The relationship between professional nurses and VADs during World War One.
In her diaries Edie quite often expresses her views on the VADs
(Voluntary Aid Detachment)
who worked alongside her in
I should explain that part of my motive for putting this page
together is an attempt to provide a useful resource for those interested
in the nurses/VADs relationship and in the hope that, for example, when
they are depicted in TV and film dramas, their relationship will be more
accurately shown. I was moved to do this by a heartfelt cry from
Sue Light in her blog, This Intrepid Band -
course, Edie doesn't provide the full picture but her diaries are an
honest and forthright contemporary account of how it was.
I should explain that part of my motive for putting this page together is an attempt to provide a useful resource for those interested in the nurses/VADs relationship and in the hope that, for example, when they are depicted in TV and film dramas, their relationship will be more accurately shown. I was moved to do this by a heartfelt cry from Sue Light in her blog, This Intrepid Band - see http://greatwarnurses.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/parades-end.html. Of course, Edie doesn't provide the full picture but her diaries are an honest and forthright contemporary account of how it was.
So, let Edie’s own words speak for themselves. Below are all the references to VADs from the four volumes of her diaries spanning the period 1915 to 1918. I have highlighted the sentences which refer specifically to VADs but I’ve also left in some of the surrounding text to provide context. At the head of each section I have shown the link to the full original text on Edie's website.
A lot of the references are quite brief and trivial but, as a whole, I believe they show that Edie had a positive view of the VADs with whom she worked so closely in often very stressful situations. I hope this collection sheds some light on a working relationship which is often misunderstood or – worse – misrepresented. I have tidied up the text a bit (Edie loved using dashes) so it reads more fluently. Otherwise it is as she wrote it.
If you wish to quote any of the text you are welcome to do so but please:
Dick Robinson – September 2012.
There are no clear references to VADs in Volume One of Edie’s Diaries.
Volume Two is in two parts.
Part One spans the period 25 July
to 20 November 1915.
Part Two runs from 21 November 1915 to 25 April 1916.
In the train between
November 29th 1915.
4 pts to CC 4 to
There is little to say about the sturdy pusher ones; they are not remarkable for anything, but are quite reliable, very strong, never forget and are always ready to do every bit of work.
3 very charming V.A.D.s asked me for a little jaunt with them in
what they call the “buss”. It really is quite a good “Ford” car. We went
for a glorious 2 1/2 hours spin and went through pretty villages and
country to Harfleur and saw the damage done by the explosion they had at
the bomb factory on the 11th of last month.
The church was a good deal broken and the windows of houses smashed. At
some place dead in the country we passed a real old French chateau with
a moat round it - quaint very old towers and lovely grounds belonging to
it. We stopped just to gaze at it for a little while. We halted at a
place called Gonville [Gonneville-la-Mallet] at the famous old
inn with old French china on all the outside walls: plates, dishes,
mugs, jugs, all stuck on with cement or mortar. The lunch is intensely
interesting, too. Kitchen a wonderful array of highly polished brass and
copper. Upstairs is quite a museum of curios of the war and some older.
In the dining Hall are many panels beautifully painted by different
artists who have spent holidays at the
January 17th 1916. Quiet night, the only excitement being a man in for quite a different thing suddenly found both legs paralyzed. The M.O. can’t understand it and thinks he may be hysterical. I don’t agree. Had a lovely day y’day. Skipped my walk and bath and all such wholesome things and went straight to bed and slept all day. It was glorious, only I wanted to go on sleeping when they called me. One poor little V.A.D. was pathetically sleepy and very funny. Her ideas of night duty when she is sleepy are worth hearing. She is a clever little wretch and has a sketch book in which she has caricatured V.A.D.s in all circumstances, the C.O. etc. Tonight is freezing cold, blue moonlight, very calm. The reflection of the moon in the sea was so beautiful. I made the Sisters come and look at it. The sight of the cliffs in the moonlight is past description. Now for my 3rd round.
January 27th 1916. Quiet night. I have sent the V.A.D. on duty in this building “La Plage” to bed for 5 hrs. She is new to night duty and has hardly slept all day. I have thoroughly enjoyed being alone and have seen all sorts of interesting people and things in the fire.
