”Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,”
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), British poet. Insensibility
The 100th Anniversary of the start of World War One has stimulated a great deal of interest in seemingly forgotten history across the country. Families have been reconnecting with relatives who fought, died and survived using photographs, diaries and letters hunted down out of dusty boxes in the attic.
During the summer we visited a number of WW1 sites in northern France that were haunting in their atmosphere, magnitude and sense of sacrifice. The British monument at Thiepval near Albert and Arras (designed by Luytens; who also designed the Cenotaph) is an incredible place.
It caused me to feel thoughtful about nursing in that time – prior to any professional register, when it was viewed as ‘woman’s work’. In addition to recognised trained nurses, the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachments) were crucial to supporting the war effort. In August 1914 there were thousands of them, whereas there were only a small number of military nurses by comparison (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Services). In August 1914 they had no idea that every pair of hands was going to be needed over the next four years, as the common misconception was that the war would be over by Christmas.
The VAD system was founded in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and Order of St John. By the summer of 1914 there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 VAD members in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls.
At the outbreak of the First World War VAD members eagerly offered their service to the war effort. The British Red Cross was reluctant to allow civilian women a role in overseas hospitals: most volunteers were of the middle and upper classes and unaccustomed to hardship and traditional hospital discipline. Military authorities would not accept VADs at the front line.
Katharine Furse took two VADs to France in October 1914, restricting them as canteen workers and cooks. Caught under fire in a sudden battle the VADs were pressed into emergency hospital service and acquitted themselves well. The growing shortage of trained nurses opened the door for VADs in overseas military service. Furse was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the detachments and restrictions were removed.
During four years of war 38,000 VADs worked in hospitals and served as ambulance drivers and cooks. VADs served near the Western Front and in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. ]Later, VADs were also sent to the Eastern Front. They provided an invaluable source of bedside aid in the war effort. Many were decorated for distinguished service. Vera Brittain and Agatha Christie are two famous VADs; with the story of her experience captured by Vera in her book ‘Testament of Youth’.
“If the ghost that haunts the towns of Ypres and Arras and Albert is the statutory British Tommy, slogging with rifle and pack through its ruined streets to this well-documented destiny ‘up the line’, then the ghost of Boulogne and Etaples and Rouen ought to be a girl. She’s called Elsie or Gladys or Dorothy, her ankles are swollen, her feet are aching, her hands reddened and rough. She has little money, no vote, and has almost forgotten what it feels like to be really warm. She sleeps in a tent. Unless she has told a diplomatic lie about her age, she is twenty-three. She is the daughter of a clergyman, a lawyer or a prosperous businessman, and has been privately educated and groomed to be a ‘lady’. She wears the unbecoming outdoor uniform of a VAD or an army nurse. She is on active service, and as much a part of the war as Tommy Atkins.”