Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Country House, Exhibition, Film, History, History of Medicine, Maritime History, Motoring History, Museum, World War One, World War Two

Very Adaptable Dames & The Crimson Field: Stories From The Great War – Part 3

Uniforms worn by the British Red Cross Nursing VADs in both World Wars. Left-hand side is World War Two and right-hand side is World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.
Indoor uniforms worn by the British Red Cross Nursing VADs in both World Wars. Left-hand side is World War Two and right-hand side is World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire. Photograph ©Come Step Back In Time.

Later on this Spring, a new six-part drama production The Crimson Field (previously known as The Ark) will be aired on BBC One.  Written by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations, Eastenders) and directed by David Evans (Downton Abbey, One Night), Richard Clark (Doctor Who, Life On Mars) and Thaddeus O’Sullivan (Silent Witness, Single-Handed).

Set in a field hospital on the coast of France during The Great War, The Crimson Field, features a team of doctors, nurses and women volunteers (Voluntary Aid Detachments – VADs) battling against the odds to save the lives of men wounded in the trenches. The hospital becomes a frontier between battlefield and home front where class and gender frictions are rife amongst a group of men and women thrown together under extraordinary circumstances.

The cast includes: Oona Chaplin (The Hour, Quantum Of Solace), Hermione Norris (Spooks, Cold Feet), Suranne Jones (Scott And Bailey, The Secret Of Crickley Hall), Kevin Doyle (Downton Abbey, Scott And Bailey), Kerry Fox (Shallow Grave, An Angel At My Table) and Marianne Oldham (WPC 56).

Actress Oona Chaplin, who plays VAD Kitty Trevelyan, comments:

‘The War To End All Wars’ – unfortunately that wasn’t the case. We keep fighting each other and committing horrific acts of violence. Although the technology of war may be different, the people have hardly changed, which Sarah Phelps has captured here so beautifully. In The Crimson Field we follow men and women on their journey of survival, their struggle with meaning and love, and the small victories that mean so much.

(From Press Release issued by BBC for The Crimson Field, 4.2.2014)

Actress Hermione Norris, who plays the field hospital’s Matron, Grace Carter, adds:

The emotional and psychological impact World War One had on a generation and beyond has always held a deep fascination for me. Sarah Phelps has crafted a compelling script with rich and complex characters who really explore the depth and impact of love and loss in this heroic, yet tragic period in British history. It’s a privilege to be involved in this BBC production 100 years on, bringing the drama of World War One into the hearts and minds of this generation. ‘Lest we forget.’

(From Press Release issued by BBC for The Crimson Field, 4.2.2014)

In the firm belief that prevention of distress is better than its relief, and that employment is better than charity, I have inaugurated the Queen’s “Work for Women Fund”. Its object is to provide employment for as many as possible of the women in this country who have been thrown out of work by the war. Mary R.

(Queen Mary’s Message to the Women of Great Britain, August 1914)

World War One was a time of unprecedented change in the roles of women in society. Before the outbreak of war, opportunities for women to obtain paid work were limited, apart from obvious roles in domestic service. Approximately four hundred thousand domestic servants left their jobs in order to take-up roles as part of the war effort. Once war had been declared, in August 1914, wider employment opportunities slowly materialised, attracting thousands of women to volunteer their services.

Trade unions agreed that, for the duration of the war, women could be employed in roles previously occupied by men. This agreement was known as ‘Dilution’ but came with the strict understanding that once war was over, women would leave their jobs thus creating re-employment for returning servicemen. However, many firms went on to retain their female workers after 1918. A shortage of able-bodied men returning from war necessitated this course of action.

Women in the factory of Taskers metal works and engineering company, Andover, Hampshire.
Women working in the factory of Taskers metal works and engineering company, Andover, Hampshire during World War One.  Image from the collection at Milestones Hampshire’s Living History Museum, Basingstoke.

