Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

This Small Army of Women

5 Comments

Shown into his luxurious office, I asked whether he could hurry my departure. I was terrified when this great fat man, who seemed as old as the hills to me, pulled me down on his knee and began kissing me! As I was struggling to get away his secretary came in and showed no surprise whatever at the scene. Apparently there was nothing unusual in this situation! But this was my first experience with a licentious old man, I was overwhelmed! However, he did promise me this: Not another girl will leave Canada before you! And they didn’t. (This Small Army of Women, p 67)

Latest #metoo revelation of sexual harassment? No, a 1916 account of Canadian VAD Violet Wilson. 1916.

Over the years, sensational allegations rise and fade, rise and fade. But until everyone – men as well as women – recognizes sexual harassment and sexual assault as systemic problems of entitlement and power, the culture of acquiescence continues. It’s about time to say #metoo for change.


Linda J Quiney’s This Small Army of Women documents the Canadian and Newfoundland volunteer nurses in WW1. The book is an interesting mix of facts, figures and analysis, interspersed with personal stories of these Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses – VADs.

VADs were distinguished from professional nurses who had more rigorous training and qualifications. At a time when nursing was struggling to be recognized as a profession, VADs were seen to engage in feminine work that any woman could do. The professional nursing leadership worked hard to keep VADs out of official military roles.

Quiney demonstrates that VAD labour was nonetheless an essential component of the war effort. As the war progressed, military medical services increasingly relied on the ready availability of free (or next to free) assistance of VADs. Most Canadian and Newfoundland VADs worked on the home front in convalescent hospitals for the care and rehabilitation of veterans. Few served overseas, fewer still near the war zones. Overseas service averaged six to twelve months. Fanny Cluett was rare indeed to spend four years overseas.

Just as the military held no illusion about making volunteers into career soldiers, the VADs were not trained to take over jobs from professional nurses. Suitable candidates for soldiers and VADs alike were white, English-speaking, Anglo-Protestant. Patriotism made for cheap labour on both accounts.

Recruitment propaganda has perpetuated an image of VADs as elite, genteel women. Most Canadian and Newfoundland VADs were middle class. “Several acquired a good education and marketable skills, and many were earning a salary in a female occupation before they began VAD work, giving up their jobs for the duration of the war.” (p 88) A sample of about 20% of the identified VAD reveal clerical work, teaching and government jobs as the most frequent. (p 89) All government workers were entitled to return to their jobs at the completion of their VAD service. (Unless they were married, of course.)

While most VADs worked as nurses, the more glamorous job was that of ambulance driver. Quiney also traces 15 Canadian and Newfoundland women who were behind the wheel.

This Small Army of Women is another good addition to the recent scholarship on the role of medical women in the war.


Read my interview with author Linda J.Quiney here.


I have also dipped into Cynthia Toman’s Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps from time to time. Haven’t yet had the time to read it through, but it has been a useful reference in my focus on female doctors, nurses and VADs.

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

5 thoughts on “This Small Army of Women

  1. We have a wonderful book about the more than 35 women from Prince Edward Island who served as nurses in the First World War: “Those Splendid Girls,” by Katherine Dewar. I can send you a copy for review, if you wish.
    http://projects.upei.ca/isp/those-splendid-girls/

  2. The opening quote is distressingly not surprising. Thanks for making sure the women of WWI are given their due.

    • Yes, there’s a certain déja vu quality to that quote. Many things I encounter in these books are happily dated. Disturbing that we can still relate to this as a contemporary statement.
      Good to hear from you again.

  3. Pingback: An Interview with Linda J. Quiney, author of This Small Army of Women | Great War 100 Reads

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