Monday 21 December 2015

The VAD and the Casualty Clearing Station

     I'm always complaining about errors made in placing VADs in Casualty Clearing Stations during the First World War.  Writers of fiction, newspapers, the BBC, the world and his wife, all love to see them in the thick of it with bombs falling and shrapnel whizzing past the poor VAD on her way to the bin with an amputated leg.  It's fair to say that the senior medical staff in France and Flanders would have agreed to them being there, but the Matron-in-Chief was adamant that only the best and most experienced trained nurses were good enough to be working at the sharpest of ends and it was she who won that battle.  Of course if you look hard enough it's often possible to find an exception to any rule and during a long and varied war there was at least one VAD who managed to buck the trend.

     Alice Batt was born in Oxfordshire in 1890, the daughter of Charles Dorrington Batt, a doctor, and his wife Isabel (née Wake). By the outbreak of war Charles Batt and several of his children were involved with local Voluntary Aid Detachments, his son John, also a doctor, becoming resident medical officer during wartime at the large auxiliary hospital at Ampton Hall, Bury St. Edmunds. Alice Batt first worked as a VAD in London at the Officers' Hospital, 6 Bruton Street - the heart of Mayfair and in March 1916 she signed for overseas service and was sent to No.9 British Red Cross Hospital, the 'Duchess of Sutherland's,' at that time in Calais.

Operating theatre staff No.9 BRCS Hospital (Duchess of Sutherland's) in July 1917  [IWM Q2615]

     During the final weeks of the war as the British army advanced, the hospital moved further forward to Hazebrouck by which time Alice Batt was working as an operating theatre orderly. Although this was not a role undertaken by VADs in British military hospitals, it was found acceptable in units run under the control of the Joint War Committee of the BRCS and Order of St. John. By the beginning of October 1918 although Britain seemed to be winning the war, casualties were great and all medical units were working under extreme pressure.

     Three Casualty Clearing Stations working side by side at Rousbrugge [Roesbrugge], Nos.11, 36 and 44, were in danger of being overwhelmed with casualties and a request had been made for extra staff which could not be fulfilled at the time by other British units under War Office control.  The principal need was for 'surgical teams' which were mobile groups used to fill urgent gaps, and each team  was made up of one surgeon, one anaesthetist, a trained theatre sister and one or two theatre orderlies.  Appeals were made both to Canadian and American units who were able to send some reinforcements but the three CCSs at Rousbrugge were still understaffed.  At that point two surgical teams were offered by No.9 British Red Cross Hospital, an offer which was gratefully accepted and probably the only time during the war that this happened.  Theatre orderly Alice Batt was part of one of those teams and she joined the staff of No.36 Casualty Clearing Station. Within a few days she was at the centre of a drama for which she was later awarded the Albert Medal for her actions. The citation published in the London Gazette 25th April 1919, gives the details:

The KING has been pleased to award the Albert Medal in recognition of gallantry displayed in saving life: —
Miss -Alice Batt, Voluntary Aid Detachment
On the 1st October, 1918, a fire broke out at No. 36, Casualty Clearing Station at Rousbrugge, Belgium, and quickly reached the operating theatre, where the surgeon, was performing an abdominal operation. The light went out, and the theatre was quickly filled with-smoke and flames, but the operation was continued by the light of an electric torch, Miss Batt continuing her work of handing instruments and threading needles with steadfast calmness, thereby enabling the surgeon to complete the operation. Miss Batt afterwards did splendid work in helping to carry men from the burning wards to places of safety.

     As the staff of the Duchess of Sutherland's Hospital were predominately female, it's possible that Alice Batt was not the only VAD employed at a British CCSs during that hectic period, but the award of her Albert Medal makes her the only one to be positively identified.  Full details of Alice Batt's wartime service are included on the BRCS website here:

Original card that shows work in London

Later card for overseas service