Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Funeral of a VAD

This poignant account of the funeral of a VAD in Rouen comes from 'A VAD in France' by Olive Dent. Its descriptive qualities add a sense of being there, and bring understanding of a ceremony not often available to an 'outsider.' The book does not necessarily run in chronological order, and it's therefore difficult to be sure of the identity of the woman; I first thought that it was likely to be Jeannie (Jessie) Smith Lee, who was working at No.9 General Hospital, Rouen, and died on the 30th March, 1917, but it could also refer to Mary Dickson of No.9 General Hospital who died on the 16th February 1917:

A V.A.D. Funeral

As many as possible of the nursing staff were asked to attend the funeral this afternoon of a V.A.D. When we arrived at the cemetery it was just in time to join the cortege.
A cordon of R.A.M.C. lined the road, and down it passed the padre followed by the pipers wailing a dirge. Next came the coffin, a plain, unstained wooden one covered with the Union Jack. Then came the A.D.M.S., and some other staff officers, and then we nurses - Q.A.I.M.N.S., Territorial, Reserve, St.J.A.A. and B.R.C.
We grouped ourselves round the grave, and the padre read the address exquisitely and most impressively. It was a beautiful spring afternoon with a fleckless blue sky and floods of soft sunshine. A bird on a bough swayed up and down, up and down, with a continual cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep. We all stood taut and still, at attention, and the words rolled magnificently to us:
"Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from Thee."

The Union Jack is folded and laid aside, the pageantry and the impressive dignity of the scene loses its grip on one. Instead there comes to mind a picture of the dead girl, white and still, with closed eyes and crossed hands. We hear the rattle of ropes, the coffin is lowered, the swaying bird becomes a blurred vision. A French peasant woman with a tiny bunch of half-faded violets is sobbing loudly. The grave faces of the English nurses become a little more set.
Then come the prayers, the Last Post - poingnant and haunting - and the volley. Two French nurses drop into the grace a bunch of carnations, we take our flowers and lay them by the grave and turn to go back through the cemetery. No matter what consolation is proffered, death is always an irreparable loss. But surely better to have it come when doing work that counts, work of national and racial weight, than to live on until old and unwanted.
And what a magnificent end to one's life, to lie there among those splendidly brave boys in the little strip of land which the French Government has given over in perpetuity to our dead. Thousands of children that are to be, will come to such cemeteries, and will be hushed to reverence by the spirits of those who are not, by the spirits of the fallen that will forever inhabit the scene.
May eternal rest be given to the poor shattered body and glory eternal to the ever lasting spirit!

A V.A.D. In France, Olive Dent: published by Grant Richards Ltd., London 1917


  1. That's beautifully and expressively written. Do you have any idea who the VAD was and how she died?

  2. I had a feeling that someone would ask! Yesterday I spent some time trying to hazard a guess, and this morning came to the conculsion that it was probably Jeannie Smith Lee, of No.8 General Hospital, and have amended to post accordingly. According to the war diary of the Matron-in-Chief, she died of 'purpura fulminans'- I'll leave you to Google that!

  3. Googled successfully, thanks Sue.