Linda J. Quiney’s This Small Army of Women, tracing the Canadian and Newfoundland volunteer nurses in WW1, is part of a growing scholarship on the role of medical women in the war. (Readers will know this is a particular interest of mine.) Linda is a historian and retired lecturer and serves as an affiliate with the Consortium for Nursing History Inquiry at the University of British Columbia. She has kindly agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.
What first interested you in VADs from Canada and Newfoundland?
Linda J. Quiney: It was more of a happy accident than an intentional undertaking. I was considering a research topic on women in the Second World War when a colleague mentioned a photograph she had discovered while researching a First World War topic. The image depicted a woman wearing a St. John Ambulance VAD dress uniform, but offered no clue to her identity or what her uniform represented. I had read Testament of Youth years before, Vera Brittain’s romantic journal of her wartime experience as a British Red Cross VAD nurse, but I had no idea there had been a Canadian or Newfoundland equivalent under the auspices of St. John. The mystery led me to St. John Ambulance headquarters in Ottawa, but the preliminary research was limited. I was close to abandoning it until the “eureka” moment, when a box of random records unexpectedly revealed a list of more than 300 Canadian women who had been posted overseas as St. John Ambulance VAD nurses during the war.
It gradually became clear that the VAD program had been a unique undertaking, far different from any other form of Canadian women’s patriotic work. Most intriguing for me was that it was almost invisible within the larger historical record of the war, a history waiting to be written.
What was the biggest challenge in researching the lives of VAD nurses?
LJQ: It was a combination of limited source materials, their diversity, and their wide distribution across Canada, Newfoundland and overseas in England. When I began the research in the mid-90s, oral histories were no longer an option, and digitization was in its infancy. Unlike a project with specific archive collections in one or two locations, it was necessary to consult a wide variety of sources, in many locations and repositories. The focus was two-fold: to identify as many VADs as possible, and to locate any personal documents in the form of diaries, journals or correspondence, as well as other types of records. The VADs were not regarded as real nurses, and therefore not cited within the, then, very limited scholarship on Canadian nursing of the era. City directories proved unexpectedly useful, but required hours in library reading rooms. Often materials were cross referenced in both St. John and Red Cross files, and women’s records were often hidden under the names of male family members. The research took me across Canada, including Newfoundland, and overseas to the Imperial War Museum and British Red Cross archives. There I searched through thousands of three by five index cards – one for every British and colonial VAD who served abroad – winnowing out the Canadians and Newfoundlanders. It was extremely time consuming, but never dull. I was also fortunate to receive valuable background details from family members and other researchers, some of whom introduced me to new VADs.
What is the most surprising thing you learned in writing This Small Army of Nurses?
LJQ: The first surprise was discovering that the Canadian VAD movement was far larger than I had originally assumed. Initially the evidence pointed to a relatively exclusive group of no more than fifty women, but this assumption was shattered when I found the list of some 320 VAD names. The numbers only continued to grow. Early on I discovered a 1918 account of VAD nursing, citing the participation of 2500 VADs by the end of the war. Despite the credible source, this number seemed far too high, but by the time the book was published I had identified more than 1800 names. Since the majority of the VADs served for some time in the many military convalescent hospitals hastily established in towns and cities across the country, an even larger number no longer seems out of line.
Another surprise was the realization that the VADs generally had little interest in nursing in any professional sense. Their contemporary personal accounts in letters and diaries, and oral interviews recorded long after the war, clearly demonstrate that VAD nursing was the means to an end, not the end itself. The women were motivated in part by the patriotic fervour of the era, but more particularly by an impatience to be actively involved in the war effort. They were not content to sit at home, passively knitting or raising funds for the Red Cross. These were intelligent, educated, energetic young women who wanted an active, meaningful role. VAD nursing was the only means through which a civilian woman, without qualified nursing credentials, could gain direct access to the war. Many had lost a brother, cousin, fiancé, or close friend when they decided to joined the VAD movement. Others saw their fathers and brothers enlisting and felt frustrated by being left behind. I am convinced that had a non-nursing military role been available for women in 1914, as it was the 1940s, the greater proportion of VAD nurses would have chosen a different path. Less than 1% of known VADs opted to train as nurses following the war.
