VADs - the Very Adorable Darlings of WWI
The Kent volunteers cared for more casualties than any other county
Richard Linning, Sandwich resident
On 14 October 1914, a telegram informed Quex Park that one hundred Belgian soldiers, survivors of the fall of Antwerp, would shortly arrive in need of emergency hospital accommodation. Thus was the Quex Park VAD Hospital mobilised. Almost overnight there were eighty-five VAD hospitals up and running in Kent until January 1919.
Those who fought and died in the First World War are rightly commemorated, but the contribution of the other volunteers – including members of the Voluntary Aid Detachments – should be remembered too. It is 110 years since the Kent VAD - Voluntary Aid Detachment - was created on 15 August 1909.
After the Boer War, the War Office feared another war in which the military medical and nursing services would not be able to cope with the casualties. The solution - co-operation with and between voluntary agencies. In Kent, Voluntary Aid Detachments were organised by 'Kent VAD', a joint committee of the Kent Territorial Association, the Red Cross and the Order of St John. By the outbreak of war, there were fifty VAD detachments in the county.
When war came, there were just three military hospitals within the old Kent County boundary - at Chatham, Folkestone and Woolwich. The latter, providing 629 beds, was one of the largest in the country.
VAD auxiliary hospitals rapidly sprung up across the county in church halls, public buildings and private houses, providing nearly five thousand beds for anywhere from ten to more than a hundred patients. They ranged in size from the Village Hall, Ash to Mr Justice and Lady Sargeant’s residence St Anselm’s in Walmer, and then, to cope with growing demand, their new home General’s Meadow. Another, the Grange, now the Brewood School in Deal, had 28 beds and became famous as the site where a German spy was arrested while posing as a wounded Belgian soldier.
Trained nurses were in short supply, so much of the menial work was the responsibility of the VADs – they cleaned, scrubbed and dusted. They also helped to dress, undress and wash the men – which was of course a big step for young women who may never have been alone and unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex.
But that was not the worst of it, especially closer to the frontline. “Their bodies viciously mutilated, blasted apart by relentless artillery and machine gun fire, their uniforms in shreds, their limbs blown away or shattered to pieces, they gazed at nurses with soulless, desolate eyes”, as Penny Starns wrote in Sisters of the Somme
, “amidst an ever extending carpet of blood and khaki, nursing sisters, VADs and orderlies attended to their vast array of patients.”
The toll that this took is plain in the experience of Ramsgate born Clarice Spratling, who volunteered in 1915 and served in France. Clarice's diary(i)
includes accounts of shocking injuries, and of the distress of men wounded and gassed, all set down in plain and seemingly unemotional prose: “Dec 21st 1915: Gas boy died; Jan 2nd 1916: Men had eyes removed’." The diary(ii)
“begins in perfectly formed handwriting and ends in February 1916 with a series of scribbled, disjointed entries … which reflects the writer’s frame of mind.
VADs were an uneasy addition to military hospitals. Relations improved as the war continued: as VAD members demonstrated their skill and efficiency, trained nurses were more accepting of them.
By war’s end, VAD membership included volunteers from across the Empire. An ANZAC VAD, Elsie Eglinton, found the hardest part of the job was caring for dying fellow countrymen. “I shall always remember his clear bright face as he clasped my hand and said Goodbye”.
One nickname for the VADs was Very Adorable Darlings.
The majority of VADs operated on the Home Front. So-called ‘mobile’ VADs served in France, Belgium, Egypt, France, Gallipoli, Malta and Mesopotamia. In 1914, there were 40 thousand volunteers in 1800 detachments. By the end of WW1, they numbered 126 thousand with 243 killed, 364 decorated and 1005 Mentioned in Despatches
The one hundred and twenty-one auxiliary VAD hospitals in Kent accommodated far more wounded soldiers – both ally and enemy - than any other area of the country, and by the end of the war had cared for 125,000 patients – thirty per cent more than any other county in England.
The KCC Exploring Kent’s Past lists 52 monuments in the county to the VAD. In St George the Martyr Church in Ramsgate, a memorial brass reads Beneath this Red Cross/flag of Kent 2nd VAD/2073 sick and wounded were/nursed in Ramsgate/between Oct 10 1914 and Oct 17 1917/first in the Royal Sailor’s Rest/and subsequently at/Nethercort, St Lawrence/in addition to British and/colonial troops from the armies/in France and Flanders and the first/Belgians to be received/In England (Oct14)/were nursed in this hospital./In grateful remembrance of/ suffering bravely borne/and service gladly given/this flag was offered/dedicated and deposited in/the Victory Chapel of St George’s Parish church, Ramsgate/ Feb 20, 1920.
Last year a permanent memorial to the VAD and professional nurses who lost their lives in the two World Wars was dedicated at the National Memorial Arboretum. Today the Nursing Memorial Appeal charity is focused on supporting humanitarian and conflict nursing training. This is to ensure a permanent living legacy linking yesterday’s heroines and tomorrow’s savers of lives.
This contribution is a longer version of a feature article which first appeared in the East Kent Mercury on 14 August 2019.