VAD: Voluntary Aid Detachment – an organisation providing voluntary nursing services throughout the war
The Voluntary Aid Detachment system was founded in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and the Order of St John. By the summer of 1914, there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 VAD members in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls. When the war came, many of them offered their services to the war effort. They served in hospitals in Britain, including in many of the auxiliary hospitals which were set up in private homes.
At the start of the war, the British Red Cross was reluctant to allow civilian women a role in overseas hospitals, not least because most volunteers were of the middle and upper classes and unaccustomed to hardship and traditional hospital discipline.
After the spring offensive in 1915, however, the rise in casualties overwhelmed the existing nursing staff and VADs began to be allowed to work on the front line. They worked in clearing stations across the front, assisting with bandage sterilisation, bed changing, preparation and more. In the latter years of the war, as the number of casualties outnumbered any previous prediction, they were also cleared to administer drugs and change bandages.
The VAD nurses of the First World War, often women with no prior medical knowledge from privileged backgrounds, were underprepared for the horrors they would experience, on both the home and western fronts. Many were unused to the male anatomy as well as the labour that they were expected to take on. VAD nurses were often given the grunt work, as the professional nurses – unregistered at this point, felt as though their positions, tenuous as they were, would be undermined by the less capable women in the ranks.
During four years of war 38,000 VADs worked in hospitals and served as ambulance drivers and cooks. Once considered incapable of the hard labour required of front line nurses, by the end of the war many had been awarded medals and honours for their huge contribution to the war effort.