The Boer War (1899-1902): The birth of Army nursing

The Boer War is important for British Army nursing as it was the first major conflict for Britain in which nurses in any numbers had been deployed, and at the end of the war a new nursing service was set up, the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), which saw nurses becoming a formed component of the British Army.

Although there are published accounts of the Boer War and nursing histories that cover this period there were no accounts of who the nurses were themselves. The nurses who served in South Africa were pivotal to the acceptance of the need for nurses and nursing in time of war and that they should be wherever the sick and wounded were. Prosopography was chosen to illuminate this body of nurses in order to discover what characteristics they possessed as a whole, what contexts motivated their choosing to serve, and how they as nurses helped to forge military nursing as an acceptable and necessary part of modern warfare.

Army Nursing

The birth of Army nursing that took place over this period was a collective action. The nurses were drawn from a wide geographic footprint, many were relatively young and inexperienced, others had experience in the Army or in South Africa. This fusion of experience and background, and the need to overcome adversity and the chaos of medical care in the Boer War somehow forged a group of nurses who were then able to lay the foundations for Army nursing.

This Army nursing was founded on civilian practice. Very few nurses had military experience and many doctors and orderlies also had little or no military experience either, so they collectively fell back on what they knew.


The prosopography was a view across nearly 2000 nurses and had the effect of balancing some of the rhetoric about the Boer War. The numbers of nurses identified was different to any other published account and highlighted how many nurses were not in the military or were newly recruited reservists. It was clear that most nurses were professional and hard working. Most had not worked in the military system or with orderlies before, and this helps to explain some of the issues between nurses and orderlies which began to settle down over time and were put onto a formal footing with the formation of the QAIMNS.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Keiron Spires QVRM TD
From PhD gained in 2013