Doing their Bit - The Voluntary Aid Detachment
by Janine Lawrence
centuries the history of our country has been littered with governmental
mistakes and mishaps. How refreshing then, that in 1908 the new Secretary of
State for War, Lord Haldane, undertook reforms in the army which were to
have far-reaching effects.
He established a new part-time army of volunteers who were
fully-trained soldiers in full-time jobs and who were organised on a county
system. This Territorial Force became jokingly known as the 'Saturday Night
Soldiers' as the young men who joined were taught to shoulder arms at weekly
meetings and drills. They even attended summer camp and many 'Terriers' were
at camp when war was declared in August 1914.
In 1909, with unbelievable foresight, the War Office issued a 'Scheme
for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales' which recognised
the need to provide sufficient medical backup to supplement the Territorial
Force in the event of war. Ultimate efficiency would not be realised unless
all voluntary aid was co-ordinated and the Territorial Associations were
directed to entrust the work to the British Red Cross which had also adopted
the county system of organisation. They joined up with the Order of St John
of Jerusalem and thus, the organisation known as the Voluntary Aid
Detachment was born.
Detachments were divided into those for men and those for women. Men's
detachments numbered 56 lead by a commandant and comprising a medical
officer, a quartermaster, a pharmacist and four section leaders each
responsible for 12 men. They were usually responsible for transport and
converting suitable buildings into hospitals and clearing stations and would
also act as stretcher-bearers and male nurses if required. After enrolment
the men studied first aid and were lectured in the various duties connected
with transport and camps.
The women's detachments were less than half the strength of the men.
They were also led by a commandant, who could either be male or female and
not necessarily a doctor, a quartermaster, a trained nurse as a lady
superintendent and 20 women of whom four had to be qualified cooks. It was
felt the women's detachments would be better served to the 'less arduous'
task of forming railway rest stations where they could prepare and serve
meals for sick and wounded soldiers. It was obvious they were seen more as
domestic assistants than nurses! However, they were given lectures in first
aid, home nursing, hygiene and cookery and were occasionally given training
in infirmaries. They were taught to identify suitable buildings for use as
temporary hospitals and how to obtain equipment and supplies.
Within a year membership numbered somewhere around 6000 with over
2,500 detachments. These numbers increased considerably after the outbreak
of war in 1914 and numbers rose to over 74,000, two-thirds of whom were
women and girls.
As men were called away to answer their country's call it fell upon
the women to fill their shoes in whatever way they could. Initially it was
mostly middle-class women who were eager to 'do their bit' and they took on
roles such as ambulance drivers, welfare officers, fundraisers, civil
defence workers and even letter writers for the illiterate. It is
interesting to note that the novelist, Agatha Christie was a VAD and worked
in a hospital pharmacy where she learned about poisons!
The military authorities were reluctant at this early stage to accept
VADs on the front line, perhaps thinking that the battlefield was no place
for a woman. However, this restriction was lifted in 1915 and women
volunteers over the age of twenty three and with more than three months
experience were allowed to go to the Western Front, Gallipoli and
Mesopotamia. Eventually VAD's were also sent to the Eastern Front.
Before the outbreak of war some VADs had taken short nursing courses
for which they were awarded certificates. Qualified nurses had undertaken
three years training and were understandably suspicious of these short
courses, referring to the volunteers as 'ignorant amateurs'. Quarrels broke
out and there are even reports of open conflict before the new spirit of
unity in time of war was felt and working together for mutual benefit was
the order of the day.
The VAD's became very active in the war effort using influence to
transport themselves to the conflicts in France to care for the sick and
wounded and thus carving out for themselves a clear role as nurses or
orderlies in hospitals at home and in the theatres of war. By 1916 their
numbers had increased to 80,000.
In 1917 clear regulations were laid down by the British Red Cross
which governed the employment of nursing VAD's in military hospitals. Age
limits were specified and volunteers should be between 21 and 48 years of
age for home service and 23 and 42 for foreign. They were to be appointed
for one month on probation during which time they were assessed for
suitability by the matron. They then had to sign an agreement to serve for
six months or the duration of the war, at home or abroad. Salary would be
£20 per annum rising to £22.10.0 for those who signed on for another six
months at the end of their current contract. Increments of a further £2.10.0
would be paid every six months until probationers reached the maximum of £30
It was also laid down that VAD's should work under fully trained
nurses with duties including sweeping, dusting, polishing, cleaning, washing
patients' crockery, sorting linen and any nursing duties allotted by the
Meanwhile, VAD hospitals were being set up in Blighty and were mostly
located in large houses loaned for the purpose by their owners. Gustard Wood
at Wheathampstead and The Bury at King's Walden are just two Hertfordshire
premises used. The Council School in Royston and the former mental hospital,
Napsbury in Colney Heath are examples of institutes put into service.
