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Voluntary Aid Detachments


In 1909, the ‘Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales’ was set up by the War Office with a similar scheme established in Scotland at the end of the year. This created male and female Voluntary Aid detachments to support territorial medical services. The VADs were organised and trained by the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Association. Even before war broke out the units had become popular, with 1823 female detachments and 551 male ones. Once war started, the VADs were formally under the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross and St John of Jerusalem. Professional medical support, including nurses, was going to be a key element of the support and supply train of Britain’s approach in this conflict. Over 90,000 women served as VADs over the course of the war.


The women volunteers came with a variety of skills and ages, although most would be described as being middle class, with some upper class. The majority had never been in paid employment yet, despite this, they went into staff hospitals and other auxiliary units. The thousands of women in the military hospitals at home and overseas provided the face of home and peacetime to many of those injured. They carried out basic nursing support and in some cases, with experience, advanced surgical support and care, but they also spent time with patients, writing letters for those unable to and providing a comfort to those who needed to share the horror of what they had seen and been part of. VADs could also be given administration work in hospitals and cleaning duties and laundry work.

For many women becoming a VAD meant being able to ‘do their bit’ just as their brothers, fathers, uncles, sweethearts and sons were doing. In whatever capacity they served, they were often required to face the reality of the conflict, stripped of romance and idealism in a way that they had not been expecting. They were at the front line both physically and emotionally.

Over 90,000 women served as VADs over the course of the war.

Extended information

Perhaps the most famous of the VAD nurses was the writer Vera Brittain.

Vera Brittain was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1893 to a wealthy family. She was educated at boarding school and went to Somerville College, Oxford University to study English Literature. In the summer of 1915 after one year at Oxford she delayed her degree to become a VAD nurse, serving throughout the war in London, Malta and France. She is perhaps typical of the VAD profile, well bred, educated and with no practical experiences outside of the home environment and yet she knuckled down and got on with the long hours, in difficult conditions to treat the horrific wounds that are the nature of battle.

During the war she kept a diary and a regular correspondence with her brother Edward Brittain MC, her fiancé Roland Leighton and her two close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. In 1916 she wrote to her brother that “If the war spares me it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four.” Her fiancé had already been killed by that time. In her correspondence and her memoir ‘Testament of Youth’ she is honest in her description of the hard work her role entailed and the terrible sacrifice that she saw by men and women around her.

She records the experience of near fainting when faced with a gangrenous wound and of the injustice of doctor shortages at a time that the war office was refusing the offer of women doctors joining up.

In the end Vera was the only one of the five to survive. Both the experiences of loss and her own experiences as a nurse left an incredible mark upon her. Her poems reflect her feelings and the realities of conflict just as the male war poets did.

“But still the stars above the camp shine on,
Giving no answer for our sorrow’s ease,
And one more day with the Last Post has gone,
Dying upon the breeze.”

Taken from the ‘Last Post’ from the Verses of a V.A.D. Etaples 1917. 

The work that for many defined the loss of a generation ‘A Testament of Youth’ was published in 1933 after many years of trying to grapple with the war years. It is a remarkable memoir of that time, recording the suffering that she and others encountered and continued to live with.

Her first-hand experience of war made her into a lifelong pacifist, a champion for women’s rights and a political campaigner. Although she did marry her relationship was always under the shadow of the loss of her three friends and her brother. When she died in 1970, her daughter Lady Shirley Williams (the former Labour, SDLP and Liberal MP) scattered her ashes on the grave of Vera’s brother wartime grave in Granezza British Cemetery, Italy as had been her wishes – in death she returned to the era that had marked her forever.

Letters from a Lost Generation. edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, Abacus, London 1999
Testament Of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 by Vera Brittain. Virago classic, London 1978

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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