ship. Orderlies somehow are seldom provided with scissors, and are constantly asking for the loan of them. A quart-size enamel measure is a great help when dealing out the same medicine to dozens of patients. It saves the constant lifting of the heavy stock bottle.

Many of the ships provide separate cabins for the nursing staff. It is a great boon to have one place of refuge, however tiny. When wearied in brain and body, nothing can be more nerve-racking than the ceaseless chattering of a tactless cabin-fellow.

The voyage out is usually a busy time, as the working of the wards has to be organized, and dressings must be cut by the thousand, especially if wounded are expected shortly.

Inexperienced orderlies

Not the least of the many worries faced by hospital-ship Sisters is the adequate supervision of inexperienced orderlies, who work heartily but unskilfully. Daily classes are held for them, and very practical instruction is given by the Sisters. One has to deal with such raw and often unintelligent material that it is wise to teach them with more than ordinary minuteness. It is wise to make one orderly undress and actually blanket bath another orderly. Poultices should be made and applied until the art is thoroughly grasped. Fomentations, also, should be taught in a very practical manner. There is great art in teaching orderlies. It is necessary to bring one’s mind down to their level. It is sometimes difficult to make them realize that asepsis and antisepsis, and such-like, are of real importance and not merely a fad of doctors and sisters. The more patience one shows the better the results obtained. Simple rules, with homely illustrations, answer best. Tactful encouragement works wonders.

The afternoons are usually spent in making the various necessary bandages and many other ward necessities. All needlework which can be done on deck is taken there, as one can benefit by the good air at the same time. Until one gets accustomed to it, sea air exercises a decidedly soporific effect, so the long nights in bed which can be indulged in when without patients are much appreciated. Sea air sharpens one’s appetite, and full justice is done, as a rule, to the excellent fare provided on the ships.

Heat and hard work

When the patients are embarked the Sisters must be prepared to work very hard, and for long hours at a stretch. Much of the work is of the emergency type, and the intense Eastern heat, especially during the summer months, exhausts one’s energies very quickly. The vibration of the ship is often extremely trying, and the floors seem to cause one’s feet to ache. Even the best-equipped ships naturally cannot give the same easy facilities for organizing and carrying on nursing duties as shore hospitals, so the Sisters must use their ingenuity in making things “do.”

Sea-sickness is quite the biggest bugbear a Sister can face. If she knows she is a bad sailor she should frankly say so when asked to join a ship, so that her orders may be cancelled. It is no use hoping that one may be all right. Quite apart from the physical discomfort suffered, it is grossly unfair to our sick and wounded for a Sister to have to leave them at, perhaps, critical times on account of sea-sickness when another, who is really a good sailor, can stick to her post.

The nursing on ships, however, tries the endurance of the best sailors. Those who are immune from sickness while up on deck or lying comfortably in an airy cabin may very soon succumb if working at high pressure in stuffy, airless wards with the portholes closed on account of heavy seas. The atmosphere is made worse by the heat natural to Eastern waters, combined with that from the engines. Fortunately, for the health of the nursing staffs, the patients do not remain with them for much longer than a fortnight, and sometimes less than that. If the period of time should be prolonged, the trying conditions and long hours would tell on the efficiency of the strongest.


After patients have been disembarked the Sisters have a welcome period for recuperation, for, although the wards have to be prepared for a fresh load, and many other preparations must be begun, the long nights in bed and restful evenings refreshen alike jaded nerves and tired bodies.

Hospital-ship life has a great charm, as one gets frequent changes of work as well as of scene; but, in many ways, it is a trying life. One of the disadvantages is the confinement to one small area for so many weeks at a stretch. Unless deck quoits and other competitions are arranged to vary the monotony, the Sisters are inclined to become very bored with each other, except when working on a very large ship, as, naturally, there are no outside interests to occupy one’s thoughts.

Before actually joining a ship a Sister may feel apprehensive of the possibilities of encountering mines and submarines, but, once on board, it is curious how one never thinks of possible dangers. If they sometimes do cross one’s mind, it is usually in conjunction with the fervent hope that, if a catastrophe should occur, the Sisters will not fail to act according to their past high traditions in this and former wars.

– The Nursing Nurse
June 1918

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