This blog was written as apart of myself and Lucy Betteridge-Dyson’s blog series, World War Women.
Today, our doctors and nurses have been indispensable, not just in the United Kingdom, but all over the world. They have kept those in need alive and ensured those who suffered were (and are) well looked after. The same sentiment can be attributed over a century ago. Nicole Girard-Mangin is widely respected as the first female doctor to serve in the French Army during the First World War. She was on the front line from early in the war at Verdun, and continued working through to 1918, caring for French soldiers.
Nicole, a Parisian, began her medical studies after obtaining a license in natural sciences in 1896. Her work fell silent when she married Andre Girard in 1899. However, Andre and Nicole were to divorce shortly after the birth of their son, and it was at this point that Nicole returned to medical training, funded by her divorce alimony. Her thesis on ‘cancerous poisons’ was completed in 1906 and she began public work on tuberculosis, which resulted in taking over the management of an anti-tuberculosis clinic in Baujon.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Nicole signed up to assist in the only way she knew how, offering her medical services. It was at this point that she became the first female doctor in the French Army, though her colleagues did not yet know this. Indeed, her appointment was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity by the military authorities, who believed ‘Dr. Girard Mangin’ to be a man. Her first posting was a battle in itself for Nicole, who was sent to a former health spa in Bourbonne-les-Bains. On arrival, her superior expressed extreme disapproval at being sent a female doctor, reportedly exclaiming:
“A woman! I am sent a woman when a man is announced to me!”
… to which Nicole responded…
“You see me sorry, but I am affected in your establishment and I feel perfectly suited to fulfill the functions which fall to me.”
Despite countless letters written to headquarters requesting that Nicole be removed from her posting, the French Army, who at the time had a huge shortage of fully trained doctors, refused. All doctors, whether man or woman, were desperately needed. But, at any rate the posting at Bourbonne-les-Bains wasn’t to last long…
In November 1914, Nicole was posted to military hospital no.7 at Baleycourt, Verdun. Despite her skills Nicole was banned from entering the main wards due to her gender, and assigned instead to a barracks somewhat out of the way where she worked to treat patients suffering from typhus. Finally, in 1916 Nicole was given the rank suited to her hard work, Auxiliary Doctor. However, her rank was not reflected in her pay as she continued to receive that of a nurse. Though this did not stop her, the German attack launched on the Verdun section in February 1916 did! The startling advances made by the Germans placed Nicole’s hospital in the position of being captured by the enemy. Many of her patients were non-transportable and had to share an ambulance with a nearby hospital. Under the anxiety of the nearing Germans, Nicole drove an ambulance day and night until her patients had been evacuated. She had survived the horror at Verdun with only a small shrapnel injury to her cheek and ensured the safety of many of her patients.
By this time, Nicole had two years experience in the army and for her, enough was enough. After her safe arrival in Vadelaincourt, and debrief on the events at Verdun, she seized the moment to demand that she be treated as an officer. It was granted. By the end of 1916 not only was Nicole now a Doctor Major (2nd Class), she was finally paid like one. At the temporary hospital at Vadelaincourt, Nicole rolled up her sleeves and acted as an operating aid in heavy operations, in addition to being responsible for minor surgeries. Verdun wasn’t to be the only frontier Nicole experienced. By the end of 1916 she was sent to the Somme and later Ypres where she would drive an ambulance to the fronts and collect the wounded, as well as joining a hospital in Calais where she ran a tuberculosis treatment service.
Finally in December 1916, she was taken off the front and appointed as director of the Edith Cavell hospital school in Paris. She taught theory and practicals to the military nurses, and invited her friend Marie Curie to deliver radiology lessons. Nicole’s actions during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic were also highly praised – she installed an isolated lodge for the patients, which helped to keep deaths to a minimum.
After the Armistice she began to campaign for the feminist movement with the Union of French Women and attended meetings of the American Red Cross for the fight against tuberculosis, whilst actively participating in the creation of the League Against Cancer.
Tragically however, on the 6th June 1919, Nicole was found dead. She was just 41. Multiple empty medicine bottles were found surrounding her, and it was believed that severe burn out from her years of hard work (it is said that during Nicole’s time on the front she had only 10 days off) combined with PTSD from the horrors she witnessed, drove her to suicide. An alternative account is that Nicole had cancer, a disease she had worked tirelessly to fight against, and knew that it could not be treated. Though we will never know the reason why Nicole’s story ended in such tragedy, her tale is one of feminist fortitude that deserves to be more widely known and never forgotten.