- from 'the War Illustrated', 28th September, 1918
- 'Glimpses of V.A.D. Work'
- by Olive Dent
- Author of the well-known book "A V.A.D. in France'
How Women Rallied to the Call
playing chess with a wounded soldier
The hotel foyer and lounge on that August day of 1914 were crowded. Women in dainty, diaphanous gowns moved about restlessly, aimlessly, or sat in a stupor of overwhelmed dismay. Hard-headed, shrewd business men chewed unconsciously at cigars, or puffed vigorously at cigarettes. Calamity had overtaken us. The incredible had happened. England was at war.
My companion and I moved away from the telephone to which we had been called to have a golf foursome cancelled, "And don't wait dinner, for we don't know when we shall get away."
We turned towards the door seeking air, and on the pavement without an unending stream of people seethed by. A man, turning sharply, knocked from the arms of a little girl the doll she was carrying. It fell, face downwards, on the flagged pavement. The child stooped to pick it up, and as she looked at the pitiful little travesty of a face, the smashed composition, the in-falling tousled hair, 'the naked' bifurcated metal with the obtruding, glassy eyes, a poignant wail of concentrated grief broke forth.
"What are you going to do?" said my companion, thinking of the immediate present, and scarcely comprehending the baby tragedy enacted before our eyes.
Ready for the Call
"What am I going to do? Nurse look! That is symbolic. That tiny tragedy is going to be magnified and multiplied millions of timesRachel for her children weeping in a quintessence of bitterness, not to be comforted. Our manhood is going to be called upon to pay in blood, our womanhood in tears. Our woman-heart is going to be anguished, our mother-heart torn in twain. This is going to be a woman's as well as a man's war. There is the symbol that shows us our duty. Generally, man's share of war is the destructive, woman's the constructive."
"My dear, you are overwrought, and not seeing things in their right perspective. There are enough nurses to attend to the Army. Amateurs will be neither welcomed nor wanted, either as soldiers or nurses. The regulars will see this matter through. Don't exaggerate things."
My sanguine friend was of the type that regarded the work done in connection with the Voluntary Aid Detachments as inexplicably and unnecessarily enthusiastic. At that time there were working throughout the British Empire many such detachments.
These detachments were composed of men's and women's branches, each taking organised and consecutive series of lectures in first-aid, home-nursing, and nursing work under field-service and active-service conditions, with special attention always to improvisation. These lectures, held in winter, were followed up during the summer by competitive tests, camp practices, and field inspections. Observation visits to hospitals and clinics, as well as practical work in civil hospitals, were also arranged.
Such work was extremely interesting, though many of its devotees were regarded by their friends as asniable faddists, since "England, of course, would never be at war." Many members convinced, however, of the utility as well as the attraction of the work, continued it.
Similar, if not exactly parallel, work was meantime being done by the British Red Cross Society, the two wisely joining forces in 1916, and continuing to work under a joint committee.
The earliest recruits to active servicethe "Old Contemptibles of the V.A.D.'s," as a khaki man recently called themconsisted of volunteers from the detachments already in existence. They were women who had had a Varying number of years' experience of "ambulance work," in some cases as many as ten and even fifteen. They were women bidden to the work by a lofty patriotism, an enthusiastic loyalty, a very real love of mother-country and fellow-men.
Those people who interest themselves in the question of the woman slacker, and those who have occasionally heard sweeping statements about "butterfly" voluntary nurses, may like to learn of those early recruits. They represented a body analogous to that of the New Army. For just as men of all classes flocked to the flag, so did the women enrol in the voluntary nursing army.
Of many classes, they included womenand, indeed, girlsof title, women who were known and valued for their public services, professional women who abandoned work of lesser for that of greater importance, university graduates, as well as stay-at-home girls who had hitherto spent most of their energies on sports. Their records at Devonshire House will show that the majority spoke French, some "fluent French and German," some few "French, German, and Italian," that their certificates included among others those of the Institute of Hygiene, first-class advanced physiology, first-class cookery and housewifery diplomas, full massage diplomas, as well as B.Sc, B.A., and M.A. degrees, the L.R.A.M., and numerous other qualifications which were to prove useful to V.A.D. work.
Hard WorkNear and Far
This high standard of merit and ideal is still maintained in measure, though naturally only in measure. The latest V.A.D. recruits are, as a rule, perforce younger and less experienced girls, the age limit for nursing service in a military hospital being twenty-one and in an auxiliary hospital nineteen. At the same time, it must be realised that every effort is made to secure the type of girl qualified for the work, and capable of giving that efficient and thoroughly reliable service which is at all times demanded from those in attendance on our wounded men. How did the "Old Contemptibles of the V.A.D.'s" acquit themselves? The growth of the S.J.A. and B.R.C. organisations and of their activities supplies the answer. They worked day after day from half-past seven in the morning until eight o'clock at night, with ? the three hours a day off duty liable to be cancelled whenever occasion demanded.
V.A.D.'s have worked or are working in France, Belgium, Italy, Salonika, Russia, Rumania, Serbia, Malta, Egypt, Gibraltar, Mesopotamia, India (local detachments), and in the internment camps in
Switzerland and Holland. They have served in hospital ships, and are serving in military and Red Cross hospitals both at home and abroad, in hostels, in clubs for nursing sisters, and in the W.A.A.C. and W.R.N.S. sick-bays, while their motor-ambulance service is on a large scale, and their general-service work of long standing and much appreciation.
They have earned foreign decorations, in addition to a few rare and prized military medals for bravery under shell fire and devotion to duty under bombing from enemy aircraft.
Disablement has not passed by the members of the corps, while death has claimed its quotafrom drowning, bombing, spotted fever, pneumonia, and other causes. One V.A.D. has recently reached her destination after a third attempt she has been torpedoed twice and is still undeterred.
Life as a V.A.D. on active service is often very vivid, realistic, concentrated. We have our many and numerous "crowded hours of glorious" existence, which one presumes to be so much more vital, and certainly more amusing, than fame.
Contrasts at most times have been sharp. Their piquancy has occasionally hurt, at other times been wholly attractive. In one marquee the Shadow of Death, in another a rollicking, whistling chorus to the music-of the gramophone ; a classical honours man and a prizefighter in adjacent beds ; a girl with a name in Debrett washing the face of a man who in civil life was a bricklayer, chattering to him in the trench jargon which is the hall-mark of the perfect nursing hostess in those distant marquee:,. How happy has been the work in the wards, and how impossible it is to express adequately the courage, the grit, and the sportsmanship of our men !
And how jolly is our communal life in the nursing quarters living like a glorified Swiss Family Robinson. Tlie good fellowship of these days is something to cherish. The enjoyment of after-dinner and highly unconventional entertainment round the hut stove in winter, and of the alfresco midsummer-night's hospitality in the bell-tents, will, long linger in an affectionate memory. So, too, will our popular half hour "snack " mealat one particular hospitalfrom 9.30 to 10, when plain living and high spirits were the order of the morning.
In winter a more than adequate crowd toasted its bread and. burnt its mittens over a totally inadequate mess fire, while in summer the table was brought oat under the acacias.
The mealconsisting of bread and cheese, or bread and dripping, with tea from an exhausted, work-weary teapot-was the cheeriest of the day. . Occasionally the conviviality bordered on the uproarious. Around were grouped various members of our democratic and representative "Kitchener Army" nurses. The informality favoured the airing of all camp gossip, and also the propagation, indeed the origin, of endless delightful and totally impossible rumours which everyone laughingly repeated, and no one even momentarily believed.
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