The Volunteer Aid Detachment

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was founded in 1909 to provide nursing support services both in the UK and across the British Empire. Its members made an invaluable contribution during the First World War. Networks of VADs were created by the Red Cross and St. John's Ambulance Brigade and by 1914 there were 2,500 units with over 74,000 members.

60% of VAD members were female but male detachments were involved in providing first aid, driving ambulances and acting as stretcher bearers, plus hospital duties.

When war broke out VADs were eager to support the war effort, however this prompted a mixed reaction both from the Red Cross and the military. There was a initial reluctance to post civilian women in hospitals and they were not allowed near the front line.

Many wartime nurses came from comfortable middle, or upper class families. They were unused to the long hours, hardship and discipline of hospital work. They also faced some hostility from professional nurses and were initially restricted to basic, often menial work,  As the war progressed and the VADs proved their worth, they were gradually allowed to clean equipment, give medication and treat the wounded.

A growing shortage of trained nurses meant that VADs were finally allowed to work overseas and at medical outposts near the Front. Female volunteers had to be over 23 years of age, with more than three month's of hospital experience to qualify.

During the war 38,000 VAD members worked in hospitals, as ambulance drivers and cooks. In Merton both the Red Cross and St. John's Ambulance Brigade supplied detachments to support hospital staff at home and abroad. The Nelson Hospital, Merton Park, also served as a training base.

A typical VAD shift ran from 7.30 am to 8pm each day. Night duty was from 8pm to 8am and nurses were only allowed the occasional half day's leave. The first VADS even had to buy their own uniform. However by 1915 the value of their work was acknowledged with a wage of £20 per year, plus board.

Famous VAD members included Vera Brittain, whose wartime experiences were captured in her biography Testament of Youth. Crime writer, Agatha Chistie was also a VAD, as was the pioneering female aviator, Amelia Earhart.