In 1918 Dorothy Corpes (1901-62) visited her local photographic studio to pose for a portrait wearing her outdoor uniform as a newly-trained VAD recruit. She was about to join the nursing staff of Afton Lodge Auxiliary Hospital in Freshwater, Isle of Wight. Many uniformed nurses of the First World War were volunteers trained by the British Red Cross Society or by St. John Ambulance - separate societies who since 1909 had been establishing Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) to recruit and equip local volunteers to provide field nursing services.
To become fully-proficient members of their VAD, girls had to train and pass exams in first aid and nursing. The term ‘VAD’ came to be used for the nurse herself, and by 1914 several thousand VAD volunteers were already trained, both those classified as mobile (who could serve in any theatre of war worldwide), and the majority who registered to work only in their local Auxiliary War Hospitals. Wartime recruitment of VADs was a great success: nursing was becoming popular, especially among ‘respectable’ girls who wanted to do something useful towards the war effort.
Within the hospital hierarchy, role and rank was distinguished by the colour of indoor uniforms, Commandants wearing a dark red dress, Red Cross nurses the iconic pale blue dress, while Order of St John VAD nurses wore grey dresses with a St. John armband, all uniforms completed with starched white caps, collars, cuffs and aprons: hemlines were worn slightly above the ankle or at low calf level, revealing black stockings and regular footwear.
The varied duties of VAD recruits included receiving wounded soldiers and exchanging their soiled service uniforms for comfortable ‘hospital blue’ uniforms, assisting the ‘walking wounded’ with dressing and using crutches, feeding and teaching crafts to the bed-ridden, emptying bedpans and changing surgical dressings. Young inexperienced volunteers regularly witnessed shocking, unforgettable sights.
The selfless work carried out by all nurses throughout the war seized the imagination of the general public, the ‘Romance of the Red Cross’, especially, inspiring various souvenirs from china cups to picturesque postcards. Along with posters and photographs, such imagery testifies to the tremendous contribution of the nurses who gave their energies and, in some cases, their lives during the Great War. Furthermore, some VADs stayed on and continued nursing after the war, like Dorothy, pictured above c.1920. In October 1923 she married Charles Mabbs, the young soldier featured with his two brothers in an earlier post.
With thanks to Beryl Venn, daughter of Charles and Dorothy