The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was formed during WWI order to provide additional nursing care for military personnel. Formed in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and Order of St. John, it quickly grew in response to demand so that by the summer of 1914, there were 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain, with 74,000 volunteer members, two-thirds of whom were women.
When the war broke out, civilians were eager to help the war effort by volunteering their service to the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Initially, the British Red Cross was reluctant to send civilian women to work in hospitals overseas, and the Military Authorities would not allow VADS on the front line as the majority of volunteers came from the upper and middle classes and were not used to either hardship or the discipline of hospitals. However, it wasn’t long before the growing shortage of trained nurses opened the doors for VADS in overseas military hospitals. Restrictions were removed and any female volunteers aged over 23 and with at least 3 months hospital experience were soon accepted.
By 1916, around 8,000 trained nurses were employed in hospitals at home with around 126,000 beds. A further 4,000 nurses were working overseas with 93,000 beds. By 1918 the number of VAD numbers overall had risen to about 80,000. 12,000 of these were nurses working in the military hospitals and 60,000 were unpaid volunteers working in auxiliary hospitals in a variety of roles – as ambulance drivers, cooks, cleaners, clerks, etc.
VADs served near the Western Front, in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli as well as in hospitals in most large towns in Britain. Later, they were also sent to the Eastern Front. The volunteers’ service was invaluable to the war effort and many were decorated for distinguished service. When the war ended, nursing profession leaders agreed that untrained VADs should not be allowed onto the newly established register of nurses.
Click on the names below to find our more about the women who volunteered their service and those employed as nurses…