Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service

  • PDF
  • Print
  • E-mail

The Royal Navy officially began to employ female nurses in 1883. The first nurses went to sea on official service as part of the Benin Expedition in Africa during 1897. The Navy eventually decided to establish a civilian female nursing reserve for wartime service. This led to the creation of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) in 1902.

QARNNS nurse working in hospital at Wei Hai Wei in China, c.1902 (RNM)
QARNNS nurse working in hospital at Wei Hai Wei in China, c.1902 (RNM)

Larger teaching hospitals identified nurses suitable for call up to the armed forces as Sisters as the threat of World War One emerged. The Sisters were naval officers, with staff nursing duties provided by the Sick Berth branch of the Royal Navy. Hospitals had to fill the vacancies caused by these men leaving to serve on ships. Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), who joined in order to do their bit in the war, replaced Sick Berth staff.

A register of qualified nurses came into existence during the 1920s and 1930s. The Navy then decided that anyone joining the QARNNS must have completed three years training and be a registered nurse.

The organisation also established the QARNNS Reserve in the 1930s. QARNNS Reservists worked in civilian hospitals during peacetime and served in the Navy during wartime. They helped in British hospitals at the outbreak of World War Two so that QARNNS nurses could head overseas. The Reservists also served overseas as the war dragged on, sometimes without even receiving full training. These women served in troop ships, hospital ships and land hospitals around the world.

A medical branch of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was formed in 1949, allowing Wren Sick Berth Attendants to be trained. They were replaced by QARNNS ratings in 1960 when Naval Nursing Auxiliaries were introduced.

The QARNNS came under the Naval Discipline Act in 1977. This meant the service was now more closely integrated with the Navy. QARNNS were no longer just civilians attached to the Navy.

The Falklands conflict in 1982 saw 15 officers and 26 ratings of the QARNNS serving in the South Atlantic. These were the first QARNNS ratings to serve onboard a hospital ship. The Admiralty Board decided after the war to allow men to join the QARNNS. An integrated nursing service was established to allow male nurses to also serve as QARNNS officers and ratings. QARNNS personnel also took every opportunity to exercise and train nurses in their war role onboard ships after the experience of the Falklands.

QARNNS personnel also served in both Gulf Wars onboard RFA Argus. The QARNNS became part of the Royal Navy in April 2000, although it retained certain differences due to its nursing function. QARNNS nurses currently serve in Iran and Afghanistan. The QARNNS continues to develop due to the modern Navy's increasing humanitarian role around the globe, which has increased the need for medical support.