A draft document from the Department of Health has been circulated around HSE managers warning of further job losses in the nursing sector. Staff nurse levels will be cut by 700 this year as part of a move to optimise resources. The Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) has claimed that these further cutbacks will have an unsafe impact on frontline services and that patient care will be compromised. The HSE is defending the proposal and continues to insist that frontline services will be maintained. I wonder what the VAD nurses would have made of today’s working conditions at the front line?
The British Red Cross Society formed the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1909 to provide auxiliary medical service in the event of war. While it was mostly men who fought on the front lines during the First World War, some women also worked close to European battlefields as nurses. These graduate nurses and members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment – a corps of semi-trained nurses – worked in war hospitals, drove ambulances, and served as cooks, clerks, and maids. Most women who volunteered with this unit were not professional nurses. They attended classes in first aid, home nursing, and hygiene with the St. John Ambulance Association for between three and six months and also volunteered in hospitals, making beds, taking temperatures, and performing other duties. Open-air drills also taught VADs to build and cook on camp fires, pitch hospital tents, and care for wounded soldiers.
The work was physically and emotionally taxing. Nurses worked long hours in crowded and chaotic hospitals treating severely wounded soldiers from the front lines. They slept on bunks, ate rations, and went without the usual comforts from home. Although the work was stressful and sometimes traumatic, it also produced a sense of satisfaction in many nurses by allowing them to make significant and public contributions to the war effort.
Image courtesy of the British Red Cross Museum and Archives.