I, too, take leave of all I ever had

Canadian VADs in the First World War

By Canadian Centre for the Great War

Canadian Centre for the Great War

Armband worn by medical personnel during the First World War (1914/1918) by Canadian Centre for the Great WarCanadian Centre for the Great War

Medicine and War

Medical mobilisation at the outbreak of war is extremely important for a nation at war, both for service on the field and on the home front. During the First World War, militia medical services mobilised under the Canadian Army Medical Corps which included doctors, surgeons, nurses, and a brand new group of women called the Voluntary Aid Detachment, or VAD for short. Canadian VAD units were modelled after the British system established in 1909.

Newspaper clipping of Alberta Page, who served in France and received the Royal Red Cross Medal. (1919) by Canadian Centre for the Great War.Canadian Centre for the Great War

How women got involved in war

Women had only recently been able to make a role for themselves in the professional world as nurses. In Canada, female nurses had only officially been involved in one conflict previously - the South African War. The creation of this new profession was seen as a major leap forward in women’s rights. [Assistant Angels]

Voluntary Aid Detachment Poster (1914/1918) by British Red CrossOriginal Source: British Red Cross

Who were the VADs?

When war broke out, over 2,000 Canadian women eager to participate volunteered with the VADs, with around 500 making it over to Europe. Because of their lack of nursing experience, VADs mostly stayed in Canada and worked in convalescent hospitals; those who went abroad also worked as nurses’ aids, ambulance drivers, and clerical staff at overseas hospitals. [Assistant Angels]

Two Canadian nurses pose in service dress uniforms (1914/1918) by CWM 19920085-353, George Metcalf Archival Collection © Canadian War Museum / Musée canadien de la guerreCanadian Centre for the Great War

Nurses vs. VADs

The typical Canadian VAD would have been a young woman from an upper-middle class family with little to no work experience, while a nurse was typically from a working class background. Due to the different social classes and the VADs’ lack of medical experience, there was often conflict between the nursing sisters and the VADs. [Assistant Angels]

A scalpel and forceps (1914/1918) by Canadian Centre for the Great War.Canadian Centre for the Great War

Controversy over VAD role

Unlike the official position of nursing sisters, the voluntary nature of the VAD role meant that they were not bound by army laws or hierarchy in the same way. The VADs were largely considered a nuisance and a burden as they lacked the medical training of professional nurses. [Voluntary Veil]

Wounded World War Canadian soldier in No. 2 Hospital, with visitor and attending nurses (1914/1918) by 1974-137 NPC, 3224952, LAC Archives / Collections and FondsCanadian Centre for the Great War

This rivalry led to complaints of VADs not following the orders of the nursing matrons or doctors of the unit. There was also some concern amongst nursing sisters that the existence of this voluntary role would threaten the new professionalism being attributed to women’s work. [Assistant Angels]

Views taken on Christmas Day at Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital, Taplow (1917-12-25) by 1964-114 NPC, 3394751, LAC Archives / Collections and FondsCanadian Centre for the Great War

VAD involvement unrelated to war

Around 1500 VADs remained in Canada and worked in hospitals on home soil throughout the war. They also assisted in domestic crises like the Halifax Explosion and the Spanish Flu pandemic. [Gov’t of Canada - Voluntary Aid Detachment]

[Amelia Earhart in airplane] (1936) by Harris & EwingOriginal Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Famous VADs

Without a doubt, the most well-known VAD is Vera Brittain, an Englishwoman who served with the British army. Amelia Earhart, who signed on as a VAD in Toronto in 1917, deserves the title of most famous VAD to serve with Canada despite technically being an American. [Voluntary Veil]

Album book which belonged to Rosemary Edgley. (1914/1918) by Canadian Centre for the Great WarCanadian Centre for the Great War

Rosemary Edgley

Like many others who experienced the war first hand, VAD members kept mementos of various forms. Many had album books where they collected poems, songs, sayings, and signatures of other service members they met. These books - such as the one kept by Rosemary Edgley - reveal the popular culture of the time as well as individual feelings about the war.

Interior of album book belonged to Rosemary Edgley. (1914/1918) by Canadian Centre for the Great WarCanadian Centre for the Great War

Frances Cluett in her Volunteer Aid Detachment uniform. (1914/1918) by Memorial University Archives and Special Collections: Frances Cluett Collection (Coll-174)Canadian Centre for the Great War

Frances Cluett

In Newfoundland, 60 women volunteered to serve as VADs in the Great War. One of these volunteers was Frances Cluett, who left her hometown of Belleoram to sign up as a VAD with the St. John Ambulance. She went overseas in 1916 and wrote numerous letters home of her experiences nursing in Rouen, France and Constantinople. When the war ended, she traveled around Europe before returning to Belleoram, resuming her old job as a teacher. [Memorial University Archives]

A poem written by Private A. Wyatt of the 1st Lincolnshire. (1914/1918) by Canadian Centre for the Great War.Canadian Centre for the Great War

Remembering the VADs

The VADs were officially demobilised in October, 1920, and the women quickly and quietly returned to their previous lives. Unlike in England where Vera Britain emerged as the voice of British VADs, a Canadian equivalent never came forward. This has led to a pattern of Canadian VADs being combined either with their British counterparts or as nursing sisters in official histories and remembrance efforts.

Credits: Story

Exhibition Text and Development: Avery Kieschke

1. Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-19: The Medical Services by Sir Andrew Macphail
2. “Assistant Angels”: Canadian Women as Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses During and After the Great War, 1914-1930 by Linda J. Quiney
3. Voluntary Veil: The Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment in the First World War exhibit by the Museum of Healthcare (https://museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/voluntary-veil-the-canadian-voluntary-aid-detachment-in-the-first-world-war/)
4. Voluntary Aid Detachment found on the Government of Canada Official Website (https://www.canada.ca/en/parks-canada/news/2017/03/voluntary_aid_detachments.html)
5. No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), 1914-1919 (official history)
6. No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, 1914-1919 (official history)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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