Friday, 22 August 2014

The VAD - For Better or for Worse


VADs at Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham [IWM Q18925]
 

     The centenary of the start of the Great War has brought with it many projects associated with hospitals active throughout the United Kingdom at that time providing care for sick and wounded soldiers. Almost all of these centre on the small auxiliary hospitals which were opened and run under the auspices of the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John.  In the main these hospitals were staffed by members of Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) the majority untrained or partly trained nursing assistants who had little pre-war experience of having to work outside the home and a minimal, if any, background in nursing.  They were supported by other volunteers who helped with housekeeping duties and by male orderlies who provided ambulance and other transport services and night staff for the hospitals.

     The VAD has become the Florence Nightingale of the Great War; all things to all men, beautiful, caring, patriotic and devoted to the cause of healing. I'm trying to think whether I've ever seen mention of one who was plain, unintelligent, lacking in common sense, rude, disrespectful or just plain hopeless.  Actually I have, mainly in reports on their work and behaviour by trained military nurses, but to cast a slur on this icon of womanhood might not go down too well ... well, just one little mention maybe ...  In a report on a VAD from the Matron of No.1 Southern General Hospital, Birmingham, under 'Nursing Capabilities' is written:

Have seen no evidence of any.  She is lazy, very noisy, and has very little idea of discipline.  Talks a great deal. 

     Needless to say, her contract was not renewed. But this type of comment is not uncommon among the VAD service files which still survive at The National Archives. My point is that it's neither accurate nor productive to constantly paint VADs as perfect women. They were not. They were young women from a variety of backgrounds and life experience and with very differing personalities. Most had no nursing experience, nor would they have ever considered nurse training in peacetime.  Only a very tiny number went on to train as nurses after the war, with those that had to earn a living finding employment they considered more suitable to their social station, such as medicine, teaching, public health and social work, and infant welfare. Marriage became by far the most popular post-war occupation.

     The VAD was essential to the running of the nursing services during wartime; she had her place; she did her best though it must be faced that in some instances that was not quite good enough.  She was not the universal panacea that cured all men and all ills. She simply played her part alongside the tens of thousands of experienced doctors and fully-trained nurses, the administrative staff, the clerks and secretaries, male ambulance workers, orderlies and many more. Maybe during the next four years she deserves a little bit less of the limelight and should move over a pace or two to let some of the others stand in the spotlight.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Unknown Warriors




     When Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front* was published by William Blackwood in 1915, the author, Kate (Evelyn) Luard, had to remain anonymous.  As a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve it was not acceptable for her to comment publicly on her work with the British Expeditionary Force in France. As a result, the book shed its copyright restraints some time ago, allowing thousands of readers to enjoy one of the few accurate accounts of the work of a trained military nurse during the Great War.  In 1930 Kate Luard published her second book, Unknown Warriors, under her own name, picking up where she left off in 1915 and completing her wartime story.  That book only appeared in one edition and over time has become a rare entity, difficult to track down and increasingly costly to buy.  In this Great War Centenary year, members of the author’s family decided to take up the challenge and re-publish Unknown Warriors and by doing so bring joy to many people who have so far been denied the pleasure of this further account.

     The typesetting of the new edition matches the original and gives it an old-fashioned authenticity, but there are also many additions which offer extra detail and information. A new introduction by Professor Christine Hallett and Tim Luard explains the background to the author’s personal and working life and also to her family connections in Essex. An index and bibliography have been added together with photographs and a glossary of terms which may otherwise be unfamiliar to readers.

     The book is composed of letters sent by Kate Luard to her family in Essex, recounting her life and experiences during wartime on the Western Front. She was an exemplary nurse, admired and appreciated by her colleagues and with the resilience to cope with everything that war threw up. Although there are now a number of diaries and accounts available written by the untrained nurse – the ‘VAD’ – those of trained military nurses are rare and must be valued. This book describes in plain terms the difficulties of both nurses and patients, the desperate conditions, and also the periods of rest and pleasure. Much of her wartime service was in Casualty Clearing Stations including the Advanced Abdominal Centre (No.32 CCS) at Brandhoek during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, working in both the busiest and most dangerous conditions that a nurse could encounter.  Her words are never exaggerated or overblown, nor do they underplay the personal and professional difficulties that she faced. It is perhaps one of the very best examples among First World War nursing  accounts of ‘How it  really was.’

