VAD Nurses and the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Etaples

The VAD Organisation

Following the end of the Boer War, the War Office was concerned that in the event of another war, the medical and nursing services wouldn’t be able to cope. The peacetime needs of a standing army, in relation to medical care, were very small and specific, and to find thousands of trained and experienced personnel at very short notice, without the expense of maintaining them in peacetime, was a difficult problem to overcome.

B. Haldane’s new Territorial scheme of 1907 solved some of those problems and opened up new possibilities of cooperation between voluntary agencies and the Army, and on the 16th of August 1909, the War Office issued its ‘Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales,’ which set up both male and female Voluntary Aid Detachments to fill certain gaps in the Territorial medical services, with a similar scheme for Scotland following in December of that year.

By early 1914, 1757 female detachments and 519 male detachments had been registered with the War Office. The detachments were intended for home service only, to staff auxiliary hospitals and rest stations and they received no payment or salary for these duties – all the women would have been in a position at least initially, to give their services for free. Detachments had to meet at least once a month, with many meeting as often as weekly, and women had to work towards gaining certificates in Home Nursing and First Aid within twelve months of joining. They learned to bandage, do simple dressings and the basics of invalid cookery and hygiene. In some areas, it was arranged for them to go into local hospitals for a few hours each week to gain an insight into ward work. Due to the low number of men being recruited in certain places, women could also gain experience in outdoor activities, stretcher duties, the transport of sick and wounded and improvisation with whatever came to hand.

When war came, the Red Cross and Auxiliary hospitals sprung up rapidly in church halls, public buildings and private houses, accommodating anything from ten patients to more than a hundred. The proportion of trained nurses in the units was small, and much of the basic work was the responsibility of the VADs – they cleaned, scrubbed and dusted, set trays, cooked breakfasts; they lit fires and boiled up coppers full of washing. They also helped to dress, undress and wash the men – which was of course a big step for young women who may never have been alone and unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex before, other than their brothers.

During wartime, the VAD organization was administered by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John and run from Devonshire House in Piccadilly, loaned for the War by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. There were about 50,000 women involved in the movement immediately before the war, and it’s thought that in total somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 women served as VADs at some time during the war, some for very short periods, some for up to five years. Although many members of Voluntary Aid Detachments left memoirs and accounts of their own wartime lives, there is little written about the VAD organisation itself, and it’s not easy to discover the inner workings of the organisation, its day-to-day life, the administration and the difficulties.

St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital – Étaples

Maintained and equipped primarily at the expense of the Order of St John, the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples was the largest voluntary hospital serving the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. The hospital had a staff of 241, all from the St John Ambulance Brigade supplemented by VAD nurses, and was considered by all who knew it to be the best-designed and equipped military hospital in France, caring for over 35,000 patients throughout the war.

As a Base Hospital, patients received by the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital came from the Casualty Clearing Stations, which were situated a few miles behind the front line. It provided treatment, surgical support and some degree of convalescence to patients before they were evacuated to hospitals in the UK or returned to their units. During the course of the conflict, the hospital was expanded several times. Initially containing 525 beds, when it opened in September 1915, the hospital was able to accommodate 744 patients by spring 1918.

On the night of the 19th May, the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital was hit by a bomb which killed five members of staff. Shortly after, on 31st May, a second bomb hit the hospital, resulting in eleven deaths and sixty casualties. This second attack left no department undamaged and rendered the hospital incapable of continuing its work. The decision was taken to move what remained of the hospital up the French coast to Trouville, where it operated from October 1918 to 1st February 1919.

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