A century ago, some 45,000 Canadian women were certified to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment’s (vad) nursing division, and while only 2,000 Canadian and Newfoundland women actually signed up, most working at convalescent hospitals at home, they have been largely invisible in the history of First World War. Linda Quiney’s research probes who these women were, their motivations for joining up, their training and work experiences, and the structural tensions that shaped their wartime experiences. Quiney draws on a wide array of sources, including government documents, Red Cross and St John Ambulance archives, both in England and Canada, as well as numerous archives and museums on both sides of the ocean. Her sources also include published memoirs and letters, private family collections, genealogies, and the shared work of independent researchers. The result is a readable and informed portrait of these young women who felt the need to contribute to the war effort in a tangible, if temporary, fashion.
Readers may be familiar with the classic memoir of the British vad, Vera Brittain, who published Testament of Youth in 1933 (Victor Gollancz). This romantic account of privileged women assuming roles as vads obscures the role of women who came from more modest backgrounds, some of whom worked in various professions in England. Similarly, Quiney finds that Canadian and Newfoundland volunteers came from backgrounds not dissimilar to those of trained nurses; unmarried women from Anglo-Protestant, middle-class backgrounds predominated, and they most often lived at home in families with a father in the professions. Given that vad work was unpaid, it is not surprising that only a minority of working-class women became involved. According to Quiney, vads were independent “new women” whose horizons were not strictly limited to domestic life but neither were they feminists. Some had to work to accumulate savings before they could volunteer and train. Of the 900 Canadian vads traced, 29 per cent worked in the clerical field, 20 per cent in government, 22 per cent in teaching, and 4 per cent in factory or domestic work. Thus, the portrait of vads who served is more varied than the image conveyed in Brittain’s memoir. One of the longest serving vads came from Newfoundland and was a teacher; Fanny Cluett spent four years serving in various locales ranging from England and France to Turkey, nursing wounded allied soldiers as well as German prisoners of war. Cluett’s extensive collection of letters has been published in an edited [End Page 320] volume, Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, vad (Flanker Press, 2006).
Most vads had little hospital experience and limited training so it is no surprise that they found the work stressful. While many wished to serve overseas, the majority did not, although the challenges at home increased late in the war with the Halifax explosion in 1917 and the influenza epidemic of 1918–19. Like many others, future aviator Amelia Earhart, visiting her sister in Toronto, hoped to turn her vad training there into an American Red Cross stint overseas, but, instead, she stayed in Toronto nursing influenza patients in 1918. Around one quarter of Canadian and Newfoundland vads served overseas, most often as nurses, but a few worked as ambulance drivers and some served in auxiliary functions such as social conveners in Red Cross recreational huts or as clerical workers. Few of those who served overseas stayed more than a year. Their white head scarves and the Red Cross insignia reinforced the image of femininity in the context of taking on unusual roles in war time. vad uniforms minimized sexuality, helping to keep the image of the vad uncorrupted. In addition, the rules forbidding the women to fraternize with the men, along with class differences between vads and medical officers, served to reinforce boundaries, though some romantic relationships and marriages did occur.
Quiney’s account notes the tensions that sometimes arose between British authorities and hospitals and...