Sunday, 11 December 2011

Always the bridesmaid ... ?

Following my frequent bouts of insanity after watching the last series of 'Downton Abbey,' someone suggested that I should watch the fourth series of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' which was set in the Great War, and, apparently, much more detailed and accurate. The thirteen-part series, screened in 1974, followed the trials and tribulations of the Bellamy family and their servants through the entire war. I was a great fan of the series, but as I was in Germany during that period (hatted, caped and 'doing the practical') it passed me by un-noticed.

A thirteen part series is much longer than we're used to today, so it was certainly possible to portray many aspects of the war which need to be omitted in a shorter series. In fact, every possible scenario of the Great War was there - tearful farewells, blood-stained returns, conscription, shell-shock, desertion and courts-martial, rationing, Zeppelin raids, the Silvertown munitions explosion, continuing London gaiety - in fact the episode titles alone spell out the war with 'The Beastly Hun,' 'The Glorious Dead,' 'Missing Believed Killed' and 'Facing Fearful Odds' among them.

And of course, then there were the 'gels.' Those well-heeled and aristocratic young women who 'did their bit' as VADs. I really wish I could watch scenes of hospital life during the war without hiding behind the sofa or taking a couple of aspirin. I really do. But I can't. Some of the portrayals in 'Upstairs, Downstairs' were good - the sensible, the scatterbrained, the soft-hearted - and I particularly liked the VAD who must have been a first cousin of Enid Blyton's 'George' of the Famous Five, frightfully practical at work and most adept at climbing over the hospital gates after hours. However, the usual problems and inaccuracies with dramatising Great War hospital life were already well ingrained in TV history.

Having been instructed by a lady on the tea-stall at a London station (quite correctly) to 'go to VAD Headquarters, Devonshire House, Piccadilly,' to join up, Miss Georgina (no relation to the aforementioned 'George') was, within a day or so, in charge of a ward at Guy's Hospital, and within a week (or so) supervising two more VADs who together seemed to make up the entire staff there except for a rather bad-tempered Irish nurse. Then, in the blink of an eye, Matron (who must now be turning in her grave*) interviewed Miss Georgina, suggesting that she would do very well in a 'field hospital' in France. Whether this was to advance her experience, or get rid of her was not made clear, but another blink and 'George' (I think she now deserves that accolade) was busy at a Casualty Clearing Station housed in a chateau somewhere in Northern France. Of course, as anyone who has spent time reading this blog will know (and I don't really expect anyone to put their hand up at this point) VADs never, ever worked in Casualty Clearing Stations in France - their service was confined exclusively to the base hospitals.

But my real problem is why it's always necessary to have them there? Why can't one of the characters be a 'proper' nurse in her rightful place? Why do the media have so much respect for the untrained VAD that they have to elevate her to the sainthood? VADs did a wonderful job and the medical services couldn't have survived without them, but why not give them their rightful place in history - show them for what they actually did and not just for what fits in to a modern storyline. The nurses who staffed Casualty Clearing Stations were trained nurses. They had all slogged their way through three years of training of the most onerous kind, and many had followed that with years of experience. They were the heart of the military nursing services - its backbone - and they are now relegated to bit parts in film and TV. They float by in the background, noticeable only for their severity, and occasionally barking out a word to one of our heroine VADs but otherwise invisible. Why does the trained nurse in wartime always have to be the bridesmaid and never the bride?

*The real-life Matron at that time was Miss Louisa Victoria Haughton, who retired in 1917 on the grounds of ill-health, but lived a long and productive life until her death in 1954, aged 86 years


  1. Perhaps it's that pesky classism and sexism rearing its head. VADs were "gently-bred" ladies (upper-middle class and aristocratic) who were doing their bit for patriotism. Trained nurses were working women who would continue to work as a nurse long after the war, so their role in WWI was a given. Plus, a number of VADs (and FANYs and WAACs, etc) wrote memoirs or went on to do famous things, so of course that contributes to the "glamor" of their position. Plus, didn't the women involved in volunteer organizations/corps deal only with officers?

  2. Yes, of course I agree with everything you say, and VADs definitely have more to offer in the way of appealing story lines. But for the sake of historical accuracy I'm sure they could be made equally appealing in a hospital setting rather than a CCS. VADs worked across the board, caring for the most humble soldier and the most senior officer, but many of the most aristocratic do seem to have been concentrated at officers' hospitals. Anyway, I shall continue on my personal crusade to champion the cause of the trained nurse -they seem to need all the help they can get. Vera Brittain certainly has a lot to answer for! :-)

  3. Good to see you keeping up the good work, Sue, and giving proper recognition to the trained nurses. Maybe your readers would like to share the diary comments of my great aunt, QAIMNSR Sister, Edith Appleton on the question of VADs.
    “November 29th 1915. The V.A.D.s are a source of great interest to me. Taking them as a bunch they are splendid. They may be roughly divided into 4 sorts: “Stalkers”, “Crawlers”, “Irresponsible Butterflyers” and the “Sturdy Pushers”.
    At the moment I am thinking of a “Butterfly” one who is on night duty in my ward and says with a light hearted laugh: “It’s rippin’ nursin’ the men - great fun. When I was in the Officers’ ward I did housework all the time – great fun – the men are really ill – great fun”. When I show her how to do anything fresh, she twitches to get at it and says “Oh do let me try. I’d love to do that - simply love to.” She is an aristocratic little person most dainty and well groomed and the thought of her scrubbing and dusting all day makes me smile.
    The “Stalkers” are nice girls, very lordly with high pitched cracky voices. They look rather alarmed at some of the jobs they have to do, but do them well and with good grace.
    By “Crawlers” I mean the little people who think they are unworthy to do anything at all - with an expression of “Stand on me if you like. I should be pleased to be your door mat." There is little to say about the “Sturdy pusher” ones. They are not remarkable for anything, but are quite reliable, very strong, never forget and are always ready to do every bit of work.”
    Edie has quite a few other comments about VADs – mostly kindly - in her diaries which can be seen at

  4. I think that the 'Upstairs, Downstairs' VADs were rather more in the 'Stalker' category, with one or two 'Butterflies' flitting by. Definitely not 'Crawlers.'

  5. I was wondering if you could possibly point me in the direction of a source for your information on where V.A.D.s were and were not allowed to be assigned. I've noted the times you've mentioned they never served at Casualty Clearing Stations and only at base hospitals - which I find interesting - and I was hoping to read up more on their postings.

  6. Hello - The official war diary of the Matron-in-Chief in France and Flanders, which is online on my main website, tracks this issue over several months. There are many mentions and discussions, but some of the relevant dates are:
    4 November 1916
    28 November 1916
    30 November 1916
    19 March 1917

    And after that there are other references to a few of the very experienced VADs being allowed to work in Stationary Hospitals.


  7. That is exactly the sort of resource I needed. Thank you so much!