University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Personal Sources: Understanding women’s work in the First World War

Rhea Nana, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on a letter sent by Marie Martin, a nurse in the First World War, for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Rhea reveals how personal sources such as letters can be one of the only places to find certain insights into the emotions of those experiencing the war. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

When analysing wars, immediate connotations come with it, such as suffering, separation and bad conditions. These connotations are expressed in the letters written from Marie Martin, the daughter of an Irish family. Marie had been sent away in 1915 to perform her duties of being a nurse in Malta during the First World War.  This blog will concentrate on a specific letter sent by Marie, explaining her life on a daily basis and also how letters, though selective, provide an insight of events and emotions. Ross F. Collins’ views on women in the First World War was that ‘they were needed in war work and many were employed, thousands as nurses’; this immediately highlights that women were a great asset to the war. [1] However, women rarely had the chance to speak out about how they were feeling when working in the war, unless it was in private, otherwise they would end up ‘in jail or receive great condemnation’. [2] This letter does have its limitations into reaching a full insight into the world of working war women, but the blog essentially exposes how women in the war managed to balance their duties and prove a great asset in the First World War.

Letter from Marie Martin to her mother http://letters1916.maynoothuniversity.ie/item/5726

This letter not only presents the struggles of a young woman carrying out her daily job as a nurse; it also illustrates how she tried to keep in contact with her mother. Her first few lines claim that ‘My last letter was the maddest letter I have ever written. I started it so often’. [3] This underlines that working women take on a lot of responsibility and perhaps do not have time for themselves. Susan R. Grayzel reinforces this argument as she claims that ‘nursing exposed many relatively sheltered young women to some of the war’s most visceral horrors, and in doing so, changed their lives’. [4] By describing the war as life changing it implies that possibly Marie did not know what she was getting herself into as she now had to sacrifice her own personal time to even write a simple letter to her mother.

Therefore, this reveals that Marie could have been in a rush when writing the letter and so potentially selective about what she wrote, henceforth being a clear limitation too. Also, the fact that Grayzel uses the noun ‘horror’ to refer to the war could give the impression that she only wants to write about the positive aspects about being a nurse in the war.  Historians in turn can use this primary source by analysing the relationship between mothers and daughters in general. Barbara Caine finds that due ‘to a turn in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, young women were open to more opportunities resulting in daughters being more knowledgeable and established’. [5] Thus, this personal source instantly highlights that letters are able to provide information on the relationship between family members as well as an insight to how war duties were critical.

The conditions in the war were constantly fluctuating and even though Marie was not serving on the front lines, she also had to experience the change in weather and the bloodied patients who were rushed in.  Marie was no longer in a state of relative stability; her life in Ireland was a complete contrast to her ‘ankles deep in water from the storm’ and ‘only a tent to eat our meals in’. [6] This stresses the idea that women in the war had to adapt and endure the conditions as much as men did, which in turn allows historians to recognise how women were taking on more responsibilities. This is reinforced by Gail Braybon who finds that it ‘revolutionised men’s minds and their conception of the sort of work of which the ordinary everyday women were capable’. [7] Consequently, women were illustrating that they were progressing in the war effort and almost seen as an equal by men.

Furthermore, historians can focus on the usefulness of personal sources, especially when it comes to letters. As Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann recognise, ‘letters are praised for the human dimension they bring to history, allowing people to capture raw experiences of the past’. [8] This displays that Marie’s description of her time as a nurse was genuine and because this can be classed as a private letter, she is able to expose more detail. Additionally, in the past women ‘would only send letters to boost morale for men’ but during the world war ‘it was used for upholding social networks and keeping relations.’ [9] Thus, Margaretta Jolly demonstrates that women were able to use letters effectively, which not only showed that they were advancing in the war, but that letters were used for a social purpose too.

The small details within this letter written by Marie only disclose a miniscule amount of true emotion and how effective a letter can be.  The analysis of the letter essentially offers an insight into the deeper meaning of what it meant to be a working woman in the war and the responsibility that they had to take on. The letter allows historians to find alternative conclusions to how women were treated in the war and the impact of disclosed information between family members. Overall, this work has presented that letters are a gateway to discovering more information than intended, and that emotions in letters do come across as genuine, especially in Marie’s case. Letters from women can be compared in order to validate their shared experiences of the war and are thus a great asset.


[1] Ross F. Collins, World War 1: Primary documents on events from 1914-1919 (ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2007), 285.

[2] Collins, World War 1, 284.

[3] Letters 1916-1923. ‘Letter from Marie Martin to her mother, Mary Martin, (November’) 1915. http://letters1916.maynoothuniversity.ie/item/5726

[4] Susan R. Grayzel, Women and The First World War (Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2002), 37.

[5] Barbara Caine, ‘Letters between Mothers and Daughters’, Women’s History Review, no 233 (2015): 6.

[6] Letters 1916-1923. ‘Letter from Marie Martin to her mother’.

[7] Gail Braybon, Women Workers in the First World War (Routledge, 2012), 157.

[8] Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann, Reading Primary Sources : The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History ( Routledge, 2008), 61.

[9] Margaretta Jolly, In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism (Columbia University Press, 2008), 36.

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