Wednesday 23 February 2011

The Last Veteran?

There has been a fair bit of publicity this week for Florence Green, who on reaching her 110th birthday has been named as both a 'super-centenarian' and also the last surviving female 'veteran' of the Great War. As time goes by, the definition of 'last veteran' seems to have changed. Once it was used solely for those men who had met the Germans or other adversaries on the battlefield, but as they disappeared, it was broadened to include anyone who was in military service at any time during the Great War. Florence Green joined the Women's Royal Air Force in 1918, and served for a short time before the Armistice as a waitress at an R.A.F. station. Her position entitled her and her colleagues to both military status, and also, if unfortunate enough to die during service, commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

However, there were great numbers of other women working for their country at that time, many of whom were involved in direct contact with victims of war, but whose work did not offer them the same entitlements as Florence Green and her colleagues. More than 70,000 women worked during the Great War as nursing 'VADs' - members of Voluntary Aid Detachments. The vast majority of these women came under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society, and served in the United Kingdom only, and their status as civilians excluded them from being classed as military workers. They worked long hours to ensure that wounded and sick soldiers received the best possible care; they scrubbed and polished, made beds, lit fires and cooked meals; they helped with dressings and treatments, and faced, on a daily basis, sights and smells unimaginable today. For this, the vast majority were unpaid - they were indeed 'voluntary.' For the many who died during the course of their service, there is no official commemoration - as far as the Ministry of Defence and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are concerned they are the civilian nameless, unworthy of national recognition.

There are a number of women in the UK at present who are older than Florence Green. I wonder if any of them worked as young VADs during the Great War? If so, they will not be recognised. They were civilians. They are of little interest to the veteran-hunters. Oh that they might have spent their working lives during the Great War as waitresses in an officers' mess.

Florence Green - the last female veteran

Wednesday 16 February 2011


What an amazing amount there is to learn with such easy access to the internet. Still roaming through the Royal Red Cross Register, I found on entry from the London Gazette in October 1954 announcing an award to a Lieutenant Audrey Mary Jones, Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps:

'In recognition of brave conduct during the fire on H.M.T. EMPIRE WINDRUSH'

Like many other people I had never contemplated a life for the 'Windrush' other than its voyage in 1948 bringing migrants from the Caribbean, but its history and eventual fate is here:

Empire Windrush

Thursday 3 February 2011

She Came from Home

I recently came across a book written in 1916 by actor Harley Granville Barker about his time serving with the British Red Cross Society in France. He was, perhaps, a rather unlikely volunteer. The book starts with an introduction by Sir Frederick Treves, and I found his final few paragraphs very touching - an emotional tribute to the thousands of women who also volunteered their services during the Great War:

'It is said that the Great War has produced no Florence Nightingale. That may be so; but it has produced a much esteemed and lovable lady, hitherto unknown in any war, who has earned for herself a reputation little less than that attained by the great pioneer of Red Cross work. She is known by the curious title of 'the V.A.D.' She works as a volunteer. She is quite a new being, yet she represents the womanhood of England, the tender-hearted, unselfish, capable woman, whose sole desire is to help the wounded soldier. She seeks no glory. She has no name. She is merely a 'V.A.D.'

She will work as a cook, as a housemaid, as a kitchen-maid, and none will beat her. She will carry trays all day and be proud of it. She will live in a railway carriage and there keep a buffet for tired men. She will tramp a station platform night and day if only she can give some comfort to a sick man in a passing train. She will nurse as far as her abilities will permit, and her abilities are considerable. She will feel it an honour to be a ward maid if only she can help to make things comfortable for the patients she scarcely sees. The men are devoted to her, and in that devotion she finds the sole reward she seeks.

One little episode that I saw in France will remain in my mind as the embodiment of the spirit of Red Cross work. A V.A.D. was holding a cup to the lips of a dying man. Looking at her with a dim curiosity he asked faintly,
"Where do you come from?"
"I come from Home," she replied
A smile spread over his face and in a while he was dead. Such was the secret of his last pleasant thought - she came from Home.'

Introduction to: The Red Cross in France: Granville Barker, Hodder and Stoughton, 1916.