Wednesday 18 April 2007

Assistant Nurse

When I wrote last month about 'The Difference Between' the various grades of nurse, I put:

The grade of 'Assistant Nurse' became increasingly common, and these were women who had previously undertaken formal nurse training, but not to a standard sufficient to join Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service Reserve or the Territorial Force Nursing Service. They were women who had completed a set training as a fever nurse, a children's nurse, in a women's hospital, or as a midwife. Their pay fell half way between that of the VAD and the trained Staff Nurse, and they were likely to be given more responsibility in line with their training and experience.

While transcribing the war diary of the Matron-in-Chief with the British Expeditionary Force, I've now come across entries which show that this changed in 1918. The diary entry states:

V.A.D. Assistant Nurses: Received from Director General Medical Services copy of Army Council Instruction 214 of 1918 relating to the promotion of V.A.D. Members to the rank of
Assistant Nurses. Before being promoted they must have served two years, must be in possession of the Red Efficiency Stripe and must be recommended by the Officer Commanding and Matron. The letters "A.N." are to be worn on the apron in indoor uniform and on the shoulder straps on outdoor uniform.

The Red Efficiency Stripe was awarded to VAD members who had completed 13 months continuous service in a military hospital under the control of the War Office, and who had satisfactory confidential reports by their Matron and Commanding Officer. After another years' service they could qualify for a second stripe. These stripes should not be confused with the white stripes often seen on the sleeves of VADs, which signified length of service alone, not that they had necessarily reached a high standard in their work [although of course they might have done!].

Friday 6 April 2007

Who has the truth?

I’ve got used to reading a fair amount of inaccuracy about nursing during the Great War. Well, that’s not quite true – I almost expect it now, although I’ve never got USED to it – and when I come across bits that are blatant rubbish, they really rankle, especially if they’re written by academics, as these are the accounts that may well be digested and then repeated as the absolute truth.

As a member of the Royal College of Nursing, the newsletter of the associated History of Nursing Society dropped through my letter box last week. Inside was a short article written by a prominent member of the nursing profession, titled ‘Who has the truth?’ In it she expresses regret that the health care professions are failing to keep much of their paperwork and written archive material, and also of the transient nature of electronic sources which are too easily deleted, a process that she describes as ‘throwing our “truth" away’. She makes a comparison with the diaries and letters retained by Vera Brittain, which allowed her, nearly two decades later, to ‘write an accurate testimony’ of her life as a VAD during the Great War.

How accurate those original diaries were, and whether we are throwing out history away now, any more than we did a hundred years ago, are both subjects which could be long debated, but I was interested in one paragraph, in which she writes:

A Testament of Youth kept us fixed to our TV screens in the 1970s as we followed this amazing woman through her Voluntary Aided Detachment (VAD) experiences in the First World War. Through her memory, supported by diaries, letters and “artefacts”, she gives subsequent generations insight into the experience of living through those times. She lost her fiancĂ©, her brother, their friends and many, many patients. She nursed on the Western Front, in Malta and everywhere in between in field ambulances and hospital trains.

That last sentence made me sit up and take notice, and, very concerned that my memory might be failing me in advancing years, it had me running to grab my copies of “Testament of Youth” and “Chronicle of Youth.” Vera Brittain certainly served on the Western Front and in Malta, but where was this ‘everywhere in between’ that is mentioned. No VAD member working under the auspices of the War Office [as Brittain was] ever served in a casualty clearing station, let alone a field ambulance, their service being restricted to military hospitals only, and military ambulance trains carried a staff of three trained nurses, not VADs. So did VB make any claims in her writing to working in field ambulances or on ambulance trains? Did the filmed version of “Testament of Youth” use artistic licence to include scenes that could not be substantiated by original sources? Or has the writer included that sentence to make more interesting reading without having intimate knowledge of her subject? I’d be glad for any further insights into this.

‘Who has the truth?’