     The final ‘Postscript’ chapter is a wonderful extra and includes previously unpublished letters both from the author to family members and also from her close relatives in reply which provide a keen insight into how the war was viewed in rural England. On one occasion her brother Percy wrote, ‘Your letters continue to be thrilling …’ and suggests they would make an excellent book, and later, ‘Your letters are absolutely IT … and they fill me with awe and wonder and admiration and joy …’.

I have to agree with him!

*****

Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918
Caroline and John Stevens (Editors)
The History Press, August 2014
ISBN-10: 0750959223
ISBN-13: 978-0750959223

*Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915
If you've never read it, then probably a good idea to start at the beginning with this first book, available in many inexpensive printed editions and also as a free download on the web via the link.


Sunday, 3 August 2014

Nurses' Silver War Badge Roll

In common with other officers and men, women could also receive the Silver War Badge and King's Certificate if they were discharged due to illness or disability caused by their war service.  I've recently added a page to The Fairest Force website listing all nurse recipients of the SWB with their addresses at the time of the award, some explanatory notes and a few unanswered questions.





Also added recently, though not quite so useful except for those with a niche interest, is a list of nurse recipients of the Territorial Force War Medal, the rarest of all the British Great War service medals. 



*****

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Women Heroes of World War One


WOMEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR 1
Sixteen Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics
Kathryn J. Atwood



     I found a lot to interest me in this book.  Although intended for the 'young adult' market, I think that description does it a disservice.  With the centenary of the Great War prominent in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe there is increasing interest in the period among ordinary people, previously neither historically nor academically inclined.  Kathryn Atwood's well researched book gives a factual and straightforward account of sixteen women whose names are unknown to most, written in a relaxed style and uncomplicated language.

     Divided into 'bite-sized' pieces, it can read as a whole or dipped into for information on a particular individual or area. The choice of subjects is wide-ranging and covers spies, resisters, medical staff, journalists and soldiers.  Although many names will be unfamiliar, the stories are compelling and there is a great deal to be learnt about the enormous scope of women’s work during wartime, elsewhere usually confined to a handful of high profile women, organisations and services.   Background information, extra notes and suggestions for further reading are included with each chapter, making it simple to find out more about areas of personal interest.

     The stories act as a reminder to the island nation which is the United Kingdom of how lucky we are not to have suffered enemy invasion during the twentieth century, and how easily our own women could have been in a similar position to the spies and resisters of France and Belgium. Much emphasis has been laid on Edith Cavell in the past but this book makes it clear that many more women were also involved in patriotic espionage and suffered a similar fate.  I would definitely recommend the book as suitable for both young and old alike.


Publisher: Chicago Review Press, 2014
ISBN-10: 1613746865
ISBN-13: 978-1613746868

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The First World War Diaries of Emma Duffin


A new book due out soon based on the First World War diaries of Belfast born VAD Emma Duffin, during her time with the British military nursing services both in Egypt and on the Western Front.



*****

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Fairest Force - new website


QAIMNS Reserve Sister and Staff Nurse, Rouen, 1917  [IWM Q2338]

     I've recently been working on a new website which is an attempt to fill in some of the gaps that exist in accounts of British nurses during the Great War. Details of 'bare bones' areas such as mobilisation, pay, contracts, marriage, discipline and life in France away from the working environment are covered, at least in part. It's an ongoing project and by no means complete - there are a great many things that I don't know, don't know where to find, and don't even know if they still exist. If I discover them, they'll be added later. The new site is heavily tied in to Scarletfinders, particularly in respect of the transcription of the war diary of the Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders included there. I've learnt a great deal just by seeking out some of the information, and I hope there might be something of interest there for a few people at least.


*****

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Back to Blighty, but Which Hospital?


I often get asked how and why an individual man ended up in hospital many miles from home rather than a local unit, and here are a few reasons and pointers, though certainly not the complete picture

*****




     It's highly unlikely that any decisions were made overseas about a patient's destination once back in the United Kingdom except perhaps for a few senior officers, nurses and other women who had special accommodation set aside in London.

