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.

13 thoughts on “For King and Country – VAD nursing auxiliaries

      1. hello there
        I have put up a photo on your FB page
        I fear my Mama did not say a great deal about hr service, I do have
        photos of various other bits and peices.

      2. Thank you Jennie. Your mother looked beautiful – and very happy! I think she is typical of so many who gave so much during the war but never spoke about it. I suppose, to them, it was just what everyone else was doing and nothing special. But to us, their family who come after them, it is such an important part of their lives which we all wish we could share.

        I have added the picture of Jennie’s mother to the post (above)

  1. Listed on the WWI war memorial at the Eastern Cataract, Victoria Falls, Livingstone, Zambia to the Northern Rhodesians who gave their lives: Nurse MGA Beaufort VAD (Kaloolah)
    Courtesy of Peter Jones

    1. Thank you for this Jennie, very interesting. The bravery of these women is often forgotten, and it is good to see you bringing their war-time experiences to our attention.
      As always, women did not get the recognition they deserved. Some VAD’s were only paid 6p a day. On the other hand, a private only got £2 a day. I’m glad that things have changed and people, both men and women, get paid a more realistic salary today.

  2. My mother Isobel Mary Cumming was a VAD nurse in WW2 and was one of the 200 VAD’S on board SS Strathnaver that sailed from Gourock to Bombay. She nursed in Chittagong, Burma, Singapore & Hong Kong. Prior to thiis she was involved in the Clydeside blitz in Glasgow and spent two years at Galloway House in Dumfries & Galloway. I would be interested to hear from anyone who had relatives who were on the Strathnaver or worked overseas where my mother worked.

    1. What an interesting service record, you must be very proud of your mother.
      I do hope that anyone who has relatives who served with her or in the same theatres of war will contact you here. Good look in your search.

  3. Jennie Upton kindly mentioned that Nurse Beaufort was from Northern Rhodesia with VAD Kaloolah but sadly who was killed during WWI. Where could I find more information about her service?

    1. Hi Peter,
      I have forwarded your message to Jennie and left it up to her whether she would like to contact you or not. Other than that I’m afraid I have no further information. Do you know anything more about VAD’s in Rhodesia or other African countries?

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