Devon women on active service

Posted by Andrew Howard - 9 years ago

Devon women on active service

VAD © IWM (Q 2437)

A group of British Red Cross Society Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Women's Transport Service (FANY) female motor ambulance drivers at Etaples, 27th June 1917. © IWM (Q 2437)



Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Government and bodies including the Red Cross instigated the Voluntary Aid Detachments across the country, to provide field nursing services should hostilities break out.

By the summer of 1914, there were more than 2,500 detachments, being served by almost 75,000 volunteers, known as VADs, two-thirds of them female.

In Budleigh Salterton, a prominent VAD was Mrs Harriet Barton, wife of retired army colonel Maurice Barton. She and her husband gave up their home at West Hill in order to create a VAD hospital. Mrs Barton became the hospital commandant and ran it until early 1919, earning an MBE. Sadly she died in March 1919, and is commemorated on the town’s war memorial.

Nurse Phyllis May Maltby, the daughter of Lt Col Francis Grant Maltby of the Indian Army and his wife, of Budleigh Salterton, served in a number of VAD hospitals in the UK and Malta from 1915. Sadly, she died aged just 27 in December 1918 while on duty at the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell, Surrey.

Another member of the VAD who served in Budleigh Salterton was Miss Edith Margaret Fergusson, who was a matron at the auxiliary hospital in the town. She is mentioned in a February 1918 edition of the Edinburgh Gazette, an official government publication, as being awarded the Royal Red Cross, (second class).

The Budleigh Salterton medical officer was Dr HF Semple, while others who served there included Quartermaster Miss Emily C McK Wilson; nurses Lilian Vaughan, Louise Davern, Phyliss Aldersey, Audrey Hatton (nee Oke-Smith), Katrina Gibbs, Audrey Green, Elsie Vigars, Joan Pepys, Violette Pullin, Evelyn Pullin, Frances Foss, Florence Baker, Lillian Matthews and Lanretta Martineau.

Cooks included Barbara Butler, Louisa Pound, Amy Southcombe and Olive Prater. In ‘General Service’ were Eleanor Hughes, Kathleen Perriam, Joyce Dennys (the artist), Rita Radford Rowe, Mildred Fulton, Eva Deedes, Joan Unwin, Moira Grieg and Dorothy Lloyd. Transport Officer was Mr JE Radford Rowe. The local secretary was Mrs Norman, the Treasurer of the Townspeople’s fund Mr GH Norman.

Military humour being what it is, members of the VAD were often referred to by nicknames, one of which was Very Adorable Darlings.

Their major role was nursing injured servicemen primarily back at home where they were convalescing. Closer to the front lines in military hospitals they carried out more menial work such as cleaning, and washing patients. Other duties included clerical and catering work, while other VADs took on roles which at the time were considered the realm of men, such as ambulance drivers and civil defence workers.

Fans of the TV series Downton Abbey may remember the storyline where Lady Sybil Crawley, tired of receiving news at home of friends dying on the front line, decides to volunteer as a VAD. Like her, many VAD were middle or upper-class women who could afford to volunteer for service, and who had had servants to look after them in peacetime.

So many women were being asked to perform mundane tasks which were entirely new to them – such as making tea! One VAD, May Bradford, was well known for helping men who could not write, whether due to a lack of education or injury, to pen letters to their loved ones back home. She recalled: “To one man I said, “Shall I begin the letter with my dear wife?”  He quietly answered: “That sounds fine, but she’ll be wondering I never said that before.”

Catherine Cathcart-Smith worked as an ambulance driver in London. She tragically stumbled across her brother being brought back from the front: “We had to meet the troop trains at the big London railway stations – Waterloo and Victoria. The trains had hundreds of wounded soldiers packed on them. Their wounds were frightful. Young men with no arms or legs. Many had been gassed. Others blinded.

“One day I saw this young man on a stretcher. It was my brother, so I said to the soldiers who were carrying him: ‘Put him in my ambulance, I am his sister.’ When he died the next day I was with him, holding his hand.”

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