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VAD Nurses at Work

The Red Cross and The Order of St John of Jerusalem organised Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), made up of men and women, in every county to carry out transport duties and staff rest stations and hospitals. By October 1910, 202 detachments had been registered with over 6,000 volunteers. Membership of the detachments grew still further on the outbreak of the First World War when the Joint War Committee was formed.

Over time the men and women who comprised the Voluntary Aid Detachments became known as VADs. 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 who had no diminished capacity.

VAD Nurses

Above: This WW11 photograph depicts Red Cross V.A.D. nurses and soldiers who had suffered injuries to their arms. Three Red Cross male personnel are also in attendance.

A day in the Life of a VAD nurse
Those who work in a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D). hospital have, on the whole, an easier time than those in a military hospital. The hours are shorter, and allowance is made for human weakness by more regular time off every day and precious half-days off every week. On the other hand, the military hospitals offer you gold for your services not very much gold, but enough to live on. Thus you cease to be a voluntary nurse in the accepted sense, but you are still under the wing of either the Red Cross or the St John’s Ambulance.

The day work begins at 7 a.m., when the kitchen staff and the housemaids arrive, and the hospital is swept and polished, the beds are made, and the men’s breakfast is served. The men who are well enough to get up are expected to help make beds and sweep the wards. After breakfast the night nurses go off and the day nurses arrive.

This is the most instructive time for the V.A.D. nurse, for now the dressings are done by the sister in each ward. In most of the military hospitals the professional probationers help her, and the V.A.D. only picks up unconsidered trifles of knowledge, but in the V.A.D. hospitals she is at the right hand of the sister, and if she has the good fortune to work under one who knows how to give the amateur credit for slight signs of human intelligence she soon becomes a very useful member of the nursing staff.

The doctor’s round is the chief event of the morning, and after that the men who are well enough go out for a walk or drive or pass the time with needlework and games in the recreation room. The afternoon is spent by the men in sleeping, walking, or entertaining visitors, and by the V.A.D.s in light ward work, such as washing and ironing ties and bandages, tidying the lockers and medicine cupboards, and cutting up dressings. The afternoon is the time when the wards are expected to be in perfect order beds not an inch out of line, castors all turned the same way, nothing unnecessary on the lockers, and no speck of dust anywhere.

The evening again bristles with work and interest. Dressings and fomentations to put on, beds to be made, medicines to be given, and hot-water bottles to be filled. At 9 o’clock the lights are turned out, the night sister and her nurses come in and take possession, and the day staff is dismissed.

Thekla Bowser, author of "The Story of British V.A.D. Work in the Great War", describes work for V.A.D.s in France:

"There are hundreds of V.A.D. members working as nurses and orderlies in the great Military Hospitals at the various Bases; there are dozens of members working in the same way in Auxiliary Red Cross Hospitals; there are members who spend their whole lives on railway stations, attending to the wounded as they come straight down from the firing line. There are Units of girl motorists who drive ambulances, and dozens of others who run canteens for convalescent soldiers who have not had the luck to be sent to England and who are sadly in need of the understanding word given by a woman whilst she ministers to their physical comforts. Some V.A.D. members do nothing but clerical work, many being engaged in the sad labour of trying to trace “Missing” men."

"There are in France a great many large Hospitals which come under the general term of Red Cross Hospitals. This means that they are not General or Stationary Military Hospitals, but are kept up by Red Cross funds and are staffed by Red Cross members, though in every case fully trained Sisters are in charge of the wards. In these Red Cross Hospitals the work for V.A.D. members is apportioned with the greatest care. There are those who have had some nursing experience who are put into the wards to act as probationers under the Sisters. When there is a big push on, and the Hospital is filled to overflowing by wounded men who come down direct from the Front, these girls have the chance of proving themselves exceedingly useful to the Sisters."

In 1909 the British Red Cross became involved in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) scheme. It was decided that volunteers should wear an official uniform to reflect this role. In 1911 a uniform sub-committee recommended the adoption of a standard uniform ‘having regard to economy, utility and the practical duties the Red Cross detachment would be required to perform on mobilisation’.

The men’s uniform consisted of a blue tunic, breeches, wrap around leggings called 'putties' and a peaked cap. A greatcoat with the Red Cross emblem sewn on the breast was worn outdoors. At the outbreak of the First World War this uniform was issued to Red Cross volunteers in standard British army khaki green.

The Red Cross women’s VAD nursing members’ uniform was described as:

"A blue dress of specified material (red canton for commandants, blue lustre for members) to be in one length from throat to ankle, and sufficiently full to be worn, when necessary, over ordinary dress. To be buttoned in front under a two-inch box pleat, slightly gathered in front at shoulder and neck and finished with one-inch-wide neck-band on which to fasten white collar. The bottom of skirt to have a two-inch hem and two one-inch tucks. The sleeves (commandant) to be a small bishop shape with a three-inch wrist-band and fastening with two buttons. The sleeves (member) shall not come below the elbow. Ground clearance (pre- 1917) four inches; (1917–1930) six inches."

"A starched “Sister Dora” cap worn across the head."

"1911–1915: “Sister Dora” pattern in one piece, having a three-inch hem to turn over in front, which is square, the other part being rounded, having a narrow hem and a flat tape stitched round from hem, and 12 inches in from the edge, through which a narrow tape is run for drawing up."

"1915–1930: an oblong of white cambric or linen, unstarched, in two sizes, 28 inches by 19 inches, or 27 inches by 19 inches, hemstitched all round two inches from edge, placed centrally on the head, the front edge to be worn straight cross the forehead and the two corners of front edge brought straight round the head fastening at the back with plain safety pin over the folds. The Red Cross emblem at centre front was introduced circa 1925."

"Stiff, white, stand-up shaped, linen collar of the improved “Sister Victoria” pattern, fastened by one or two white studs or a soft turned-down collar of white linen that may be worn with the working dress and fastened with a safety pin brooch bearing the Society’s emblem, viz. a shield with a red cross on white ground."

"For the nurses, white linen oversleeves, 15 inches long, fastening at cuff with one button and with elastic at elbow. For the commandant, stiff white linen oversleeves, fastening with one white stud."

"A white apron with the Red Cross emblem displayed on the bib. Made of linen, with bib pleated in band and continuing in straps (without join), cut in three widths and pleated in band at sides. On both sides is a large square pocket stitched on, the front part of pocket having a narrow strip continuing upward and stitched in the two-inch waist-band, fastening at back with linen button, the straps crossing over and also buttoning about five inches from either side of centre at the back. The Red Cross of Turkey twill, 4 inches in height and length, and of the authorised Geneva pattern, with each limb 1 inches square to be sewn on centre of bib, the bottom of apron being finished with a two-inch hem. Length to be the same as overall."

"A starched white linen belt, two and a half inches wide, starched, to be worn over apron."

"Ordinary black boots with black stockings."

Estimates for uniform material were requested from well-known firms and one was selected based on quality and prices. A permit was obtained from the War Office for the cloth to be purchased and an application had to be made to the controller of woollen and textile fabrics at Bradford. They allowed the selected firm a certain amount of cloth per week for making nurses’ uniform coats. When coats and hats were received from Home or Foreign Service they were inspected and if they were considered to be satisfactory they would be cleaned and relined for re-use which saved hundreds of pounds.


1. Edwardian Promenade – Edwardian History:  http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/
2. Red Cross:  http://www.redcross.org.uk