Production at Hampshire-based metal works Taskers, thrived during World War One and many of its employees served in the armed forces. Women were recruited to Taskers in large numbers to fill the workforce gap and some were retained after war had ended. A number of men, who had previously worked at Taskers, died or were seriously injured in the conflict. The Managing Director’s son, Henry, was shot dead. A former apprentice who worked at Taskers during this turbulent time, recalls:

Some who returned to work suffered or were handicapped as a result of being gassed or injured in some other way. ‘Sab’ Hallett was invalided out and came here to work as a turner in the erecting shop. He had been gassed. Our Managing Director had lost his oldest son Henry shot, but his second son Cyril returned from the Navy to the firm here at the end of 1919.

Girls and women workers were brought into the firm and apart from Shell work were employed working shaping machines, painting and in the saw mill and carpenter’s shop. I well remember the fun getting the two in the carpenter’s shop to know how to handle the woodwork tools….It was generally felt that our cause was a righteous one, and that our mates on the front-lines in France would expect us to be really behind them. After the Armistice many of our girl and women war workers remained working at Tasker’s works and were called ‘The Hangers On’.

(Unknown oral history interviewee, recorded 1964. Transcript on display at Milestones Hampshire’s Living History Museum, Basingstoke).

Below are statistics showing the number of women employed, across a variety of different roles:

  • 113,000 women joined the Land Army;
  • Around 950,000 women worked in the munitions industry;
  • 38,000 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs) staff were women and girls;
  • Over 57,000 women served in the Women’s Auxilliary Army Corps;
  • First Aid Nursing Yeomanry won 17 Military Medals, 1 Legion d’Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre;
  • 9,000 women were recruited into the Women’s Royal Air Force;
  • Over 5,000 women served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service;
  • Nearly 200,000 women were employed in government departments.

(From, The First World War, 2014, p.21, published by Hampshire Record Office: Archive Education Service)

According to historians, Neil Storey and Molly Housego:

Many ladies had taken over the vacancies to carry out simple clerking and shop work in local businesses, factory work (such as boot making or tinned foods) and light agricultural work (such as fruit picking or helping with the grain harvest) since August 1914…On 17 March 1915 the Board of Trade issued an appeal to women to register for ‘war service’ work at their local Labour Exchange…After the first week of the announcement over twenty-thousand registrations were received the take-up by employers was slow…

(Storey N. R., and Housego M., 2011, p. 31, Women in The First World War, Shire Publications)

Following the introduction of the Military Service Act and conscription in 1916, the window of opportunity for women seeking employment changed dramatically. Initially, the Act specified that all single men aged eighteen to forty-one years old were liable for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of a religion. By the Summer of 1916, conscription was extended to married men and eventually the age bracket extended to fifty-one. This meant that by 1918, more than a million women were employed in previously male-orientated occupations:

Far more women were taken onto the national workforce in 1916 after the introduction of conscription saw thousands more men leave their places of work to serve in the forces. More women were becoming drivers of horse-drawn delivery carts as well as motorised vehicles and vans. Many upper-class women could already drive, and a number of them owned their own cars drove for the Royal Automobile Club Owner-Drivers’ War Service Corps.

(Storey N. R., and Housego M., 2011, p. 33, Women in The First World War, Shire Publications)

Mary Sangster, a Hampshire VAD.
Mary Sangster, a Hampshire VAD. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

The VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) played a significant part in the war effort. Formed in 1909, in every country, with the aim of providing assistance during time of war. Both men and women could join a detachment to undertake a variety of roles such as cooks, kitchen-maids, clerks, house-maids, ward-maids, laundresses, motor-drivers and of course nurses. When war broke-out, the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John formed the Joint War Committee in order to pool both monetary and human resources. Members of both were organised into Voluntary Aid Detachments. The term ‘VAD’ later come to be used when referring to both an individual member as well as an entire detachment:

There is not, and never has been, any reasonable doubt as to what constitutes a fully trained nurse…In every large hospital there is a matron, and there are sisters, staff nurses and probationers. The matron and sisters are addressed by their titles, but staff nurses and probationers are alike addressed as ‘Nurse’. A probationer of only one day’s standing would consequently be called, for example, ‘Nurse Jones’…It was, therefore, in accordance with the usual practice that a VAD member engaged in the nursing department of any hospital should be called ‘Nurse’.

