Women on the Front Lines

While it was mostly men who fought on the front lines during the First World War, some Newfoundland and Labrador women also worked close to European battlefields as nurses. These graduate nurses and members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment – a corps of semi-trained nurses – worked in war hospitals, drove ambulances, and served as cooks, clerks, and maids.

VAD Poster, ca. 1914-1918
The British Red Cross Society formed the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1909 to provide auxiliary medical service in the event of war. About 38 women from Newfoundland and Labrador served overseas as VADs during the First World War. They worked in European war hospitals, drove ambulances, and served as cooks, clerks, and maids.
Image courtesy of the British Red Cross Museum and Archives.
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The work was physically and emotionally taxing. Nurses worked long hours in crowded and chaotic hospitals treating severely wounded soldiers from the front lines. They slept on bunks, ate rations, and went without the usual comforts from home. Although the work was stressful and sometimes traumatic, it also produced a sense of satisfaction in many nurses by allowing them to not only make significant and public contributions to the war effort, but to work within a matriarchal hierarchy.

Voluntary Aid Detachment

The British Red Cross Society formed the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1909 to provide auxiliary medical service in the event of war. Most women who volunteered with this unit were not professional nurses. They attended classes in first aid, home nursing, and hygiene with the St. John Ambulance Association for between three and six months and also volunteered in hospitals, making beds, taking temperatures, and performing other duties. Open-air drills also taught VADs to build and cook on camp fires, pitch hospital tents, and care for wounded soldiers.

Unidentified VAD members, n.d.
Most women from Newfoundland and Labrador who became VADs were not professional nurses. They attended classes in first aid, home nursing, and hygiene with the St. John Ambulance Association and volunteered in hospitals, making beds, taking temperatures, and performing other duties.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL P13-A1), St. John’s, NL.
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Unidentified VAD members, n.d.

VADs typically came from middle and upper-class families; they could pay for training and had enough time and money to work for free. Authorities also believed that higher-class women were more disciplined than those in the lower classes, making them more suited to military nursing. Nonetheless, many middle and upper-class women had little prior experience in cooking, cleaning, and other duties they would have to perform as VADs.

Tensions sometimes occurred between VADs and the nursing sisters, their ranking superiors, but social inferiors. Some VADs resented taking orders from women of a lower social standing, while some nursing sisters feared the VADs, who had only a few months of training, would undermine their years of education and experience. In 1915, the War Office began paying VADs £20 a year, making it possible for more lower class women to volunteer.

In November 1915, Newfoundland and Labrador sent its first contingent of five VAD members overseas. By the end of the war, at least 38 volunteers left the island to work in foreign military hospitals. Many women joined the unit to contribute to the war effort in a non-domestic setting. Although a large civilian volunteer movement allowed women to support troops by working from home, many wished to be closer to the front lines. Becoming a VAD was the only way most women could accomplish this.

Service Overseas

Once overseas, VADs assumed a variety of roles. Some served on hospital ships crossing the English Channel, others drove ambulances, became welfare officers, or worked in other traditionally male occupations made vacant by military enlistments. Most VADs, however, served in overworked European war hospitals. They cleaned wards, sterilized medical equipment, bandaged wounds, bathed patients, prepared their meals, and made their beds. If patients were too wounded to hold a book or a pen, VADs often read aloud to them and wrote their letters home. They also watched over dying patients and later prepared their bodies for the mortuary.

Work of this nature was emotionally draining and sometimes traumatic, especially for VADs working in hospitals close to the front lines. Volunteers who had never before experienced large-scale violence and suffering had to receive convoys of severely wounded soldiers from the battlefields. Young men arrived with severed limbs, gunshot wounds, and countless other injuries. Some patients could not be healed and the VADs could only ease their pain while waiting for them to die.

Frances Cluett, from Belleoram, Fortune Bay, served as a VAD in England and France during the First World War. In her letters home, Cluett often wrote of wounded soldiers. “In our ward only,” she wrote from France on 8 June 1917, “there are so many with two legs clean gone with just stumps of the thigh left … There was one man wounded in the thigh: there was a hole right through from side to side. It was like you cut it with an axe. The sister used to put dressing right through the hole, and put a rubber tube right through the hole and syringe it. Such sights one will never forget. You can read about war, and the wounded, but when you are brought face to face with it, I tell you, it is heart rending.”

Frances Cluett, n.d. Frances Cluett, n.d.
Frances Cluett, from Belleoram, Newfoundland and Labrador, served as a VAD in England and France during the First World War. In her letters home, Cluett often wrote of wounded soldiers. “You can read about war, and the wounded,” she wrote on 8 June 1917, “but when you are brought face to face with it, I tell you, it is heart rending.”
Photo courtesy of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 174.5.02.127), QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL.
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Despite the stressful nature of their occupation, VADs worked long hours with little time off. Volunteers worked seven days a week, with one half day off; they also received one full day off each month. In her letters, Cluett reported working from seven o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock at night when on day duty, and from 7:50 p.m. until eight o’clock the following morning when on night duty.

“Night duty,” she wrote from France on 7 May 1917, “is no laughing matter especially if the wards are heavy. I have the care of five wards at night; so you can imagine I am kept a bit busy.” When on day duty, Cluett spent the first two hours cleaning the hospital wards and then devoted the rest of her time to caring for patients.

After the War

When the war ended, many VADs found it difficult to readjust to life at home. The injuries and suffering they had seen overseas underscored how sheltered their lives had been prior to the war. Many felt removed from their mothers and other relatives who had not directly witnessed the horrors of war. Others felt frustrated after returning home because their families and communities expected them to resume their domestic roles. Their service overseas had given the VADs new skills and had produced in them a new sense of independence and self-reliance. The interwar years, however, provided few opportunities for women to find full-time work or assume a public role in Newfoundland and Labrador society.

Article by Jenny Higgins with additional research from Luke Callanan. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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