Paper: Medical Care under Fire: Violence, Gender and Medical Bravery in the international Hadfield-Spears hospital, 1941-1945.

Paper details

Paper authors Laure Humbert
In panel on Rethinking the History of Attacks on Healthcare
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


This article explores how military attacks impacted on the psychological and physical health of those attending the wounded within the International Hadfield Spears hospital. Directed by an American philanthropist, this medical unit was made up of British drivers, Free French doctors, riflemen from different parts of Africa, and British conscientious objectors and Quakers acting as orderlies. From 1941 to 1945, it followed French troops through the Middle East, Western Desert, Italy and France and took care of around 20,000 patients near the front line. Although it displayed Red Cross symbols, it suffered several air attacks and, as a result, lost members of its staff. Drawing on archival records and ego-documents, this article explores how members of this unit confronted danger and coped with emotional wounds. It pays particular attention to the role of loved ones, camaraderie and ‘escape’ strategies. While British staff could find comfort in letter-writing and maintain regular communications with their loved ones at home, French workers had to cut tie with their families to protect them. Building on the recent literature on health and resilience in wartime, this article asks: how did military attacks affect the effectiveness of medical work? To what extent did new technologies of wounding challenge the physical and emotional resilience of the medical staff in different environment (including the western desert)? How far were strategies of resilience collective, driven by camaraderie and an unspoken pact between the staff? What role did religious chaplains play? Did fear of death occasionally lead to breakdown of collective structure and emotional distancing?



Laure Humbert