     The port of departure, and thus arrival in the UK, would depend on the position of the overseas Base Hospital, which in itself may have been a random choice initially. As the war progressed, specialist units were set up to treat various classes of illness and wounds, and that would have been a deciding factor in the fate of some men on arrival. There was also an enormous concentration of beds in London, Manchester and Birmingham and the chances of being treated in one of those areas was high. There was always a likelihood that men from London or Manchester would end up near home, just by chance.

     Although I have read accounts of men being purposely sent away from home to prevent hospitals being over-run with visitors, it seems that this was never the intention. By September 1914 there were three main aims when men arrived back wounded in the UK – to give priority to those most seriously injured, to clear beds in the largest hospitals as quickly as possible to make room for new arrivals and to ensure that the men were transferred between medical facilities as few times as possible.

     For men disembarking at Southampton, the most serious cases were transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley and the Southampton War Hospital, the latter soon earning the reputation of being one of the busiest and 'heaviest' hospitals in the country. From Dover, the sickest men were found accommodation in London. Men needing specialist treatment were separated out and given some priority to admit them to a unit which suited their needs. Lightly wounded men and the walking wounded were often the ones chosen to do the longest journeys and therefore more likely to end up in cities such as Plymouth or Aberdeen.

     Apart from the worst cases the men would be found a place on the next available train whatever its destination – there seemed to be little question of a Highlander turning down the 16.00 to Waterloo because he’d rather wait for the 19.30 to Glasgow. Because men were often wounded in large actions it follows that men of the same regiment would frequently be wounded, treated and evacuated together, and find their way back to England if not ‘en masse’ then certainly in tens, dozens and scores. So it was not surprising that, for instance, fifty Scots ended up in No. 2 Eastern General Hospital at Brighton and fifty Royal Sussex men in Manchester – often it was just the luck of the draw.

     As the war progressed the pressure on beds became more severe and it was even more difficult to find accommodation than previously. However, as there were more trains there may have been several waiting at Southampton and Dover at any one time and always the chance of different outcomes, but it’s said that even the men themselves were often reluctant to make a decision about destination.  Where was nearer, where was more exciting, where were their friends going; where would the soldier from Cornwall choose when he was in the West Yorkshire Regiment and most of his friends were going north? The vast majority of officer beds in the UK were in London, so an officer was very likely to be accommodated there, at least initially, wherever his home was. As the war progressed there were other important decisions to be made about special categories of patient.

     Before the ‘average’ man could be moved, account had to be taken of mental patients, neurological patients, those with venereal disease, enteric fever and dysentery, serious orthopaedic cases, cardiac and rheumatic conditions, eye and facial injuries - an ever lengthening list.  Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans also had to be filtered off to their own hospitals and the movement of patients soon became a very intricate and complicated process which didn't always allow a free choice of destination. Where this was impossible, facilities were put in place for seriously ill men who were going to be in hospital for a long time to be moved nearer home when their condition was stable. If a man was expected to be in hospital for more than three months there was a high chance that arrangements would be made for him to be transferred to a hospital in his home area – these transfers were often long-distance, and carried out by fitting extra patients into existing ambulance train journeys.

     Throughout the war the pressure on beds was always enormous and all Home Commands were instructed to expand their hospitals to the fullest limit.  Of course this ‘fullest limit’ was never enough, and the number of beds was still increasing in October 1918. The expansion of the auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes meant that most soldiers would eventually be transferred out of the main hospital, and this was most likely to be to a facility affiliated to that hospital, and therefore in the same locality.  Initially he bed state nationally was being updated weekly and later on twice weekly but as the situation became critical it was done on a daily basis. At time of the Armistice available beds nationwide stood at approx 364,133 and included 18,378 for officers. Between autumn of 1917 and beginning of 1918 the usual daily occupancy was 317,000.

I'm sure there must have been many a bright young ‘walking wounded’ who, seeing more than one train drawn up in front of him, found some way of making a choice but it was really a question throughout of squeezing casualties in anywhere that had enough room to take them – choice would have put an impossible burden on a massively overstretched system.

*****