Finally, I was surprised by the diversity of their background and experience. With Vera Brittain as my original model, I assumed that the Canadian VADs would fit a similar mould as very young, elite and unworldly. This image was soon dispelled. There were certainly women who mirrored some of Brittain’s traits, although none were titled, but the greater proportion were drawn from the middle classes, a definition that varied broadly from one region to another at this time. Many VADs were employed in one of the standard women’s occupations of the time, particularly teaching, or some aspect of and clerical work in both the private and public sectors. Although there were a few exceptions, most came from a comfortable, if not privileged background, many having the opportunity for a good education, and even university. They were of an emerging generation that expected women to be gainfully employed in the years between school and marriage.
What do you hope readers will take away from This Small Army of Women?
LJQ: An awareness of a previously overlooked cohort of Canadian and Newfoundland women war workers, who made a significant contribution to the First World War with equal enthusiasm and vigour to that of the qualified nursing sisters. The VADs lingered in the shadows of both nursing and mainstream histories, and when noticed at all they were eclipsed by the Vera Brittain legacy, usually dismissed as elite dilettantes imitating nurses. Although only a fraction of their number served overseas and then only in the British hospitals, they were a tremendous asset to the military medical services. They provided cost free auxiliary nursing care, working long hours in the unaccustomed environs of a convalescent hospital, performing tasks that were entirely out of context with their pre-war lives. This was a unique service, unlike any other voluntary work performed by civilian women during the war, and to some extent can be viewed as a precursor of women’s non-nursing military roles in the future.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work that they don’t ask?
LJQ: How did the VADs see themselves in relation to the qualified military nurses they were assisting in the hospitals? The answer is found in their personal records, diaries and letters, as well as some interviews recorded decades after the war. Diaries record the writer’s private thoughts, and despite self-editing, are more likely to reflect an honest opinion than a letter that might be shared. The VADs were well aware of the gaps in their training and experience. Although they came from comparable middle-class, educated backgrounds, the VADs did not equate their abilities with those of the qualified nurses. Most were content to accept their lowly position in the nursing hierarchy, as long as they were treated fairly. They viewed their role as that of an essential assistant helping the qualified nurses cope with an often overwhelming workload. As one apt analogy contends, for the duration of the war, the VADs viewed the wards as their trenches, and themselves more as soldiers than nurses.
Where will your next book take us?
LJQ: The main emphasis of This Small Army was on the VADs as nursing volunteers. In the course of evidence gathering I also discovered the records of a few non-nursing VADs, including the diary of a Canadian ambulance driver with the British Red Cross in France. Initially I believed she was one of only two or three Canadian and Newfoundland women drivers, the majority being upper class British VAD drivers, but the numbers have grown. I am now researching the ambulance program, potentially leading towards a book about this almost unknown aspect of Canadian women’s war service.
The image of women driving ambulances in the First World War is intriguing, given the social context of the era. Nursing was acceptable feminine work for middle-class women in wartime, allowing minimally trained women to assume the role of volunteer nurse on the basis of its perception as natural “women’s work.”Women drivers were breaking new ground, in the pre-war years the automobile was still a new toy enjoyed primarily by the prosperous and elite, but it was firmly regarded as a man’s machine. The “woman driver” was a new phenomenon, and the idea of a woman driver in uniform, overseas, in the war zone, was unprecedented. It is fascinating to unravel the complex social dynamics of balancing the longing to maintain conservative values of gender “normalcy” during the upheaval of the war against the gaps in “manpower” that could only be filled by women during wartime.
Another interesting exploration … I look forward to learning more. Thank you so much, Linda, for sharing these insights and for keeping some less visible views of the war alive.