Hardly slept at all today. Nurses are the most inconsiderate wretches
under the sun – they tramped about slammed doors and pulled plugs to
distraction, then the orphans were let loose to kick tins and play and
the paper man blew his horn, toot tooting and yelling “Petit Parisien”.
Now at 1:30 a.m., I feel
I shall bust if I don’t say what is truly unkind: that the V.A.D. who
sits in this room will drive me to drink – she talks tracts, gives
tracts and is bulging with saintly and innocent holiness till I could
shriek. I once met her equal at Cousin Walters, but thank Goodness – he
went away by train.
February 6th 1916.
Quiet night – no excitement so far.
March 26th 1916. A day of quick change: handed over Casino 3 and 4 to Ritchie, took over D. Roche; 3 hours later was sent off to be ready for night duty. Thomas (T.F) had an operation suddenly and I am doing night duty. She is so far doing well and a good patient. She had a lb.2 cyst removed from her inside. Not off duty yesterday - none of the threatened sisters have come. There are two tiresome little V.A.D.s in the room next this coughing their heads off - I never did like coughs. I have filled them up with glycerine, lemon and given them hot milk but still they bark.
March 31st 1916. My 6th night 2/3s done – not much like active Service. My patient has slept all night and I have sat in a chair. I am looking after a sick V.A.D. too; have been to her room twice, both times the door has made a disastrous noise but she has not stirred.
am looking after a sick V.A.D. tonight, an elderly woman – the image of
Hartigan - who has travelled and read and lived. I have just been
chatting to her. She is from No. 10
The next selection of extracts is taken from the Third Volume of the
May 10th 1916. Yesterday was ditto of the day before, except there were no operations owing to workmen in the theatre. Gave Cummings 1/2 day, hope she spent some of it in buying a new cape – she is not remarkable for tidiness, but works well. Little Johnstone, an excellent V.A.D. came to me in place of – let me think – who was the last – Ernest.
May 13th 1916.
As usual. 5 operations, 2 cases to
May 18th 1916. 5:30 a.m. Glorious morning tide far out. The brown rocks look well in the sunshine covered in patches with vivid green seaweed. Off duty yesterday evening. Called with Matron on the Chauffeur V.A.D.s. They have a glorious house and garden. Their unit consists of 17 persons. 14 Chauffeurs, a cook, housekeeper and housemaid. I was talking to the housemaid and admire her very much. Such a nice well educated girl. I think she sometimes wishes she were doing more than housework for the War but, I argued with her, that it was a necessary job and personally I rather admired the people who took the out of sight jobs or quietly carried on with necessary peacetime work and so I do. They have asked us to tea on Monday. After that I took Matron to the garden of the house where the Mother is English and we roamed all over the place, but found no one. Later Maxey and I went, found the gardener, and he gave us each a double arm full of flowers for the wards. I don’t expect Miss McC. and the D.G. will come before tomorrow, but still – it’s all right – I must get up early this morning as a convoy is coming.
May 19th 1916.
Scott, Palmer and Sheard returned from leave last night. Maxey and 3
V.A.D.s – Sutherland, Craig, Williams went. They should have had a
glorious crossing judging by the sea this morning.
It was No. 1 train that brought
our convoy. My old chum Paterson came up to see me. She is not looking
at all well and dislikes train life. I always feel I should like it for
a bit. Last night I helped Maxey to get off then
after first supper went for a
stroll in the gloaming with Miss Atkinson; poor thing she is being sent
May 20th 1916. Quiet and beautiful weather day yesterday. We were all on duty in the afternoon in accordance with Matron’s wishes that we should be at our posts if the great ones came to inspect. We sent the V.A.D.s off on conditions they kept their weather eyes lifting and came back at the first sign of Miss McC.
May 22nd 1916. Sunday yesterday went to early and evening services. Glorious day, we were duly inspected by Princess Victoria, Princess Christian’s daughter. I hope she is not a spy, having a brother with the Germans does put one off her a bit. She seemed to like everything. The V.A.D. Chauffeurs lined their convoy of cars up and stood by them in the square and were the first visited. P.V. shook hands with them all and they made their curtsies to her. Lady Guernsey and two other ladies were with her. Poor little L. Guernsey is a charming young thing. She lost her husband at the beginning of the War and has been running a French hospital at Fécamp ever since. After the inspection they all came to tea with us. Princess V. and the 3 ladies with her, Miss McCarthy, Col. Jenkins - a Staff Officer, the A.D.M.S., our C.O., and about 6 M.O.s. The V.A.D. drivers and a bunch of us.
