Voluntary Veil: The Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment in the First World War

the following blog post was written by Museum of Health Care Curator Maxime Chouinard

Today, the Museum of Health Care is unveiling its newest onsite exhibition titled Trench Menders: Health Care in the First World War. This exhibition centers on the work of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the Great War and its accomplishments in the fields of medicine, dentistry, nursing and many others. Although the CAMC was essential to the wellbeing of the soldiers, it is easy to forget that other groups also participated in the effort and often received very little attention after the War. One of those is the Voluntary Aid Detachment or VAD.

CWM_MCG 19920143-009
Posters such as these would have decorated St.John Ambulance offices during World War 1 and convinced more than 2000 women to join the VAD. CWM 19920143-009, George Metcalf Archival Collection © Canadian War Museum / Musée canadien de la guerre

Before the mid 19th century, women had a discreet but ever-present role on the battlefield, mostly as camp followers. When women such as Florence Nightingale started to demonstrate the value of military nurses, armies began to slowly, but surely assign them to their medical services.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment arrived at a pivotal time in history. The VAD was organized mainly through the Red Cross and especially in Canada through the Order of St. John. The Detachment offered an opportunity for women to participate more actively in the war effort. While working class women would find employment in the war industries, in the field, or keeping the family business running while the men were away at war, voluntary work was not an option.  Upper class women would often choose to help  raise funds or fill white collar positions left vacant, However, that was often not enough for many of them who desired a more active role.

The First World War had mobilized women as part of the armed forces. Nursing sisters had been professionally trained in their trade at home and received an officer rank upon joining the military. It was seen as a great leap forward by many. The creation of the VAD was then seen by many as a threat to professional nurses’ job security as well as to the respect acquired by their community since Nightingale. [1]

Contrary to the Nursing Sisters, VAD nurses were not trained, at least not to the same degree. They were not paid and were not subjected to military hierarchy in the same way as military nurses, as they were considered civilians. Nonetheless they were under the supervision of the nursing sisters and their matrons. Most of them came from the upper and middle classes and this created conflicts with the nursing sisters; who were mostly from the working class. In this regard the VAD nurses did not always accept being ordered by nursing sisters. This created resentment from the latter and the VADs were sometimes criticized for their lack of respect for military and hospital hierarchy.

For these reasons the military was  hesitant to send VADs overseas and thus they mostly served in Canadian hospitals at homes with convalescent soldiers. Their perceived lack of regard for hierarchy and their voluntary nature made the Canadian officers uneasy at the idea of employing civilians who did not shared the same culture and feared their lack of allegiance, rank and pay might become a problem when having to take orders. As the war dragged on and the number of casualties severely increased, it became evident that VADs had to be sent overseas.
VADs were in a sense an equivalent to Victorian mission workers; young women who could offer their maternalism to the good cause.  Most of them came from the world of banking, clerical work, public service and even teaching.[2] The St. John Ambulance could not hope to train nurses in a few weeks and so their role was mostly to assure that the candidates had good maternal abilities through their “well-bred nature.”[3]

Their duties included changing beds, feeding and cleaning the wounded or even driving ambulances. At certain times they might have also been called upon to assist nursing sisters in dressing the wounds of soldiers back from the trenches; quite a traumatic experience for many. They would also be given the responsibility of night watch on hospital wards, sometimes ending up as the sole medical staff on the floor.[4]

Vera Britain made the participation of British VAD nurses known to the public and also brought to light the brutal nature of the war from a woman’s direct perspective. The Vera Brittain Literary Estate, 1970/The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library CWM19920143-009	 George Metcalf Archival Collection			  © Canadian War Museum / Musée canadien de la guerre
Vera Britain made the participation of British VAD nurses known to the public and also brought to light the brutal nature of the war from a woman’s direct perspective.
The Vera Brittain Literary Estate, 1970/The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library

Unfortunately for us the Canadian VADs did not leave us any type of memoir or testimonies. As a result we often associate them with the Division with the United Kingdom where figures such as Vera Britain in her memoirs titled “Testament of Youth” which opened many people’s eyes to the role of the VAD and offered a woman’s perspective on the nature of war.[5]  It also helped to strengthen an emerging feminist movement in Britain and abroad.

While we cannot claim such literary work in Canada, we do have one famous figure who took up the VAD veil during the war: Amelia Earhart. Although American, Ms. Earhart came to visit her sister who lived in Toronto during Christmas of 1917. There she met with soldiers returning from battlefields of Europe and decided to join the VAD at Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto where she prepared food and dispensed medication. Some authors have attributed her subsequent career as a famed airplane pilot to the contact she had with military airmen at the hospital and outside – Toronto being rather well equipped at the time with training grounds for the Royal Flying Corps. She told reporters that “The interest aroused in me in Toronto led me to all the air circuses in the vicinity.” [6]

Amelia Earhart as a VAD nurse in Toronto, 1917. Amelia Mary Earhart Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Amelia Earhart as a VAD nurse in Toronto, 1917. Amelia Mary Earhart Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

By 1920 the service was disbanded. The VADs received little public appreciation for their service. Military funeral service was arranged for those who died while serving in Europe and some regional commemorations were also organized in St. John, Newfoundland where $4000 was raised in 1920 to erect a monument for the 60 Newfoundland VAD women who served in the war. Most of these women returned to their prior lives and remained quite discreet about their involvement. Recently their story has received increased attention by the academic community and possibly that their role will in turn receive further public recognition.

Bibliography

Linda J. Quiney. “Borrowed Halos: Canadian teacher’s voluntary aid detachment nurses during the Great War,”Historical studies in education, 15, 1 (2003): 79-99.

Linda J. Quinney. “Assistant angels”: Canadian women as voluntary aid detachment nurses during and after the Great War, 1914-1930. University of Ottawa (2002).

Mary S. Lovell, “The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart,” St. Martin’s Griffin , (2009): 31

[1] Linda J. Quiney. “Borrowed Halos: Canadian teacher’s voluntary aid detachment nurses during the Great War,”Historical studies in education, 15, 1 (2003): 79-99.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Linda J. Quinney. “Assistant angels”: Canadian women as voluntary aid detachment nurses during and after the Great War, 1914-1930. University of Ottawa (2002).

[4] Linda J. Quiney. “Borrowed Halos: Canadian teacher’s voluntary aid detachment nurses during the Great War,”Historical studies in education, 15, 1 (2003): 79-99.

[5] Linda J. Quinney. “Assistant angels”: Canadian women as voluntary aid detachment nurses during and after the Great War, 1914-1930. University of Ottawa (2002).

[6] Mary S. Lovell, “The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart,” St. Martin’s Griffin , (2009): 31

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3 thoughts on “Voluntary Veil: The Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment in the First World War

  1. Hello. I am earnest in trying to identify a Toronto Canadian VAD as the BRCS Archives Museum does NOT record her. Her name was Amabel Reeves. I also could NOT find Miss Reeves (maiden name) in the Linda J. Quiney 2002 U of Ottawa PhD. Can someone please tell me what Quiney’s email is as of 2017 so that I can contact her? Also does anyone know if the St John Ambulance Society of Canada has formal archives, an archivist and/or lists / dbs of Canadian WWI VADS? Tx John

  2. Do you have the source for the 1920 raising of $4000 to erect a monument for the VAD women? I would like to find out if it was built.

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