16 June 2021

The Red Cross heroine

In 2020, the British Red Cross Society celebrated its 150th anniversary. When the society was formed in August 1870, its purpose was to provide aid to sick and wounded soldiers in times of war.

Red Cross logo
Red Cross logo

It has been supporting countries all over the world in times of crisis ever since.

One part of this outstanding legacy is society’s extensive involvement in the First World War. When the war was declared in August 1914, the British Red Cross Society joined forces with the Order of St John to form the Joint War Committee.

The Committee supplied volunteer and professional nurses to hospitals in Britain and overseas. These women gave their time, skills and occasionally their lives to help others. Their sacrifice earned them the title, ‘Red Cross Heroine’.

The weekly magazine, The War Illustrated, often referred to nurses by this title. The War Illustrated was created at the beginning of the First World War and told the story of the conflict through photographs and illustrations.

The magazine’s innovative use of the latest camera technology and artists’ illustrations provided up-to-date war news in an accessible format.

Its popularity remained constant throughout Britain during the First World War. This success continued in later years when the magazine was reissued to cover the events of the Second World War.

The War Illustrated strove to portray and inspire patriotic feelings through the examples of inspiring individuals. The following images are taken from various issues of The War Illustrated held by Special collections in the University of Sheffield library.

These carefully selected snapshots provide a glimpse into the story of the ‘Red Cross heroine’ during the First World War.

The Red Cross nurse

Figure 2. 22nd August 1914 – ‘Woman’s Healing Work Among the Wounded’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).
Figure 2. 22nd August 1914 – ‘Woman’s Healing Work Among the Wounded’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).

Before the war, society firmly believed that a woman’s place was within the home. Campaigners for women’s rights such as the Suffragettes set out to challenge this view.

But when war was declared in 1914, many campaigns were postponed to focus on the war effort. This meant that at the start of the conflict, women’s wartime roles were restricted by pre-war attitudes.

Women may not have been allowed to engage in combat, but they certainly had their own part to play. In the article featured opposite, this role is advertised as ‘Woman’s Healing Work’.

In the same article, Florence Nightingale is used as a role model to all women. With her innate compassion and fighting spirit, what better way for a woman to “do her bit” than become the next “lady with the lamp”?

From the outset, women were encouraged to fulfil their “natural” caregiving role by becoming nurses.

To become a fully-qualified nurse required lots of hard work and extensive training. When war broke out in 1914, there were simply not enough professional nurses available.

To overcome this difficulty, professional nurses received support from volunteers. Volunteers training under the Red Cross were, according to the article featured opposite, limited to ‘rapid and comparatively easy work’ and were usually stationed in auxiliary hospitals.

Auxiliary hospitals relieved some of the pressure on central hospitals by caring for patients
with minor injuries.

These hospitals were largely staffed by members of the local community known as Voluntary Aid detachments.

But both on the field, and in the General Hospital, every woman used to deal(ing) with street accidents will be as serviceable to her country as the soldier in the firing line."

The War Illustrated

22 August 1914

Figure 3. 12th September 1914 – ‘Angels of Mercy Prepare to Play Their Part’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).
Figure 3. 12th September 1914 – ‘Angels of Mercy Prepare to Play Their Part’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).

The term ‘Voluntary Aid Detachment’ (or V.A.D) refers to the local units organised by the Red Cross, but it also refers to the members of the units themselves. To ensure volunteer nurses kept to their supporting role, their training was limited to basic first aid, cooking and cleaning.

In the article featured above, professional nurses are photographed giving cookery lessons to the volunteers. Those who were ‘surprised’ by the domestic nature of their work were reminded that even the smallest contributions were vital to the nation’s success.

By the end of the war in 1918, there were over 90,000 V.A.Ds working for the British Red Cross. As the war continued, the V.A.Ds’ responsibilities increased in order to cope with the unprecedented number of casualties.

In 1915, the War Office began requesting V.A.Ds for Special Service in military hospitals overseas. The work was backbreaking, but the V.A.Ds endured it with immense fortitude and determination.

Although there were some who may not have wanted to admit it, the professional nurses relied on the assistance of the volunteers. At the start of the war, the ‘Red Cross heroine’ was part of a patriarchal ideal of femininity that tried to limit women’s involvement in the conflict.

These limitations began to wear off as the war progressed, but there were some women who refused to wait for society’s approval.

Varied work of the Red Cross heroine

Figure 4. 19th September 1914 – ‘Red Cross Heroines who Rode to the Battle Front’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).
Figure 4. 19th September 1914 – ‘Red Cross Heroines who Rode to the Battle Front’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).

Some nursing positions defied the attitudes of the pre-war years. All-female units, such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (F.A.N.Y) placed women closer to the front line than any other organisation at the time.

In the First World War, they treated the wounded and transported them from the front line to the field hospitals. In the early stages of the war, these units were advertised using gallant images of women charging onto the battlefields on horseback.

