Remembrance: Writers as Nurses in The British Red Cross

With Remembrance Sunday approaching on 14th November in the UK, it is a time of reflection for those who gave their lives in military campaigns or had their lives taken from them due to conflict.

Whilst searching through archives, I stumbled upon a familiar logo.

An organisation that seems to be ever-present and at the side of those who desperately need help.

The Red Cross was initially founded as The International Red Cross and Red Crescent by Swiss businessman Henry Dunant in 1863.

Later, in 1870, Colonel Loyd-Lindsay inspired a meeting after writing to The Times newspaper in London, proposing that Britain should be like other European countries in forming a society to do the same—’aid sick and wounded soldiers in time of war.’

Therefore in 1908, the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War, was renamed The British Red Cross by HM King Edward VII.

In the First World War, 1914-1918, there were over 90,000 volunteers who worked for the British Red Cross at home and overseas. Made up of men and women, they supplied vital support to naval and military forces in caring for the sick and injured sailors and soldiers.

The link below will take you to a full article on the British Red Cross website giving information about their contribution, detailing their training, special service, general service and overseas work.

The British Red Cross

Women working with The British Red Cross

Photo courtesy of The British Red Cross

In the First World War, women had many different job roles to fill. This ranged from nursing, medics, drivers, teachers and farmers, even munition workers.

During the later Second World War, many women worked for The Land Army at home to replace the men who had previously farmed the land. Again caring for the livestock and the supply of food was vitally important.

But it was to be the severe number of servicemen wounded during the First World War, which required the extra numbers of British Red Cross women volunteers to nurse the injured.

Many women in Voluntary Aid Detachments (or VADs) trained in first aid as well as nursing and other skills in sanitation, hygiene and cooking. It is fair to say that the majority of women members in The British Red Cross volunteered as nurses.

It was also the first time women were allowed to study for medical degrees, no doubt due to their experience gained supporting those injured in the field.

Famous Writers Working For The British RedCross

Vera Brittain VAD Image Credit Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)

Vera Brittain

After delaying her degree at Somerville College Oxford, in 1915, Vera volunteered to work as a VAD nurse for The British Red Cross. Her work began initially at the Devonshire Hospital in Buxton and later she moved to help out in London, Malta and France. Sadly for Vera the impact of the First World War would take the life of
her fiancé, Roland Leighton, along with her close friends Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward.

After the First World War, Vera published her first novel Testament of Youth in 1933. Having been directly affected with the loss of her fiancé, brother and friends, it would come as no surprise that her book described the devastation of the Great War. She wrote of the impact on the lives of women and a lost generation as well as how this extended into the post war years.

Agatha Christie VAD
Image Credit The Telegraph.

Agatha Christie

With the outbreak of the First World War, Agatha Miller (as she was then) watched as her soon-to-be husband, Archibald Christie, left for France in August of 1914. In October of the same year, Agatha volunteered with The British Red Cross as a VAD, working at the Town Hall Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. The town where she was born.

Archie returned on leave at Christmas 1914, and both Agatha and Archie were married. Like most women of the time, she wanted to do her bit to help. So, she continued her work with The British Red Cross.

Initially, she worked as a nurse (unpaid) but then later trained as a dispenser. After 1917 she qualified as an apothecary’s assistant (pharmacy assistant), earning a good wage. Her service ended in September 1918 when Archie returned home and was reassigned to work in London.

Agatha had her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920 by The Bodley Head. It is interesting to note that a famous character was born in this novel, a Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The story went that he had been a Belgian police officer with “magnificent moustaches” and a head “exactly the shape of an egg” who had taken refuge in Britain after Germany invaded.

It is believed that Christie’s inspiration for the now infamous Belgian character was due to her service as a British Red Cross volunteer nurse during the First World War, where she nursed many Belgian refugees who had settled in Torquay.
Along with her new qualifications gained in pharmacy, perhaps we can glean where her mind for murder using poisons began!

Naomi Mitchison VAD
Image Credit: (vad.redcross.org.uk)

Naomi Mitchison (Haldane)

Naomi Mitchison (Haldane) was a Scottish novelist and poet who published over 90 historical fiction, science fiction, travel writing, and biographical books.
Like her father, John Scott Haldane and her brother J.B.S, Haldane, Naomi initially strove for a career in science. In 1914 she was accepted to study for a degree in science at the University of Oxford.

However, the First World War had broken out and before completing her studies, in 1915 Naomi volunteered as a nurse for The British Red Cross as a VAD and worked as an auxiliary nurse at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. Her initial tasks were routine and domestic, but Mitchison later came into direct nursing contact with patients.

In 1916 she married Gilbert Richard (Dick) Mitchison, who served at the front in the army during the war. He was later to become a lawyer and Labour M.P.

Both her husband and much-loved-brother would be seriously injured in the war. This and the loss of other friends greatly affected Naomi and impacted significantly in her subsequent career.

Naomi herself was later struck with scarlet fever, which curtailed her voluntary work with the British Red Cross.

Her first book published was of historical interest, The Conquered, published in 1923. A Celtic tale set in Gaul in the first century BCE during the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar.

Not only would she go on to be a prolific writer, recognised for her historical writing as well as other genres, but she took an active part in social and political affairs, including women’s rights and the cause of birth control.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog as much as I did finding out about the early lives of these authors and extraordinary women. To understand the author as a person in their time, to see what they witnessed and how it impacted on their lives and their thoughts, and portrayed through their words.

Remembrance is for all who have been touched,

in so many different ways, by conflict.

To see the world in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

William Blake Auguries of Innocence.

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