|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.