(Notice issued by the Joint War Committee, reprinted in Storey N. R., and Housego M., 2011, p. 22, Women in The First World War, Shire Publications)

All VADs were trained in basic first-aid and others would then go on to specialise and receive further training in nursing, cookery or hygiene and sanitation. All VADs had to pay for their own training, food, sleeping accommodation and uniform, which for a nurse cost £1  19s  2 1/2d.  It was not surprising then that many VADs came from middle and upper-class families who had plenty of free time on their hands, financial resources and could work for free.

1915 VAD recruitment poster. It was so successful no other design was needed.
1915 VAD recruitment poster. It was so successful no other design was needed. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

The iconic 1915 VADs recruitment poster was so successful that it was the only one ever needed and by 1918 there were twenty-three thousand nurses and eighteen thousand nursing orderlies that had joined a detachment. At end of the war, ninety thousand people had joined the VADs. When peace returned the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John became two separate voluntary aid societies once again but the VAD scheme continued until the 1930s.

There’s no Xmas leave for us scullions,

We’ve got to keep on with the grind:

Just cooking for Britain’s heroes,

But, bless you! We don’t really mind …

We’re baking, and frying, and boiling,

From morning until night’

But we’ve got to keep on a bit longer,

Till Victory comes in sight…

Yes we’ve got to hold on a while longer,

Till we’ve beaten the Hun to his knees:

And then ‘Goodbye’ to the kitchen;

The treacle, the jam and the cheese.

(From: Christmas 1916 ‘Thoughts in a VAD Hospital Kitchen’, featured on an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

VADs could and would turn their hand to almost anything, earning the female contingent the nickname, ‘very adaptable dames’. However, according to historian and former nurse, Yvonne McEwen, (speaking on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, 17th February, 2014), there are a number of myths surrounding the role of VADs in World War One. The nursing VADs did not replace the professional nursing corps (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service – QAIMNS) but assisted them in their daily duties both on the front-line and in military hospitals across Britain. The QA nurses were highly trained, unmarried women over the age of thirty who had chosen the nursing profession as a career for life. However, as the war progressed demand for trained nursing staff grew and recruitment restrictions, such as age limits, were relaxed. Even these changes did not attract the numbers of professional trainees required and VADs became even more vital to the war effort, taking-on increased duties. All nurses faced harsh working and living conditions in the various theatres of war:

By 1915, the role of the VAD had actually moved in to military hospitals both at home and on the fighting front. Having said that, VADs never, ever worked in Casualty Clearing Stations which is another mythology…Base hospitals were relatively comfortable but as the war escalated the bombing raids became more and more frequent. It is interesting that 1917-18 is when the highest rates of death [amongst nurses] occurred because of the shelling and bombing of hospitals and clearing hospitals.

For those who worked on the front-line and of course it was not just on the Western Front, we had nurses working in Mesopotamia, Germany and East Africa. It was a global war and nurses were deployed in a global war. In the Gallipoli campaign, the nurses slept on rocks on blankets because there was no accommodation to put them in. In fact there was no proper accommodation for anybody when they first arrived, no tents erected for the sick and wounded, everyone was sleeping on blankets or mattresses on rocks and gradually over the months on the island, tented hospitals were constructed.

(Historian and former nurse Yvonne McEwen speaking on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, 17th February, 2014)

Yvonne is also keen to point-out, that nurses from Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America all worked alongside British nurses. Her research has also revealed that in both World Wars, a total of one thousand seven hundred nurses were killed on active duty. The first nurse died in November 1914. However, this total is expected to rise as further fatalities, from both wars, come to light. For the purposes of these statistics, there is no distinction being made between professional and volunteer nurses both are equal upon death. Yvonne is campaigning for a nurses war memorial to be erected in their honour. You can read more about this appeal on The New Cavendish Club website.