In the article featured opposite, women are pictured in typically masculine riding attire as ‘Equipped for the field of battle’.

The intention was to persuade female riders to offer their services. However, horses were quickly replaced by motorised vehicles.

Members of these groups were often criticized because they adopted traditionally male roles. Alongside the first aid and cooking skills of the hospital nurse, these units required expertise in other areas, such as horsemanship, veterinary work, and driving.

These additional skills were considered rare in women in the early twentieth century. The British military was particularly reluctant to recognise the work of these units, under the impression that the front line was no place for women.

Although these organizations worked under the protection of the red cross emblem, it took several years before some officially became part of the British Red Cross.

Despite the hostile reception from British authorities, units like the F.A.N.Y remained dedicated to the recovery and care of wounded soldiers at the front.

When there is a lull in the screaming of the shells, and the last embers of a battle are being extinguished, it is then that the Red Cross heroes and heroines come out to assist those who have suffered in the fight."

The War Illustrated

19 September 1914

 
Figure 5. Volume 10, ‘The Last Phase’ – ‘Varied War Activities of the Devoted V.A.D.’ (The War Illustrated deluxe album).
Figure 5. Volume 10, ‘The Last Phase’ – ‘Varied War Activities of the Devoted V.A.D.’ (The War Illustrated deluxe album).

The request was made for motorised ambulances in the autumn of 1914. It was the first time in history that motorised vehicles would be used to transport wounded soldiers. Before this, they were transported in horse-drawn ambulances.

The first female V.A.D ambulance drivers were established in April 1916. Some of them are featured in the article opposite.

In general, they were expected to maintain exceptionally high standards and keep their vehicles in good working order. This is clear in the photograph opposite, which shows ambulances lined up in a regimental fashion ready for a thorough inspection.

Like the F.A.N.Y, the role of the V.A.D ambulance drivers was to transport the wounded to hospitals. They often drove through artillery fire to retrieve the wounded.

To ride into the field of battle, whether on horseback or by motorcar, is just one example of the ‘Red Cross Heroine’ in action. This exceptional bravery did not go unrewarded.

Many V.A.D ambulance drivers, such as those featured opposite, received the Military Medal for their services. Indeed, Red Cross workers were recognised for several different reasons.

Honouring the Red Cross heroine

Figure 6. 27th January 1917 – ‘Devoted Women Honoured by Grateful Men’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).
Figure 6. 27th January 1917 – ‘Devoted Women Honoured by Grateful Men’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).

V.A.Ds had to be in an economic position to work without pay. This meant that most women who volunteered came from a life of privilege. The article opposite features two high society ladies. The V.A.D pictured on the top left, the Hon. Mrs Diana Wyndham, was the daughter of the politician, Thomas Lister, 4th Baron Ribblesdale.

Her first husband, Percy Wyndham, was killed just one year after their marriage in 1914. It was after this that Diana decided to volunteer as a nurse. She met her second husband, “Boy“ Capel, whilst nursing in France.

Pictured on the top right is Lady Rosemary Leveson-Gower, daughter of the 4th Duke of Sutherland. She was mentioned in despatches for Red Cross service under fire.

Lady Rosemary fell in love with the heir to the British throne, the Prince of Wales, whilst nursing in France during the First World War. Sadly, their marriage was forbidden by the monarchy. Rosemary married Viscount Ednam, a close friend of the Prince of Wales, in 1919.

Occasionally then, the war allowed for romances to blossom. But at what cost? Women such as those photographed opposite swapped their life of luxury and leisure for hard work, strict routine and the heart-breaking reality of modern warfare.

Figure 7. 1st December 1917 – ‘Heroes & Heroines Honoured for War Services’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).
Figure 7. 1st December 1917 – ‘Heroes & Heroines Honoured for War Services’ (University of Sheffield, Special Collections).

Women may have been prevented from engaging in combat, but this did not mean that they were out of the firing line.

V.A.D Daisy Coles, who is pictured opposite, was killed on 30 September 1917 in an air raid whilst on duty. She was 24 years old. She was buried at Longuenesse (St. Omer) Souvenir Cemetery in France.

Nurse Nellie Spindler, also pictured opposite, worked at a casualty clearing station close to the front line. Despite the continuous risks, she remained committed to the care of her patients. On the 21st August 1917, Nurse Spindler was struck by German shell fragments and rendered unconscious. She died in the arms of one of her colleagues twenty minutes later.

She was 26 years old. Nurse Spindler was buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium with full military honours. She was one of only two female casualties buried in Belgium during the First World War.

Every woman who nursed during the First World War sacrificed something to save the lives of others– their education, their home comforts, their loved ones. These Red Cross heroines sacrificed their lives.

The power of kindness has remained at the heart of the Red Cross for over 150 years. The women who worked for them during the First World War will be forever remembered for their noble acts of kindness.

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