These hospitals received the sum of three shillings per day per
patient from the War Office and were expected to raise additional funds
themselves. As everyone was keen to be seen to help the war effort this was
not difficult and local newspapers regularly featured lists of donations
received - obviously anonymity did not seem to be the case!
Many women returning home after the conflict ended undertook formal
nurse training and registration with the General Nursing Council. Others
tried to pick up the threads of their former lives. What must be certain is
that life could never have been the same for any of them again. The sight,
smell and fear of war must have been imprinted on every mind bringing about
a change in the lives of women which would grow and grow over the following
Our thanks to Janine Lawrence for permission to use this article
© Janine Lawrence
Interior of Ambulance Train at Boulogne
© IWM (Q 14760)
Canadian V.A.D, staff of the Canadian Rest House for nursing sisters
passing through Boulogne. 29 July 1918.
© IWM (Q 9140)
Battery, 11th Bde.
Pneumonia 29/11/1918, aged 25.
Winifred Hudson, of 821, Manchester Rd., Bradford, Yorks.
Pictures courtesy of Raymond Hudson, grandson of this soldier
South Staffordshire Regiment
Son of Joseph
Rose Brown and Elizabeth Brown, of 77, North Rd., Wolverhampton.
Plot V. F. 4.
Pte Joseph George Brown 36182 was also KIA on April 10th 1918,
aged 19, whilst serving in the 4th South Staffs, remembered on the
Ploegsteert Memorial Panel 6.
Picture courtesy of Dave Shaw
Son of Edward Gale and Sarah Robinson of
Plot XIV. A.
courtesy of great niece, Pamela Marsden
11th Bn. East
He was a
drummer and sniper; born Wigan, son of Joseph and Ellen Magrath; lived at
22nd September 1914; died of pneumonia following a chill caught while
celebrating the end of the war
Plot XI. C. 26
Son of John
Horsley and Anne Hawkin, of York; husband of Millicent Hawkin, of 4,
Langdale Rd., Scarborough.
Plot I. A. 33.
on the St Paulís Church War Memorial, Holgate and in The Kingís Book. His
medals are held by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and appear on their
Harold Hawkin died on June 18th, 1918 of Erysipelas,** he married my great
aunt Millie (nee Beastall) during the war. Millie related the story that
Harold had been badly gassed earlier but had been sent back into action
before he had enough time to fully recover. She blamed his subsequent death
on his poor health and his body's inability to fight off the infection that
took his life.
The above image shows
Harold with his wife, Millie
is a type of skin infection usually caused by group A Streptococcus
bacteria. The bacteria may travel to the blood in some cases. This results
in a condition called bacteremia. The infection may spread to the heart
valves, joints, and bones. Erysipelas is now a treatable disease.
courtesy of great nephew, Brian Milthorp
A. I. F.
information and images follow this link -
Private James Thomas Turner
His Story is as follows:
James Thomas Turner was born Ararat, Victoria,
Australia in March 1899 to William and Priscilla Turner. He had 3 brothers
and 4 sisters and would have been 15 years old when Australia entered the
World War 1 alongside the British Empire.
3 years into the War, in August 1917 he was a young, 18
year old, single labourer and decided to volunteer to join the Australian
Imperial Force (AIF) as a Private. He was slightly built weighing only 67kg
and 5ft 9in in height.
On the 6th September his parents William and Priscilla
consented to James enlisting, but did not want him seeing active service
until he turned 19 in the March of 1918.
Then 2 months later on the 22nd November 1917 James
embarked on the HMAS Nestor out of Melbourne with the 20th Reinforcement of
the 24th Battalion bound for England.
On the 24th January, James arrived at the medium-sized
village in southwest Wiltshire, England called Fovant where he stayed at the
Army Training Camp for just over 3 months.
On the 5th May James moved by train onto the English
town of Folkestone in Kent. Two days later he moved to the Allied military
camp, Etaples in France.
From March the 24th Battalion was fighting as part of
The German Spring Offensive on the Western Front in France with Operation
Michael. We believe that James would have joined his Unit on the 9th May.
On the 1st June he was wounded in action (Gassed) and
went by Ambulance Train to the No. 7 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne. After 7
days in hospital, James passed away on the 11th June 1918 at age 19. He was
buried at the Terlincthun British Cemetery on the 23rd June. Reference I. A.
Picture and information courtesy of Noel Joseph
Turner Werribee, Victoria, Australia
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