I got a very septic hand, because the VADs didn’t wear rubber gloves…and if you got the slightest prick it always went septic.

(Gladys Stanford, VAD, Highfield Hospital Southampton. From an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

I was called for during the Battle of the Somme. At Southampton the men were in a terrible state, straight from off the ships. There was no question of VADs not helping because everyone just had to.

(A Hampshire VAD, from an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

During World War One, auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were created right across Britain to treat sick and injured military personnel from the front-lines. Large private estates and houses were also transformed into hospitals. By 1918, in Hampshire alone there were fifty-nine such facilities and VADs were the lifeblood of these establishments. One of the most important military hospitals on the mainland was the former Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, Hampshire.

Postcard showing the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley.
Postcard showing the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

Built in 1856 and opened in March, 1863, this once imposing red brick complex provided the very best medical care to wounded service personnel throughout World War One. In addition to the impressive medical facilities, there was a theatre, extensive gardens, comprehensive range of outdoor activities and endless craft activities for servicemen undergoing rehabilitation.  In 1966, the army demolished all the buildings save for The Royal Chapel which still survives and houses a heritage centre, gift shop and exhibition about the history of the former military hospital.

  • Silent film, from a series of five made in 1917. Each one features a range of ‘War Neuroses’, including the horrific effects of shell shock. Filmed mainly at The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley. Warning, this film contains images that some viewers may find upsetting. (Uploaded by the Wellcome Library to You Tube, 2.11.2009. For more information about their educational catalogue, click here.)

The Royal Victoria Hospital was located by the shores of Southampton Water. There was once a steel and wood pier connecting the hospital to Southampton Water. Troop ships and hospital ships could unload their wounded before docking in Southampton. However, the water levels by the pier were too shallow to accommodate some of the bigger ships and as the war progressed these vessels only came into Southampton Docks, where the wounded would be transferred to either ambulances or trains for their onward journey.

Bandages, cotton wool and gauze used in World War One.
Bandages, cotton wool and gauze used at the Royal Victoria Hospital during World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

The hospital was serviced by a railway which in World War One brought a succession of ambulance trains directly there from Southampton Docks. It was said that a soldier could be injured in France on a Friday and be on a ward at the hospital by Monday. Following the Battle of the Somme (1.7.1916), one hundred and fifty-one ambulance trains transported thirty thousand casualties from Southampton Docks to mainland hospitals. A majority of the casualties ended-up at the Royal Victoria. In total one thousand two hundred and twenty ambulance trains arrived at the hospital throughout the duration of the war.

A short while after war broke-out, the War Office requested that a further five hundred bed, Hutted Hospital, be erected on a terrace behind the main building. Netley’s Hutted Hospital consisted of three separate hospitals, the Red Cross, the Irish and the Welsh. One of the conditions of erecting these temporary structures was that, if required, they could be easily dismantled and moved to France. Due to the high numbers of casualties coming through Netley as war escalated, huts were increased in number to accommodate a total of one thousand patients. The Hutted Hospital had a staff of three hundred and fifty including many VADs. Despite their temporary nature, the Hutted Hospital complex contained some very modern facilities, including x-ray equipment, electrical equipment and whirlpool baths.

We young nurses on night duty used to sneak off to the soldiers’ wards. They loved us coming down…I think it cheered them a lot…They’d say ‘Give us a kiss, lassie’. We didn’t think it was wrong at all.

Of course you felt like crying, you had a heart, you had feelings.

(Memories of Hampshire VADs, from an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

One of the Hutted Hospitals behind the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley during World War One.
One of the Hutted Hospitals behind the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley during World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

Last month it was announced that a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £102,000 would be given to Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley. The funding will enable the county council to team-up with local organisations to restore the Royal Chapel and undertake further research on the former Royal Victoria Hospital. Development is expected to last a year.

The Royal Chapel. Only surviving building of the former Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley.
The Royal Chapel. Only surviving building of the former Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley. Photograph ©Come Step Back In Time.

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