Monthly Archives: September 2015

Book Review – ‘Angels At War’ by Freda Lightfoot

Angels At War ‘Angels At War’ tells the story of the Angel sisters in the turbulent years of 1910 to 1918. I had anticipated that this book would be a light read yet, although the writing is not overly heavy or verbose, this is not a simple historical romance of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again. Those elements are a part of this novel, but it goes on to be much, much more.

The Angels are sisters (their story begins in ‘House Of Angels’ although ‘Angles at War’ can be read as a stand-alone novel). The characters are well drawn and have depth; all with their good points and their bad, their strengths and weaknesses. The plot is intriguing and moves at a good pace, encouraging you to turn the page and keep reading.

What I was not expecting from this novel was such a masterly handling of the social and political history of the time, which Ms Lightfoot tells through the narrative without the reader ever feeling that they are being lectured to. The description of a turn of the century department store is intriguing, and its modernisation during the novel fascinating. Reading what happened to the suffragettes during their fight for emancipation is enlightening and humbling – the marches and arrests, the prisons and force-feeding are cleverly woven into the story. The description of the work of the VAD’s in hospitals, both in England and on the front line in France, is gripping.

This book seems to have everything, from the excitement of war to everyday domestic life, from male domination to female emancipation, from jealousy to love. Livia is a strong central character whose choices in life are often not the right ones, leading to unhappiness for herself and others. But her choices are always made for the right reasons, in an effort to help those she loves and, as such, she is an endearing character. I think many readers will recognise a lot of themselves in Livia, or one of her sisters.

This book, for me, was a pleasant surprise, which is something I always like. If you are interested in the past but don’t like a heavy history book – or a novel that reads like one – you will find ‘Angels At War’ informative and enlightening, yet entertaining and easy to read. I will certainly be buying more books by Ms Lightfoot.

Freda Lightfoot’s website

‘Angels at War’ can be found on Amazon

For other books I have enjoyed please visit my ‘Book Review’ page

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For King and Country – VAD nursing auxiliaries

Have you heard of the VAD’s? You may have read about them or seen them in a movie. But who exactly were they, and what did they do?

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was a voluntary organisation which provided field nursing services which were of vital importance during the two World Wars as well as during other conflicts. The VAD was founded in 1909 when the War Office put forward a scheme which allowed the British Red Cross to provide supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service in the event of war. In 1914 The Red Cross was joined with the Order of Saint John (the St John’s Ambulance) to form the Joint War Committee (JWC). The idea was to make sure that they worked together efficiently in helping the military hospitals; it was thought safer for the St John’s volunteers to work under the protection of the internationally recognised Red Cross symbol. There were over 2,500 Volunteers in Britain at the outbreak of WW1, by the end of 1914 there were 74,000, two thirds of whom were women and girls who also wanted to do their bit during the conflict.

WW1 recruiting poster for the VAD's
WW1 recruiting poster for the VAD’s

The British Red Cross were reluctant to send civilian women to work overseas as most of the Volunteers were from the middle and upper classes and would have found it difficult to cope with the unaccustomed discipline and hardships. The Military authorities also refused to accept the VAD’s at the front line. It was not until three VAD’s, led by Katherine Furse, went to France in October 1914 as canteen workers that things began to change. The women were unexpectedly caught in a battle where they helped out in the emergency hospital. Those in authority on the front line saw how well the women acquitted themselves and, as there was a growing shortage of trained nurses, this opened the door for the VAD’s to serve overseas – as long as they were over 23 and had more than 3 months hospital experience.

Coming from privileged backgrounds and with no real medical training the VAD’s were often critical of the nursing profession on the one hand and criticised for their own lack of experience and discipline on the other. It made for an uneasy relationship with the military and the doctors to begin with, but relations improved as the Volunteers gained more experience.

Between 1914 1nd 1918 over 38,000 VAD’s served as cooks and ambulance drivers and worked in hospitals in all theatres of war from the Eastern Front and Middle East through Gallipoli and on the Western Front. They also served in convalescent hospitals back in the UK. From being resented at the outbreak of war the VAD’s came to be highly respected and many were decorated for distinguished service.

