Sunday, 11 February 2007

The V.A.D.

I used to think I didn't like VADs very much. After all, I'm a trained nurse, and felt a bit put out that they barged their way into the war without a please or a thank you, and later wrote rather prolifically about how they were pivotal in the winning of it. Since then I've mellowed considerably, but at the time, they came in for plenty of flack from some quarters.

In 1914, the nursing profession was in a state of upheaval, with various factions campaigning for the training and registration of nurses to fall into line with their particular views. A three year training in a large general hospital had become the accepted gold standard for the professional nurse - three years of long hours, strict discipline, and extreme hard work, followed perhaps by more years of the same; climbing the ladder of experience and responsibility.

So hardly surprising that when it was first mooted that untrained women (whisper it... VADs...) would be employed in military hospitals at home and abroad, there was great unrest among most trained military nurses, and by the nursing press. They were adamant that they simply would not allow their patients to endure the second class care that would be dished out by these clueless young upstarts - 'Ils ne passeront pas' springs to mind.

The VADs, for their part, were often well-bred, educated young women, with attributes (to their eyes) unknown in the ranks of the Army nurse. They were enthusiastic, and the War Office took care to select only the best to go overseas, but there were frequent conflicts between the two factions. It seems one of those strange facts that while VADs wrote many memoirs about their experiences during the Great War, the trained nurse left virtually none, so the picture that remains is a bit one-sided. Perhaps the VAD looked on the experience as a special time in her life, which stood out, and was worthy of reflection and description, whereas to the professional it was just another aspect of an already full career. There are several stinging descriptions of Army nursing sisters by Enid Bagnold, Olive Dent, and Vera Brittain - about those I will expand another time.

But do I like VADs now? Yes, I have to admit that we couldn't have kept our military hospitals running without them, and the nursing services both at home and abroad would have collapsed if they had relied solely on the professional. Trained nurses took three years to produce. VADs took, at most, three months. There are good and bad in all walks of life, but the VADs came forward in abundance, gave of their best, and in the main were simply splendid.

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