Guest post by Emily Goetsch, Enquiries Assistant.
Women were an integral part of British efforts in the First World War, and Voluntary Aid Detachments were one of the main mechanisms through which women served. The concept behind these units, which provided nursing services in Britain and abroad, emerged from a 1904 government report which documented the Japanese voluntary aid system at that time. This report proved to be highly influential and in 1905 the Red Cross was re-organised, connected to the War Office and then later linked to the Territorial Forces Associations.
In further developing these efforts the War Office officially began its scheme of male and female Voluntary Aid Detachments to the Sick and Wounded (VADs) in August 1909. VADs were organised for Territorial Forces Associations by the Red Cross and volunteers were given both first aid and nursing training. This structured training and organised units provided a way for women to contribute in a major way to wartime efforts, treating the wounded, healing the sick and saving lives.
The National Library of Scotland holds a range of texts, documents, drawings and photographs which attest to demands of the job and the character of these women. P.C. Gabbett’s ‘ Manual for Women’s Voluntary Aid Detachments’ (1912), Sylvester Bradley’s ‘Voluntary Aid Detachments in Campaign’ (1913) and the pamphlet containing ‘General and Training Regulations for Voluntary Aid Detachments’ (1925) lend a sense of the rigour and responsibilities that these posts required. The introduction to the ‘General and Training Regulations for Voluntary Aid Detachments’ indicates both the importance of the VADs and the emphasis placed on training. It explains: ‘In all recent wars voluntary aid has played a part. Owing to economic conditions, the medical services of the Crown will rely still more on such aid in future wars. It is of first importance, therefore, that the members rendering it should be well trained and organised.’ Each of these aforementioned documents goes on to describe training, organisation and procedures of the VADs in great depth, providing invaluable information about the standards and approach to medicine that were embraced by volunteers.
First-hand accounts and stories about female volunteers offer a greater sense of the courage and skill required of these women. Texts such as ‘Johnnie of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ (1920) and the memoirs, poems, letters, pictures, cartoons and photographs compiled by Joyce Drury in ‘We Were There’ (1997) further suggest the trials and tribulations of the volunteers. The personal narratives recounted in these texts give a voice to women from across Britain who devoted their time, care and compassion to the cause. The stories recount an array of experiences and emotions, which range from holiday adventures with other volunteers to descriptions of bombs and other horrors of war. The accounts are personal and individual, shedding light on the experiences of real women who served heroically.
In addition to these textual sources, the National Library of Scotland’s online resources, namely the First World War Official Photographs include images, which document different aspects of a VAD’s work. From driving ambulances to running into action to treating soldiers, visual documents help to contextualise the rich and varied work of these women.
While these are just three types of documents that might be used in investigating Voluntary Aid Detachments in greater detail, they suggest the type of material available in the National Library of Scotland. Much information about the conditions, circumstances, skills and personalities of these women can be gleaned from the texts and images, which are accessible through the main catalogue and well worth consulting.