First World War Volunteers

Researcher and volunteer Deborah Cameron tells us about using the British Red Cross ‘Volunteers during the First World War’ digital collection.

Tell us a little about one archive collection you have used as part of your research? I have used the British Red Cross archive collection giving details of mainly women (but also some men) who were VADs in the First World War, as part of my research into women’s roles the war. I have also used the collection for genealogical research as they give ages on joining and addresses.

What was significant about the collection? How did it benefit your research? Each record card gives many details including a VAD’s home address, where they served (often several hospitals), whether they were paid or volunteers, and often other details such as their conduct or if they were ill or died on duty. These cards are free to view online.

The details have helped both on an individual level (I have found hundreds of women’s details who I have been researching individually) and at a wider level. The cards demonstrate that VADs were not ‘just’ nurses in the Great War – they were pharmacists, drivers, cooks, clerks, orderlies and undertook other duties such as making bandages, knitting for soldiers and wonderfully odd things like collecting moss (for treating wounds) and collecting eggs! These records are pure gold for researchers of women in the war and being free to view, invaluable. Such notables as Agatha Christie (her role as “dispenser” sheds light on her knowledge of poisons – later very handy in her fiction at least!) and Vera Brittain. But mainly the many thousands of women who worked towards the war effort. It has been a privilege to ‘meet’ so many ‘ordinary’ women.

Agatha Christie's VAD card, original scan.
Agatha Christie’s VAD card, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 UK: England and Wales Licence

Do you have any top tips for other researchers accessing this collection? You can search by name but there is also a search for place of work – so you can find names of nurses who worked at a specific hospital. For example, I am currently researching an autograph book from the Great War from a very obscure hospital. I put the name in the hospital search (The Anglo Chilean Hospital) and have now found eight nurses who worked there. You can also search by role, so if you were researching, say, pharmacists in the First World War that would be very useful.

Even if researchers are unsure if their ancestor was a VAD, just put the name and see what comes up! It’s also very useful for genealogists as ages and addresses on the cards can be used to trace family tree members.

Further reading

Deborah Cameron’s facebook page – Women in the UK in World War One

Lives of the First World War – Throughout the centenary period IWM has worked with the public to commemorate millions of men and women from across the Commonwealth who took part in the First World War. Deborah was one of thousands of volunteers who helped.

Deborah Cameron, The role of women at Moss Side Military Hospital, Blog post for Atkinson Museum/Manchester Metropolitan University.

About Georgina Brewis

Associate Professor in the History of Education, UCL
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