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“I wanted to do my bit”: VADs during World War I

In the second season of Downton Abbey, Lady Sybil Crawley grieves as she receives news of yet another male acquaintance dying for his country.  Tired of waiting idly for the war to end, she decides to volunteer as a VAD.

"Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead." ~Lady Sybil

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (or VAD) was founded in 1909 through the efforts of the Red Cross and the Order of St. John.  Its function was to provide free help to hospitals throughout England and later, on the Western Front.  VADs (as they were called) mostly came from Britain’s middle and upper classes, women who could afford to volunteer their time.  At the beginning of the war the British Red Cross, as well as military authorities, refused to allow VADs in field hospitals, due to their lack of experience.  Many of these women were unaccustomed to manual labor, having had servants their entire lives.  We see this in Downton Abbey when Lady Sybil goes downstairs to the kitchen, asking Mrs. Patmore for cooking lessons.

Sybil's cake is a success

Naomi Mitchison was pursuing a degree in science from the University of Oxford when she decided to volunteer as a VAD.  She wrote of her inexperience:

Of course I made awful mistakes. I had never done real manual household work; I had never used mops and polishes and disinfectants. I was very willing but clumsy. I was told to make tea but hadn’t realised that tea must be made with boiling water. All that had been left to the servants.

As the war progressed, a shortage of trained nurses caused the Red Cross and military authorities to reevaluate their priorities.  Restrictions were lifted, and women over the age of 23 who had at least 3 months’ experience in a British hospital (many VAD hospitals were set up in larger British towns to nurse those who returned from the front) could now continue their work overseas.

Katharine Furse, who was appointed “Commander-in-Chief” of the VAD, wrote a letter that each VAD was to keep in their pocket book.

You are being sent to work for the Red Cross. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience, your humility, your determination to overcome all difficulties.

38,000 women volunteered for the VAD during World War I, working as nurse assistants, cooks, ambulance drivers, letter writers, and any other work that proved necessary both at home and overseas.  Vera Brittain described her experience in a field hospital near Etaples:

I am a Sister VAD, and orderly all in one. Quite apart from the nursing, I have stoked the fire all night, done two or three rounds of bed pans, and kept the kettles going…I feel as if I had been dragged through the gutter. Possibly acute surgical is the heaviest type of work there is, I think, more wearing than anything else on earth. You are kept on the go the whole time but in the end there seems to be nothing definite to show for it – except that one or two are still alive that might otherwise have been dead.

Vera Brittain in VAD uniform

Catherine Cathcart-Smith served as an ambulance driver:

I wanted to do my bit for the war so I volunteered to drive an ambulance. We had to meet the troop trains at the big London railway stations – Waterloo and Victoria. The trains had hundreds of wounded soldiers packed on them. Their wounds were frightful. Young men with no arms or legs. Many had been gassed. Others blinded. One day I saw this young man on a stretcher. It was my brother, so I said to the soldiers who were carrying him: “Put him in my ambulance, I am his sister.” When he died the next day I was with him, holding his hand.

May Bradford composed letters home for men who were either illiterate or were injured in a way that prevented them from doing so.  She later recalled that she had to educate some of the men on the proper ways of writing to women:

 To one man I said, “Shall I begin the letter with my dear wife?”  He quietly answered: “That sounds fine, but she’ll be wondering I never said that before.”

May Bradford

Many women quickly adapted to their new roles, becoming invaluable assets to the war effort.  Some VADs were even decorated for distinguished service.  This organization proved so effective it would be used again in World War II.

To read more about life as a VAD, I highly recommend Vera Brittain’s memoir A Testament to Youth.

Source: Spartacus Educational

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Why World War I?

I’ve always been very interested in early twentieth century society, with the old ways rapidly giving way to the new.  Somewhere along the line I became particularly interested in World War I.  Like most teenagers, I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school (well, I don’t know if most teenagers actually read the book, but I was one of those students who actually did her homework).  Maybe it started there.  The book  follows Paul Baumer as he experiences the horrors of the western front in France.  Page after page we read about the deplorable conditions of the trenches, the constant presence of lice and rats and the threat of death by a sniper or an errant artillery shell.  Yet there’s one particular image from the book that stands out in my mind all these years later: butterflies.

So why butterflies?  Because that is what Paul sees when he returns home on leave: a glass case of butterflies he had collected when he was a boy, a symbol of his childhood.  The chapter in which Paul is away from the front stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book.  It is a reminder of life before the war, a life which Paul, and all the others who fought, could never return to, at least not easily.  Paul feels this keenly:

I imagined leave would be different from this.  Indeed, it was different a year ago.  It is I of course that have changed in the interval.  There lies a gulf between that time and today.  At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors.  But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it.  I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world…I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me.  For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that; and yet they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence.  Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. ~All Quiet on the Western Front, chapter 7

Many middle and upper-class women volunteered to assist trained nurses during the war.

Four years of war wrought extreme changes on society.  It not only left an indelible mark on the men who fought, but had a huge impact on the home front.  It ushered in the roaring ’20s, a time of excess as young men and women tried their best to forget the war.

Granted, changes were already occurring as new technologies developed, but the first world war worked as a catalyst, propelling society into the modern age.  I find the period fascinating, and that is why I chose it as the backdrop for my first novel.

So here’s my question for you history lovers out there–why is it that you love the time period that interests you?  What is it about the period that captivates you in a way that other periods don’t?

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