Soldiers returning sick and wounded from the front to Britain were initially accommodated in two main types of hospital. Cases requiring surgery or specialist care were sent to existing county hospitals while others in need of bed rest and convalescence were sent to one of the many Auxiliary War Hospitals set up under the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) scheme.
The VAD scheme was created in 1909 when the War Office realised that medical arrangements for armed forces were inadequate.
NORFOLK VOLUNTARY AID DETACHMENTS (VAD)
The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) scheme was created in 1909 when the War Office realised that medical arrangements for armed forces were inadequate, should the event of war occur. The British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John recruited volunteers to train as VADs to support and work alongside military nurses. By July 1914, Norfolk had 64 registered Voluntary Aid Detachments.
The main aim of the VADs was to provide medical assistance and to set-up hospitals in times of emergency. Women VADs were trained in First Aid and Nursing and performed those duties while others took on roles such as ambulance driving, clerical duties or working in the hospital kitchens.
Many VAD nurses came from middle-class families who had time to serve and could afford to pay for their lectures and the £1 9s 2d for a uniform. In the later years of the war, local VAD units had money to issue uniforms, or at least replace the worn parts – often aprons, cuffs and collars.
Nurses were expected to wear uniform correctly and any alterations or imperfections would result in a reprimand. Daily inspections were also a staple part of daily life on the ward and these checks ensured that no personality showed through tailored or altered uniforms.
In the early days, the VADs were not always shown the recognition they deserved, as military medical authorities favoured those that were professionally trained. By 1916, however, it had become clear that the VAD scheme had been hugely successful and the women now providing medical aid in hospitals and on the front had gone far beyond what was expected. The line between professionally trained nurses and the newly trained VAD disappeared as all were seen to be ‘real nurses’.
Joyce Carr was one of three daughters of the wealthy William and Margaret Carr of The Hall Ditchingham. In 1915, Joyce turned 25 and saw her brother William off to fight in the war. Along with her sisters, Dorothy and Kitty, Joyce worked as an (unqualified) nurse at Kirkstead auxiliary hospital. Their aunt, Mary Carr lived at Hedenhall Hall and opened the Hall up as a hospital in April 1915. At this time Joyce was torn between signing up for 6 months with the Red Cross or to work as a probationer at the Norfolk War Hospital. Joyce chose to stay in Norwich at the War Hospital before later travelling to France to work in a private hospital run by a cousin. Whilst in France, Joyce wrote letters home to her Mother. These provide an insight to what life was like for women who had left their homeland to serve and ‘do their bit’ on the front line.
In one diary entry, Joyce details what daily roles included: “19 July 1915: Men at present are only slightly wounded. Work involves sweeping, dusting, cutting bread and butter and temperature taking.” Norfolk Record Office, ACC 2013/206
NORFOLK AUXILIARY WAR HOSPITALS
Wounded soldiers that had undergone surgery or suffered serious illness needed somewhere to rest and recuperate before returning to the front line. To accommodate this, additional hospitals were set-up across Britain. By the end of 1914, 26 fully staffed and equipped Auxiliary War Hospitals had opened across Norfolk and during the course of the war this rose to 62. Also known as ‘Red Cross Hospitals’, Auxiliary War Hospitals were run by the British Red Cross Society and Order of St John.
Between 1914–1918, the Norfolk Auxiliary War Hospitals dealt with over 40,000 patients and more than 317 convoys, these transported the wounded from the ambulance trains that arrived at Norwich station. This would not have been achieved without the hundreds of Norfolk women who volunteered as VAD nurses.
Large local houses or church rectories became the most common and practical places for Auxiliary Hospitals. Even those who were wealthy and owned large stately houses offered to provide hospital wards in the rooms and annex buildings of their own homes.
Work was non-stop for nurses and often unglamorous. Duties included emptying bedpans and the cleaning and redressing of septic wounds, whilst ensuring that diseases and infections were prevented from spreading.
Hospitals aimed to provide a cheery atmosphere for their patients and recreational activities were put on to aid the soldier’s physical and mental recovery from the traumas of the war. These included playing bowls, embroidery, board games, trips out on the Broads and even putting on theatre productions in the hospital gardens.
Once soldiers had returned to the front line, many wrote back to the hospitals and nurses that had looked after them, thanking the staff for their kind treatment and care. Many nurses also kept in touch with their ex-patients. Nurses realised that recovery was not just physical, it was also emotional and through their letters they were able to help make the transition back to the trenches easier for soldiers.
NORFOLK WAR HOSPITAL
The ever increasing need for beds for injured soldiers led to the Norfolk County Asylum being taken over by the War Office. It was hurriedly adapted to house additional nurses, and all the facilities needed for their new military patients. Opened in April 1915, the Main Hospital and its Annexe started with 500 beds each but by 1918 the Norfolk War Hospital provided 2,428 beds. By 1919, an incredible 44,651 patients had passed through and 8,657 operations carried out as convoys of wounded men arrived.
The only female doctor was Dr Irene Eaton, the pathologist. The majority of the nursing staff were women recruited via ‘civilian’ route from hospitals across the country. These were led by Miss M.S. Hamer, the former Asylum matron. There were also a small number of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service nurses. Most were accommodated in temporary ‘hutments’ in the grounds. In March 1917, 675 staff were employed – 466 of them women. They nursed injured and sick soldiers brought back to Britain from service all over the world. They included victims of poison gas attacks and as the serious psychological effects of warfare began to surface, trained women mental health nurses, assisted by male orderlies nursed 500 cases of ‘distressing and anxious mental disorder’.
Women turned their hands to many new tasks to help run the hospital. Many were involved in the organisation and administration of what was a large and complex outfit. Miss Wheatley managed the busy Enquiry and Post Office – a hub of information and communication between different parts of the hospital. Mrs Moulder and Miss Thorpe ran a ‘Pack Store’ at each site which received, and meticulously disinfected, sorted, repaired and re-issued soldiers’ clothing and kit in accordance with Army instructions. This was entirely staffed by local women.
Most patients were far from home and loved ones so a local Ladies Amenities Committee energetically set to the task of keeping their morale up. This indomitable group of ladies provided entertainment and diversions from boredom, set up additional canteens and sourced accommodation and funds for relatives of critically ill and long term patients.
The Annexe Canteen, managed by Mrs Winder and staffed by volunteer ladies, provided a place for convalescent soldiers to socialise, play games, make music, read and buy refreshments, tobacco and ‘fancy goods’. The canteen profits paid for the almost daily theatrical, film, musical and sporting entertainments for the patients.
COMFORT FOR THE TROOPS
During the course of the First World War many appeals for donations and comforts were made. As well as monetary donations, there were appeals for people to provide a variety of essentials for servicemen including cigarettes, handkerchiefs, socks, mittens, sleeping helmets, candles, shaving soap, pencils and paper. As early as October 1914, the hospitals “would gladly welcome gifts of soap for laundry work and while jam is not specially needed at this moment practically everything else edible is required particularly salt pork, bacon and other such things that will keep.” (Eastern Daily Press).
In February 1915, a National Egg Collection for wounded soldiers began. “The Egg Collection in the parish by Misses Sculfer, Wright and Chapman, still goes on. During the last five months 860 have been sent for the use of our wounded soldiers. We have received the following appreciation: “The Commandant of Hoveton Hall VAD [Hospital] wishes to thank all those who so kindly give eggs for the patients in the hospital. They are a most welcome gift, and are very much appreciated.” (J Gough Poole, Rector, Waxham Rural Deanery Magazine, Barton Turf & Irstead News, November 1917).