May 26th 1916. The convoy came in at 5:30 a.m. y’day and we were all called for first breakfast. About 300 chiefly medical cases came. Mine were – many of them – poor old worn out things who had been out all through the war and were going home for a rest. In one room I had a Q.M.S. aged 59, a C.Q.M.S. and a S. M. and another old thing all about the same age. Going round last night Major Martyn said, he thought the best thing to order for them was a stiff brandy and soda each and a good sleep. So they had the first and I hope by now have had the other. McFarland, V.A.D. left for some other hospital yesterday. They keep nibbling at our staff, but are not so good at replenishing it!
May 27th 1916.
Very busy day yesterday. I had
to send one of my V.A.D.s to help in Casino 5, which I did gladly as it
was to enable them to give “Barber” the Appendix man from us, a nurse to
himself. He is doing badly - may even be dead now. The English
patients did not go so with one thing and another the day was quite
full. Off in afternoon, picked marguerites along the
May 31st 1916.
A convoy of about 300 arrived yesterday which filled us right up and
overfilled the hospital. Some will be going on to
The glorious 1st of JUNE 1916. Lovely morning. Ascension day. I have called some of the others to get up for Early Service, but am not going myself. I never did go to the Early Service at home, on Ascension Day. Yesterday was a blessedly peaceful day. No one had a half day. The orderlies odded round and looked up equipment for the monthly inspection and my two V.A.D.s and I had ample time to enjoy and perhaps spoil the patients. It must be a ghastly thing to be buried alive. One of my men was. He knew his company was shorthand and the chances were he would never be found as only part of one hand was showing. His head was doubled over on to his chest and there was only ventilation enough for him to take short slow breaths. There was a tremendous weight on his shoulders sandbags and earth. He spent the time wishing he had been killed outright by a shell instead of being buried in a mine. When at last they got him out he fainted and knew no more until he was in hospital. He is a quaint dreary creature - says he will never be the same again. Had another of the Chauffeuses in for treatment yesterday. She had crushed her hand in trying to take her tyre off. Quite a nice youngster. It seemed to open her eyes to be in a Sisters Bunk for a bit. When I had cleaned her hand up I left it to soak in lotion, while I did the diets and saw about various things. The orderlies came up and I did each one’s diets with him, then the V.A.D.s came to know what to do - of the treatment and a thousand odd things, then I finished the sore hand and sent her off. She came in the evening again to have it looked at and said: “I had no idea you had to do such a lot of things - you seem to have to see about everything.” I told her that was the Sisters job. I think she had an idea that the Chauffeuses were the people who counted and we amused the patients, meanwhile.
Ascension Day Festivities were held in perfect weather and the place
swarmed with happy trippers of all classes. They started pouring into
the town at an early hour on bicycles and walking pushing perambulators
full of babies and food for the day. Later on the carriage folk rolled
up in dog carts, landaus and motor cars. It was just like a Regatta day
at home. All the flags were flying and people dressed in their Sunday
best. The event of the day was the Annual service to ask a blessing on
the sea for the use of “the fishermen - and all save our enemies.” The
first part of the service was held in the church. Then they came down to
the sea a long procession of first the newly confirmed children in their
robes and ties carrying banners, then the very young orphans,
beautifully dressed, the girls in white with white wreathes, instead of
hats and the boys in smart little suits of all sorts from Lord
Fauntleroys to sailors.
After them the choirmen, black cassocks, lacey surplices, acolytes in
scarlet and lace and the Priests magnificently robed in handsome lace
and yellow silk etc. Our R. C. Padre took the leading part and wore most
wonderful robes; there was something that looked like Brussels lace
almost trailing the ground. When they got to the shore the Priest (our
R. C.) and his acolytes and the man bearing the crucifix were pushed out
to sea in a little boat and the blessing was asked from there. After
that they processed back and the rest of the day was en fête. In the
afternoon our Scottish Canadian band from Havre played in front of the
Casino. The bagpipe turns caused great excitement.
