Friday, 22 August 2014

The VAD - For Better or for Worse

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.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Unknown Warriors

     When Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front* was published by William Blackwood in 1915, the author, Kate (Evelyn) Luard, had to remain anonymous.  As a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve it was not acceptable for her to comment publicly on her work with the British Expeditionary Force in France. As a result, the book shed its copyright restraints some time ago, allowing thousands of readers to enjoy one of the few accurate accounts of the work of a trained military nurse during the Great War.  In 1930 Kate Luard published her second book, Unknown Warriors, under her own name, picking up where she left off in 1915 and completing her wartime story.  That book only appeared in one edition and over time has become a rare entity, difficult to track down and increasingly costly to buy.  In this Great War Centenary year, members of the author’s family decided to take up the challenge and re-publish Unknown Warriors and by doing so bring joy to many people who have so far been denied the pleasure of this further account.

     The typesetting of the new edition matches the original and gives it an old-fashioned authenticity, but there are also many additions which offer extra detail and information. A new introduction by Professor Christine Hallett and Tim Luard explains the background to the author’s personal and working life and also to her family connections in Essex. An index and bibliography have been added together with photographs and a glossary of terms which may otherwise be unfamiliar to readers.

     The book is composed of letters sent by Kate Luard to her family in Essex, recounting her life and experiences during wartime on the Western Front. She was an exemplary nurse, admired and appreciated by her colleagues and with the resilience to cope with everything that war threw up. Although there are now a number of diaries and accounts available written by the untrained nurse – the ‘VAD’ – those of trained military nurses are rare and must be valued. This book describes in plain terms the difficulties of both nurses and patients, the desperate conditions, and also the periods of rest and pleasure. Much of her wartime service was in Casualty Clearing Stations including the Advanced Abdominal Centre (No.32 CCS) at Brandhoek during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, working in both the busiest and most dangerous conditions that a nurse could encounter.  Her words are never exaggerated or overblown, nor do they underplay the personal and professional difficulties that she faced. It is perhaps one of the very best examples among First World War nursing  accounts of ‘How it  really was.’

     The final ‘Postscript’ chapter is a wonderful extra and includes previously unpublished letters both from the author to family members and also from her close relatives in reply which provide a keen insight into how the war was viewed in rural England. On one occasion her brother Percy wrote, ‘Your letters continue to be thrilling …’ and suggests they would make an excellent book, and later, ‘Your letters are absolutely IT … and they fill me with awe and wonder and admiration and joy …’.

I have to agree with him!


Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918
Caroline and John Stevens (Editors)
The History Press, August 2014
ISBN-10: 0750959223
ISBN-13: 978-0750959223

*Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front 1914-1915
If you've never read it, then probably a good idea to start at the beginning with this first book, available in many inexpensive printed editions and also as a free download on the web via the link.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Nurses' Silver War Badge Roll

In common with other officers and men, women could also receive the Silver War Badge and King's Certificate if they were discharged due to illness or disability caused by their war service.  I've recently added a page to The Fairest Force website listing all nurse recipients of the SWB with their addresses at the time of the award, some explanatory notes and a few unanswered questions.

Also added recently, though not quite so useful except for those with a niche interest, is a list of nurse recipients of the Territorial Force War Medal, the rarest of all the British Great War service medals.