Episodes & Studies Volume 1
AMAJORITY of the members of the W.A.A.C. who served overseas were Voluntary Aids, and they formed a most valuable adjunct to the Army Nursing Service. In the Middle East and Italy 410 women altogether served as V.A.D.s (Voluntary Aid Detachments), as they were familiarly called, as opposed to 220 in the General Division who were engaged in welfare or office work with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The first draft of V.A.D.s, over 180 strong, left New Zealand in December 1941, enrolled as members of the W.W.S.A. (Overseas Hospital Division). These women were selected by the National Voluntary Aids Council, in collaboration with the W.W.S.A., from members of the Order of St. John or of the New Zealand Red Cross Society. Although they had not had the professional training of nurses, V.A.D.s had to have a substantial background of experience before being accepted for duty in military hospitals. They had to possess four certificates, given for elementary home nursing, first aid, hygiene and sanitation, and for sixty hours’ practical work in a recognised hospital training school for nurses; to secure these certificates entailed practically a year’s spare-time training. The intention was, broadly speaking, that the V.A.D.s should replace male nursing orderlies and should perform equivalent duties. Occasions undoubtedly arose when V.A.D.s assumed rather fuller responsibilities, taking charge of wards of forty to sixty cases, but a sister of the N.Z.A.N.S. was always available on call.
In New Caledonia from late in 1943 V.A.D.s were assisting the medical and nursing staffs of the Army hospitals. Here their living conditions were sometimes very primitive, as were the hospitals themselves at first. At one hospital all water had for a time to be carried, and the women did their own washing in a running creek. A mobile hot shower unit was available once a week. Elsewhere they lived for months in tents with gravel floors, and it was left to the women themselves to make their own surroundings a little more attractive by contriving packing-case furniture, introducing gaily-coloured curtains or upholstery, and growing flowers. Better accommodation was gradually provided, although the insects, including mosquitoes, innumerable in a tropical climate, were always the source of some apprehension and annoyance.
In spite of difficulties and discomforts, the V.A.D.s, like other members of the W.A.A.C. in the Pacific, cheerfully added to their daily tasks the obligation of taking a full part in army entertainments and social life, dancing ‘thousands of miles’ and attending, and as often as possible page 26 engaging in, the various debates, concerts, community sings, card evenings, and educational classes. In all of these their presence was very welcome to the men of the 3rd Division, whether sick, convalescent, or in training.
Not all of the V.A.D.s were doing nursing work. In the Pacific they also acted as clerks, telephone exchange operators, and laboratory assistants, and ran the hospital laundries. In the Middle East and Italy about 7 per cent of the V.A.D.s did necessary clerical work in military hospitals, and some of the remainder were engaged in what might be considered domestic work as distinct from nursing. Others acted as storewomen, drivers, radiographers, dispensers, postal clerks, and masseuses. Towards the end of the war clerical work was undertaken, too, in headquarters at Florence, Bari, and Maadi.
The V.A.D.s had gone overseas aware of their status; they had realised that they would serve as privates and would have small chance of promotion; they had accepted their position as inferior and ancillary to that of the qualified nurses of the N.Z.A.N.S. Though the V.A.D.s did not themselves complain, as time passed others on their behalf argued that they were not being fairly treated. The chief ground of complaint was that their non-commissioned status handicapped them socially and also at times caused them real hardship. Because it was ‘for officers only’, they were, for instance, debarred from the only hotel in Tripoli suitable for European women. Their friends at home felt that they should share some of the high status of members of the Army Nursing Service (who ranked as officers), and that their years of faithful service should be recognised by wider chances of promotion.
The Voluntary Aids’ position was in some respects anomalous: they were members of the W.A.A.C. administered by their own officers, but for purposes of duty and discipline they were under the matron and sisters of the hospitals where they worked. In August 1944 this and other anomalies affecting the status of the W.A.A.C. in the Middle East and Italy were adjusted: at the same time as the members of the General Division became ‘welfare secretaries’ or, if engaged in a purely clerical capacity, ‘secretaries’, the V.A.D.s became ‘nurses’. Both sections of the W.A.A.C. now assumed the status of officers. This gave them the same standing as the women of most of the other Commonwealth women’s services in the same theatres of war. In April 1947 those V.A.D. personnel still in the Army were transferred to the Army Nursing Service.
A number of V.A.D.s served in hospital ships. In New Zealand also they were indispensable assistants to the N.Z.A.N.S. and carried out the same varied duties in local service hospitals as they had done overseas.