Over 90,000 people volunteered for the British Red Cross at home and overseas during the Great War, providing vital aid to naval and military forces and caring for the sick and wounded. County branches of the Red Cross had their own Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) made up of both men and women. The VAD’s work included such jobs as nursing, transport, rest stations, working parties and auxiliary hospitals. They ran libraries, did air raid duty, and a service that is still being used today – Missing and wounded service.
As women volunteered for jobs normally undertaken by men prior to the war it enabled over 11,000 men to be released for military service of some sort.
Did you know that Agatha Christie, volunteered for the Red Cross before publishing her first novel in 1920 and worked in a Torquay hospital. Her work, dispensing drugs, gave her an insight into poisons – this information she used in her books. Vera Brittain, famous for her ‘Testament of Youth’, joined the VAD in 1915 and by 1917 was working in France. Enid Bagnold, of National Velvet fame, served in London. Did you also know that E M Forster, novelist, critic and essayist, was a pacifist and instead of fighting he worked with the Red Cross. Lady Diana Manners, mentioned in an earlier article, – reputedly the most beautiful woman in England at the time and it was expected that she should marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was not enamored at her joining the VAD. Diana stated in her memoirs, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. “She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them,” The Duchess relented “… knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand,” Diana says, and goes on to admit, “I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years.” The VAD plunged her and other young ladies into four years that would change their lives forever. I’ll dot in a few more volunteers further down the page.
Deaths – even though the VADs were non-combatant, they suffered many deaths. During the war,it is estimated that 128 nursing members and over 100 other VAD members not all directly working for the Red Cross died or were killed. The Roll of Honour contains records of the deaths of 498 Joint War Committee members. This figure includes 8 VADs who died as a result of the sinking of the SS Osmanieh on 31 December 1917. The vessel was contracted by the British navy and was struck by a mine laid by the German submarine UC34 and sank, killing 199 people. They are remembered at the Alexandria (Hadra) War memorial cemetery. The most common cause of death of the VADs was pneumonia caused by Spanish flu.
An obituary in the Red Cross Journal, 1918 stated:
“Miss Elger died on February 10th from pneumonia following influenza… For two and a half years she was a devoted and conscientious worker at Clayton Court Hospital, where her loss is felt most keenly by all who knew her. Clayton Court, it will be remembered, was most generously placed at the disposal of the Red Cross by Mr and Mrs Elger early in the war. After doing so much to help their country, it seems hard that they should have to bear this further personal sacrifice”.
The Red Cross has recently transcribed personnel records and at the moment surnames starting with the letters A and B are currently available to search. Volunteers are still working to update the site with more names. One such volunteer was Achsah Bradley of Westbourne, St Andrews Avenue, Morley. Her record card shows that she had originally lived at Denshaw, Morley. Achsah served from March 1917 to January of 1919. Her work as a Special Service Probationer, a pantry worker, was at Roundhay Auxiliary Military Hospital, Leeds, where she worked part time. In total she worked 3,920 hours, which roughly equates to nearly 40 hours per week for her 2 years’ service.
One of the gentlemen who volunteered was Retired Major Ernest James Gibson Berkley of 70 Camberwell Road, London, S.E.5. Major Gibson served from June 1918 until June of the following year, working as a Divisional Inspector, with duties at the P.M.O. Hospital, and Southward V.A.D. Hospital. He had been awarded the M.B.E. and O.B.E. Major Berkley, in 1911 was aged 49. He gave his occupation as ‘SURGEON MAJOR R A M C T CAPTAIN HUNSBURY’. Information about him can be found in The Gazette here and here. Probate for Major Berkley tells that he died on 30th of April 1928 and Probate (to Barclays Bank) revealed that he left £20813 5s 7d. His wife will can be found here.
Source – The Red Cross archives
Four years of our war website