VADs - The early days and the Great War
After the Boer War there was concern that in the event of future hostilities the military medical and nursing services would be found wanting. The peacetime needs of a standing army in relation to medical care were small and specific, and to find thousands of trained personnel at short notice was a difficult problem to overcome. R. B. Haldane’s Territorial scheme of 1907 opened up new possibilities of co-operation between voluntary agencies and the Army, and on the 16th August 1909 the War Office issued its ‘Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales.’ This made provision for both male and female Voluntary Aid detachments to fill gaps in the territorial medical services, with a similar scheme for Scotland following in December of that year.
Women who joined detachments were predominately middle or upper middle-class. They were the daughters of local gentry, landowners, army officers, clergy, and professional men, and included some ladies with an aristocratic background. The majority were women who had never had any paid employment, and of those who went on to wartime service more than three-quarters had never worked outside the home. Voluntary Aid Detachments were originally intended for home service in the United Kingdom, and although some members were paid for their work during the Great War, all VADs engaged in nursing duties would have been in a financial position, at least initially, to give their services free. In peacetime they met on a regular basis, working towards gaining certificates in Home Nursing and First Aid. They learned to do simple dressings, bandaging, and the basics of invalid cookery, not knowing whether these new skills would ever be needed.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Red Cross and auxiliary hospitals sprung up rapidly in church halls, public buildings and private houses, and much of the day-to-day work was the responsibility of the VADs. They cleaned, scrubbed and dusted, set trays and cooked breakfasts. They lit fires and boiled up coppers full of washing, tasks that many of them had never even witnessed before, let alone taken part in. They also helped to wash and dress the soldiers, a formidable task for young women who may never have been alone and unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex before. They learned to breathe through their mouths during dressing rounds, to prevent the stench of gangrenous limbs overwhelming them, and to smile and accept mutilated faces without flinching or turning away. Often they did all this for no reward other than knowing that they were serving their country, as their brothers, their fathers and their friends were serving theirs.
During wartime the VAD organization was administered by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and St. John of Jerusalem, and run from Devonshire House in Piccadilly. Its palatial rooms became a myriad of offices that dealt with the recruitment and training of staff, and the management of hundreds of VAD and auxiliary hospitals. Between 70,000 and 100,000 women served as VADs at some time during the war, and of these, 8,000 worked overseas. By early 1915 it was evident that there were not enough trained nurses to keep the large British military hospitals staffed, and the War Office agreed that VADs could be employed in their hospitals to augment the trained staff both at home and abroad. When working in hospitals under War Office control they were paid £20 a year, with allowances for uniform, board and lodging. However, the vast majority of those who served during the Great War remained in the smaller Red Cross and auxiliary units and therefore the whole of their service was unpaid. For overseas service women had to be between twenty-three and forty-two years of age and there were many mature and married women among them. Most worked in British military hospitals in France, Malta, Serbia, Salonika, Egypt, and on board hospital ships, and they formed a large proportion of the nursing staff of the British General Hospitals in the base towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Boulogne and Le Treport. As the war progressed the proportion of VADs in hospitals grew larger, and the work assigned to them more responsible. They carried out dressings and treatments under trained supervision, and sometimes found themselves in charge of whole wards of sick and wounded soldiers for long periods at a time.
Much emphasis has been placed on the role of VADs engaged in nursing duties during the Great War but the contribution went far beyond nursing. The formation of the General Service section in 1917 saw hundreds of women taking over the jobs previously done by men in military hospitals in order to release them for military service, and they worked as dispensers, clerks, cooks, storewomen and ambulance drivers. VADs proved themselves versatile, willing and self-sacrificing, with a deep sense of patriotism. They found comradeship, independence, and a freedom that they had never grown up to expect but which changed their lives forever. Without their contribution the suffering of the soldier would have been much greater, and recovery less certain. What they gave was truly a gift to the nation.