top of page


The hospital ships of World War I were mostly converted passenger liners. Examples of these are the RMS Aquitania and the His Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) Britannic. Members of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) served aboard them on the wards. Others included the hospital ship Abessieh, Hospital Ship Anglia, HS Devanha, HS Gloucester Castle, HS Somersetshire, HS Salta, HS Galeka, HS Caledonia and His Majesty's Hospital Ship Neuralia.

Though predominately staffed by members of QARNNS and QARNNS(R) - the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Reserves members of the QAIMNS have nursed aboard hospital ships alongside their Navy comrades.

Despite being confined to shore duties in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), many women did serve at sea during the First World War as nurses aboard British hospital ships, braving both the natural hazards of the sea and the new offensive capabilities of the U-boat, which gradually tightened a stranglehold on Britain through sinking her shipping, aiming to prevent Britain carrying on her economically valuable export trade and receiving vital food supplies.

HM Hospital Ship Britannic
Image courtesy of Smithsonian magazine

HM Hospital Ship


The first hospital ship to be lost during World War I was a victim of the elements. In a vicious storm in October 1914, Mrs Mary Kezziah Roberts was shipwrecked aboard the Rohilla at Saltwick Nab, off Whitby. Rohilla was an ocean liner, converted into a hospital ship, bound from Scotland for Dunkirk to pick up wounded men from the Flanders battlefields. Mrs Roberts was well-placed to serve as a shipboard nurse, since she had had previous experience as an ocean liner stewardess. The impact was so severe that at first it was thought Rohilla had hit a mine. Despite being so close to land, she was difficult to reach, rescuers facing the same severe weather conditions which had driven the ship ashore. Just over a third of those on board died, but all the women aboard survived: "women and children first". This was Mrs Roberts' second shipwreck, for she had been rescued two years previously from the Titanic and she later considered the Rohilla to have been the more traumatic of the two experiences.

Many other hospital ships were lost to war causes both inside and outside English waters, for example the Llandovery Castle off Ireland, and so it was that nursing staff found themselves unexpectedly on the frontline at a time when women were not expected to serve directly in the forces but to act as auxiliaries and to free up men for service. The women in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and their QMAAC sisters, for example, acted in catering, driving and storekeeping roles. The political repercussions of exposure to the same sudden, deadly, and unpredictable maritime frontline as their brothers, husbands and sons in the navy and mercantile marine, were profound: war service was just one of the many factors making withholding emancipation increasingly difficult to justify. In 1918 there was a limited extension of the vote with full suffrage achieved in 1928. These women were the pioneers of the many who served in the ensuing conflict of the Second World War and of those who have played a full role in the services since the abolition of separate women's services in the 1990s.


Initially, it was predicted that only 50,000 hospital beds would be required and these could be accommodated in existing military hospitals and voluntary hospitals. But by the end of the year, 73,000 wounded men had been brought back to England, and it was clear that more beds would be urgently needed. A scramble for additional hospital accommodation ensued; owners of some country houses volunteered them as convalescent homes, while others were requisitioned.

Further premises were also pressed into service as auxiliary hospitals. Auxiliary hospitals were usually staffed by:

  • a commandant, who was in charge of the hospital except for the medical and nursing services 

  • a quartermaster, who was responsible for the receipt, custody and issue of articles in the provision store 

  • a matron, who directed the nursing staff 

  • members of the local Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), who were trained in first aid and home nursing. 


In many cases local women from the neighbourhood volunteered in the hospitals part-time. There were also some paid roles, such as cooks. 


Volunteers who worked at auxiliary hospitals were usually too old or young to work in a military hospital. Many were unable to leave home for six months due to family commitments, but were willing to sign a three-month hospital contract. 


Auxiliary hospitals were also an attractive option for people who found work in a military hospital too strenuous. Others "preferred to be head cook in a small auxiliary hospital to assistant cook in a large military hospital". 


Local doctors did a lot of voluntary work in these hospitals. In 1917 the War Office decided that some payment should be given to them for their efforts. Clustered around these hospitals were groups of convalescent homes taking in the wounded who were recuperating to free up bed spaces. 

There were also units specialising in the treatment of amputees, shell-shock, typhoid, and venereal disease. Specialist units oversaw great advances in care for disabled soldiers, including the maimed, disfigured and those with shell-shock.

No.1 Hospital Reading
The Great War Archive University of Oxford  
Paul Davis

Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital

bottom of page