• GVHeritage Group

Exhausting, Dangerous & Horrific (and not just on the front line)

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

Following the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, the British Red Cross formed the Joint War Committee with the Order of St John. Working together they were able to pool fundraising activities and resources. The Committee organised nursing staff in the UK and abroad to support the forces.

Vera Brittain


Unregulated & not allowed at the front In 1914 nursing was unregulated - which meant that anybody could call themselves a nurse, and many women offered their services. At the beginning of the war women were not allowed on the front line. The British Medical Military services were reluctant to take female nurses on because they didn't believe they would be able to cope in field hospitals and base hospitals. This resulted in a shortage of female nurses, particularly on the Western front, for the first few months of the war. The trained nurses who did go to France during the first two months of the war were severely understaffed and found it difficult to keep up with the high volume of casualties. The nurses left at home also felt frustrated that the army was so slow to call them to the front. Many early volunteers from Britain were forced to serve instead with the French and Belgian forces. Many of these early volunteers were from aristocratic families and their servants. Powerful women who ran large families and large estates were well versed in management and saw no great problems in managing a military hospital instead.

As time went on, and doctors realised that they could only cope with the number of casualties that needed very complex care with the help of nurses, this slowly changed.  Even the British Army's top brass yielded to the combined pressures of need and confident commitment. Year by year their roles developed and they worked in many different scenarios from base hospitals to casualty clearing stations, hospital trains, barges and hospital ships and across all the different war fronts including the Western front, the Eastern front and the Western Mediterranean.

The main trained corps of military nurses was the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) (founded in 1902 at the time of the Boer war) and in 1914 was less than 300 strong. At the end of the war it numbered over 10,000 nurses. In addition several other organisations formed earlier in the century had the nursing of members of the armed services as their main purpose - for instance, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry launched in 1907.

Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADS) Recruitment was not difficult for both nurses and Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). From the beginning of the war until the armistice, trained nurses were always available to be sent out by the Red Cross. Partially trained VADs, working under the Joint Committee, carried out duties that were less technical, but no less important, than trained nurses.  VADs had to be between 23 and 38 years old. Women under 23 were rarely registered as nurses with the Red Cross, but the rule was not enforced for women over 38 (provided they had no diminished capacity).

VADs organised and managed local auxiliary hospitals throughout Britain, caring for the large number of sick and wounded soldiers arriving from abroad. VADs also provided nursing assistance, including comforting patients, providing meals to soldiers, driving ambulances, and administrative duties. The VAD organisation had been running since 1909 so there were many volunteer nurses already available.  The Red Cross and The Order of St John of Jerusalem organised VADs, in every county to carry out transport duties and staff rest stations and hospitals.

The number of volunteers increased dramatically in the early years of the First World War and by 1918 there were over 90,000 British Red Cross VADs.

The ultimate sacrifice Several hundred nurses died during the war - the majority from influenza, but also from shellfire or on ships that were torpedoed in the Mediterranean or the British Channel.

Return to peace time In a similar way to the other workplaces that women had populated during hostilities, practicing nurses had a lot of these duties taken away from them at the end of the war.  It was seen as unprofessional for nurses to engage in minor surgery as it disrespected the boundaries between them and the surgeons, so they went back to merely assisting and handing out instruments.

By the end of the war the Red Cross had provided 90,000 VADs, who had volunteered at home and abroad. Over 1,786 auxiliary hospitals had been established, with patients arriving by staffed ambulances, hospital trains and motor launches. After the war, equipment from the auxiliary hospitals was distributed to local general hospitals, rehabilitation centres, sanatoriums and other medical centres.

Over £21,885,035 had been raised through fundraising efforts and the majority of the money was spent on hospitals, medicine, clothing and care for the sick and wounded.

Recognition with regulation Politicians and the public took notice of the contribution that nurses made during the war and this contributed to nursing becoming a regulated profession.

Myths & Legends From the end of the war until the today the romantic idea of the nurse (particularly voluntary nurses and untrained VADS) during wartime has persisted in popular culture. Many books and films show people like Vera Brittain (picture above), having been the most famous VAD, as being bullied by the professional nurses.


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