It was not by any means all
unselfishness that made me send both V.A.D.s off - and the Orderlies
turn about for the afternoon and quietly kept house and patients myself.
I loathe a crowd and I saw a good deal from the windows – all the
June 15th 1916.
Extract from last night’s Orders “all clocks will be …… so that 11 p.m.
will become 12 midnight..” and so it did. At least some of us put our
watches on at bedtime from 8:30 to 9:30 and this morning I woke at 6
instead of 5:30 so the jerk was not so sudden. It must have given them
great joy on night duty to move the clock on. Yesterday from 6 p.m. we
were officially recognized as a 950 instead of 750 bedded hospital. Our
share in the annexes amounted to putting 60 mattresses down with
blankets which gave us a good deal of furniture moving to do.
June 28th 1916. The sea is calm so perhaps some of us will venture for a bathe in an hour’s time. Went for a walk with Miss English – driver V.A.D. a nice girl. A youth in the ward has his 21st birthday yesterday – some gave him a party. It was a great success. There were 13 of them but 2 had to feed early as they were leaving so only 11 sat down together. They had a real gorge of strawberries and cream and cakes and were very happy. The dear old vet. said never had he seen such a tea, he only wished he could have had a photo of the table! They are such dear grateful creatures. I heard on good authority that in future V.A.D.s are to be paid £20 a year only. No allowances and their camp kit to be handed in when they leave. And a good thing too, I always have felt very strongly on the subject: we trained people hardly smelt money for our three first years and worked much harder. These people have had money simply pushed at them with the result that absolutely unsuitable ones have joined for the sake of the money. Perhaps now each one will do what she is best at. Yes.
July 6th 1916. I give up description. It beats me. In ordinary times we get a telegram from Abbeville saying a train with so many on board has left coming to us. Then they stopped giving numbers, just said “full train” Now not even a telegram comes, but the full trains do. Yesterday in addition to our 1300 beds we took the lounge of a large Restaurant, the Orderlies barracks the Ambulance garage and the Casino front and part of the Officers Mess and used all except the Garage which is ready for today. We were not able to send any on as the boats were full. So if full trains continue to pour in today we shall have to start on private people’s houses. I have 41 German prisoners amongst my lot. How many English I don’t know. I hadn’t time to make lists they just sent in as many as they liked – it is just a case of all houses over full. The Restaurant lounge and Officers mess belong to me too. Some of the men are terribly wounded – 8 have died and more will. One thing to be grateful for – very few officers came down with the last lot. It is wonderful how sufficient work makes one not mind certain things . Unpleasant insect companions are the terror of my life. Many came down with the Tommies and some have transferred their affections to us and we hadn’t a quarter of a second to hunt them so just forgot all about them until bed time which came late. It is a mercy to have had dry weather for the men we have out in the open. My Germans see very little of me or of my V.A.D.s. Some must do without a woman’s care and be left chiefly to Orderlies so with pleasure they may. Some of them are Prussians and very bitter, so they can just get on with their bitterness. Yesterday I had to close the shutters of their room – the French people were treating us like a peep show. Now I must get up. What is before us today; I only think for the moment and dress and go to breakfast which is not difficult or unpleasant.
It is to be hoped our attacking
is doing useful work for the War – we are paying a tall price! Every day
now we have trainfuls down, the place is thick and threefold with them.
The Surgeons are amputating limbs and boring through skulls at the rate
of 30 a day and not a day passes without Death taking his toll. My
German prisoners have gone to
July 14th 1916.
Calm day. My two ill boys are still one very ill, D.I. the other
a little better. If only I knew the creature had no bits of shrapnel in
his lungs I should be much happier, but am terribly afraid he has.
Had a glorious 1/2 day yesterday. Sister Nicholas looked after my ill
boy for me. Matron and I went to Havre by the C.C. car. She had to see
the P.M. I watched patients loaded on to the
July 31st 1916.
Miss Blakely and 5 or 6 V.A.D.s
came to tea here from Havre yesterday - they like this place. I
don’t so much on Sundays. It is crowded with smart cars and ultra smart
August 6th 1916.
I’m too headachy and bored to write my diary.
