Monday, 25 February 2013

Lest We Forget ... the women among us

Over the next few years there's likely to be much publicity given to the men and women who died during the course of the Great War. VADs - the army of untrained nurses who supported the military medical services at that time, and without whose contribution those same services may well have collapsed, have always been rather hard done by when it comes to official recognition.  As civilians, they are not eligible for commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission unless they died while on active service abroad, or later in the UK of illness contracted abroad. So most* VADs who died 'at home,' have remained a forgotten band, officially at least.

In 1918 the Imperial War Museum was busy collecting material to represent women's work during the war and to acknowledge the important contribution they had made. One aspect of this was to approach the next of kin of women who had died on war service to obtain portrait photographs which would eventually form part of a Roll of Honour. Agnes Conway headed the Women at Work Committee at the Museum, where her father, Sir Martin Conway, was Director-General, and she had overall responsibility for the task. I recently came across some interesting correspondence between her and Lady Ampthill, at that time Chairman of the Joint Women's V.A.D. Committee, which shows that even then the deaths of VADs were strictly divided in some quarters between those considered worthy of commemoration, and those who didn't quite make the grade. It shows the dividing line that exists today had its roots in thought and deed even before the war had ended.

* There are many anomalies in the commemoration of women and always a few who don't seem to fit in with the criteria


Agnes Conway to Lady Ampthill, 6th November 1918

Dear Lady Ampthill,
I have received a list of 20 names of members of Voluntary Aid Detachments who have died on service during October.  It occurs to me that some of these members may have died of influenza. Do you think it is advisable to collect photographs for the War Museum of V.A.D. members who have been the victims of an epidemic that has carried off so many of the general public?  I think that when we ask the next of kin for photographs we ought to confine ourselves to members who have really given up their lives on direct war service.  If you agree, have you any means of eliminating the names of those who have died of ordinary illness from your lists before I receive them?

Lady Ampthill to Agnes Conway, 8th November 1918

Dear Miss Conway
Thank you very much for your letter of the 6th inst.  All those members whose deaths have been announced to you, died of Influenza, and Pneumonia whilst actually nursing in hospitals.  I think, therefore, as they died actually at work, we cannot make any difference between them and others.  Do you not think so?  They probably got Influenza whilst in performance of their duty, and it would seem very difficult to differentiate.

Agnes Conway to Lady Ampthill, 12th November 1918

Dear Lady Ampthill
If you think it best not to distinguish between nurses who have died from Influenza and others we will go on just as we have been doing, and I will write to all the next of kin for their photographs.  When the time comes to compile a permanent Roll of Honour, I think we ought to make some distinction between those who were bombed, torpedoed, etc., and those who died of actual illness, but there is, of course, no hurry at the moment.

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