Between the two World Wars the VAD were reorganised and Volunteers were trained to work as nurses, radiographers, pharmacists, clerks and laboratory assistants. When the Second World War broke out the British Red Cross and Order of St. John joined together again to form the Joint War Organisation (JWO). There were also women who had been living abroad with their husbands, notably in the Far East, when war was declared, and they formed local VAD groups. A number of these became prisoners of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. During WW2 the VAD’s consisted of some 14,155 Red Cross members, 1,695 from the Order of St John’s cross and 21 from the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association.

Kath Lewis who served as a VAD in WW2
Kath Lewis who served as a VAD in WW2

The VAD’s were opposed to the Governments proposal in 1942 that they should join with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and they were supported in their campaign to remain a separate organisation by The Times newspaper. There was a commission of enquiry and The War Office eventually ruled that they should retain their identity and be given new responsibilities.

Being a member of the VAD was just one of many roles that women took on during the two great wars of last century, proving that they had just as much to offer as their male counterparts and spearheading the way for future equality for women.

Please click here to see an example of what life was like for one VAD during World War 2. Kath Lewis served as a VAD at RAF Halton. You can also find out about VAD’s by reading about my fictional heroine, Sarah, in Heronfield.

Were you or one of your relatives a VAD? Do you have a story to tell? If so please leave a comment and tell us all about it. Thank you!
Please see here for further information on the VAD’s

Jennie Upton has commented on this post and sent a picture of her mother who served as a VAD in Kenya.
Jennie Upton has commented on this post and sent a picture of her mother who served as a VAD in Kenya.
Isobel Mary Cumming 1941
Thank you to Alison Bilynskyj for this photograph of her mother, Isobel Mary Cumming, who was a VAD. The photo was taken in 1941. I’m afraid I don’t know where she served.

Book Review – ‘To Defy A King’ by Elizabeth Chadwick

To Defy A King

This year we are celebrating 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta. Why did the barons come together to write the charter, and force King John to sign it? Why did the king renege on his promises? 1215 was a turbulent time in English history and in her novel, ‘To Defy A King’, Elizabeth Chadwick brings this period to life. Set in England from 1204 to 1218 the story immerses us in England’s conflicts with France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Roman Church. Following the characters we are able to see how these conflicts influenced the actions of both the barons and King John.

 

The novel begins with Mahelt, daughter of William Marshal (Earl of Pembroke), becoming betrothed to Hugh Bigod (future Earl of Norfolk). The marriages of children of important families in medieval England were arranged for political expediency, not for love. However, Mahelt and Hugh grow to love each other as they struggle to cope with an endlessly changing array of family and political alliances. The Marshal and Bigod families find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict surrounding King John, with Hugh’s family helping to formulate the Magna Carta in the hope of limiting John’s power whilst the Marshals stay faithful to their oath to the King, no matter how much they disagree with him. When John breaks his promises there is turmoil and conflict in England, including a French invasion. Throughout it all Mahelt and Hugh have to tread a knife-edge to protect their family and lands. Only with the death of the King is Mahelt able to re-unite her birth family and marriage family, and look to the future with hope.

As always, the historical research conducted by Elizabeth Chadwick in writing this novel has been immense. We know from history that these people existed. We know where they were at certain times and what their political persuasions were, who they fought for, who they loved. What Ms. Chadwick has done, with great skill, is to bring these people to life. One can only speculate on personal relationships so long ago (although there are hints in some of the historical documents Chadwick has used for her research), but it is this rich development of character which brings the novel to life. If you have no knowledge of medieval history when you pick up the book, by the end of it you will have some understanding of what it would have been like to live in King John’s kingdom – food, clothing, living conditions, family duty, loyalty, political and religious beliefs – for this is a book which immerses you in all aspects of medieval life.

Elizabeth Chadwick has a flair for descriptive writing with pace and believable dialogue. Couple this with well-rounded characters, an historically accurate story and a remarkable depth of research, and you have a book which will keep you hooked from start to finish. If you enjoy historical fiction Elizabeth Chadwick will become one of your favourite authors – if she is not already!

(Elizabeth Chadwick has written a number of novels set in this era featuring the Marshal and Bigod families. You can find the chronological order here on Ms Chadwick’s website. I decided to recommend ‘To Defy A King’ because of its link to the Magna Carta although it is not the first in the series)

‘To Defy A King’ can be found on Amazon.