August 9th 1916.
It is getting uncommonly parky in the early morning; of course we must
not forget that 5.30 is really 4.30 so it would be cold. Quietish day
yesterday. Sent patients to
August 19th 1916.
I see by yesterdays Casualty lists that 4 nurses have been wounded. I
knew one of them – Miss Tunley was Matron at No. 10 Stationary when I
was. Funnily enough she was told by a fortune teller there, that she
would be sent up the line and would be wounded! That was nearly 2 years
ago and she has been to
October 2nd 1916. Rampant day yesterday I sent 16 of the least bad Germans to the Canadian Hos. at Havre. They did look quaint! dressed in funny old brown civilian caps! and tweed caps - they really looked like robbers and yet some poor cringing creatures amongst them. They were not pleased to go. Those remaining are stinking with gangrene and ought all to be operated on but they must wait until our own Tommies have had their turn in the theatre and even now there are quite 30 urgent English cases still not done and the theatre people are working night and day as it is. I gave each V.A.D. 1 hour off duty and the orderlies a short spell I can’t get off as I have no one to leave in charge. Must get up now for early breakfast.
October 10th 1916.
I sent 3 of my Bosches to
The final selection of extracts is taken from Volume 4 of Edie’s diaries
which covers the period
June 25th 1918.
I awoke this morning to find the weather had changed from very rough
high wind and sea to a gentle breeze and sea dead calm. If I were an
artist I would show you what I can see from my window. The cliff edge,
with many crows very busy along it, and beyond a big, wide stretch of
calm grey blue sea, one little steamer and about a dozen fishing smacks
getting on with their daily work.
A sad tragedy happened at
5 yesterday morning. A mental patient, a lady driver, managed to dodge
her special attendant and flung herself over the cliff. Her body was
soon picked up quite smashed in every part. She evidently meant to do it
as she had left letters for people telling them so.
It is said she had a similar attack a few years ago and her
father insisted on her coming out to
The poor suicide girl was
buried yesterday. To my way of thinking far too much of a pageant was
made of it. There was a long procession headed by the C. Camp band. The
ambulance with the coffin smothered in flowers first then all the
Drivers - about 40 - then the girls own car also full of most lovely
flowers, then big contingents of M.O.s, Sisters from 47. G.H. our own
hospital, the Can[adian] and American hospitals, men from the C.
Camp. then the [D.D.M. crossed through. Ed] our own
The whole thing reminded me of when the bomb victims were buried at Abbeville. I was on my way to the Station with some patients, and all round the Cathedral was so absolutely blocked by debris of fallen houses, about 20 hearses gaudily trapped with the bodies of the dead and a crowd of 100s and 100s of civilians seething round. Our M.P.s were keeping order and sending all traffic another way.
July 6th 1918. Had a delightful day off yesterday. Breakfast 8.45 a.m. brought by my kind ward V.A.D.s. Sewed and enjoyed myself until 10 o’c, then dressed and prepared lunch for two of us - Hansard the other - and at 11.30 we started for a long walk to the Woods of Eu.
September 4th 1918.
October 11th 1918. We had an unusually busy day. I have only one staff nurse and two V.A.D.s at present. On that day my staff nurse and one V.A.D. went sick and two blue boys [Patients who were well enough to be up and dressed were given blue suits to wear] whom we have taught to help us with the dressings had to be kept in bed - high temperatures and sore throats, but the 2 G.S. girls, which were all I had of them, turned up trumps and we got through all right by the end of the day.
from Sue Light
These were General Service VADs. They were a different breed to
the nursing VADs, and more akin to the women's army. They first went out
Peace talk seemed all fizzled out yesterday and now the popular opinion
is 2 years more! It is no good going by papers or popular opinion - we
must just wait and see.
What a difference! I have only 40 beds in
my ward now instead of 60 and the work is decreasing in heaviness. Of
course we have and shall have for some time heavy surgical cases in but
it is a very different matter nursing them, when they are well
established: no shock to contend with and no convoys in khaki all
smothered in mud and blood straight through from the fight. They all
come down nicely washed and in pyjamas now. They don’t mind half as much
being marked “Base” or “C.C.” (con. camp). No, things are quite altered.
Instead of bustling off a large number to