Bold that Holds is our series where we discuss the symbolism and history of traditional tattoo designs. This time we’re looking at tattoos made in the honor of the heroic actions of Red Cross nurses during the First World War, but be sure to check out our previous installments about anchors, reapers, pigs and roosters, phonographs, and the Sacred Heart.
Imagine bleeding out in a trench during a relentless battle, when a woman in white arrives and, like some guardian angel, sutures your wound. You'd want to remember this woman for the rest of your life, considering that she is the very reason you even have a "rest of your life." So why not get a tattoo of her? This is essentially how Rose of No Man’s Land tattoos came about. This timeless motif originates from a once popular song written in honor of the Red Cross nurses who volunteered to serve on the front lines during the First World War. These ladies laid their lives on the line to ease the suffering of wounded soldiers, and because of their sacrifice, they more than deserve the tattoo tributes in their image that exist on people’s skin today.
The original version of “The Rose of No Man’s Land” was published in French (“La Rose Sous les Boulets”) by Leo Feist in 1918, but the most well known English version was produced by Jack Caddigan and James Alexander Brennan at the end of World War II. Here are the lines from the song that made the song so famous: “It's the one red rose the soldier knows / It's the work of the Master's hand / Mid the War's great curse, Stands the Red Cross Nurse / She's the rose of ‘No Man's Land.’”
The song grew in popularity so much during the first half of the 20th century that, at some point, it was translated into a traditional tattoo. It’s impossible to trace down the exact origins of the Rose of No Man’s Land design, but it appears in the sketchbooks of early pioneers in the industry like Gus Wagner (1872-1941), Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins (1911-1973), and many others. The speed at which it became a staple motif in the industry attests to how much the heroic actions of the nurses meant to their countrymen, especially the soldiers they treated.
The Rose of No Man’s Land motif is unmistakable. It features an old school style lady head wearing a cap or coif with the Red Cross at its center. Generally, there is another cross serving as a background, and the woman’s face is typically nestled into the middle of a long-stemmed rose. Though its exact meaning has been somewhat obscured by the last hundred years, the design still retains its underlying meaning as a symbol of undying appreciation for the caregivers of the world.
To see more traditional tattoos of classic motifs, follow all of these tattooists on Instagram. Should you want a Rose of No Man’s Land tattoo to show your love for all the nurses out there, have one of them design one of these big-hearted lady heads for you.