Unveiling Women in War: The Voluntary Aid Detachment during the First World War

When Canadian men rushed to the recruiting stations in 1914, professionally trained nurses could enlist with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC); the first contingent, composed of 101 nursing sisters, sailed for England as early as September 1914. [1]  For women who were not trained nurses, however, there were relatively few opportunities to actively participate in the war, much less overseas. One such opportunity was the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Image: V.A.D. M. P. Banks Album, Collections CCGW/CCGG
Several of our readers might be familiar with the Volunteer Aid Detachment nurses during the First World War; the famous figure Amelia Earhart volunteered as a VAD nurse at Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, ON. Organized by the Canadian Red Cross and St. John Ambulance, Voluntary Aid Detachments were recruited as nurses’ aides, ambulance drivers, cooks, kitchen-maids, and clerical staff in Canada, as well as overseas. While the detachment was initially intended to be composed of men and women alike, male recruits were, not surprisingly, drawn to the armed forces. As such, the Canadian VAD program was made up of women who were primarily young, single, and from middle or upper class families. [2] By 1917, over 2,000 women were trained and qualified as VAD nurses; an estimated 500 would see active service in overseas hospitals.
Unlike professionally trained nurses in the CAMC, VADs were unpaid and were not subjected to military hierarchy in the same way as military nurses. When nursing sisters joined the CAMC, they were not only given military status but were also given officer rank. VADs, on the other hand, were considered civilians. Throughout the war, CAMC hospitals were opposed to permitting VADs to work in their overseas hospitals. The fear was that the status of the Canadian nursing sisters would be undermined by the presence of unqualified volunteers. [3] Nevertheless, VADs were welcomed in British military hospitals, in which 500 Canadian VADs eventually found a post.
Once stationed in a British military hospitals, Canadian VADs were under the supervision of professionally trained British nurses. They assisted with various nursing tasks, such as making beds, serving meals, ensuring the comfort of soldiers, and in some instances, helping clean and dress badly infected wounds and performing night duty in sole charge of a ward. [4] M. P. Banks was one such VAD who worked in an overseas hospital. Above is an image of a passage from Phyllis Broadhead in her autograph album which reads:

“Your album is your garden plot

Where all your friends may sow

And I too in that quiet spot

Would sow the seed for-get-me-not”

It was common for VADs to circulate autograph albums throughout the hospital to collect messages, poems, cartoons, and signatures of soldiers they nursed back to health, nurses they trained under, and doctors they crossed paths with. They were messages that not only provided a temporary relief from the realities of war but also highlighted the different ways the war was experienced.
The image of a woman patiently and lovingly supporting her husband as he fought for freedom overseas was a popular propaganda tool used during the war, but women’s wartime experiences extended far beyond waiting and worrying for their husband’s return. Rather, their experiences legitimized the complete opposite. Receiving no remuneration and little recognition, VADs were eager to ‘do their bit’, an opportunity that was otherwise denied to the women of Canada.
[1] Nicholson, G.W.L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. (A.M. Hakkert Ltd: Toronto, 1975), 51.
[2] Quiney, L. J. “Hardly Feminine Work!” Violet Wilson and the Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses of the First World War. In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 289.
[3] Quiney, L. J. “Borrowed Halos: Canadian Teachers as Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses during the Great War,” Historical Studies in Education 15(1), 2003, 87.
[4] Ibid, 82.

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