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War-time volunteers and personnel records

First World War VAD poster by Joyce Dennys© Info The British Red Cross museum and archives hold personnel indexes from both world wars. Find out more about our war-time volunteers, and what resources we have available to researchers.

What was a VAD, exactly?

In 1909 the War Office issued the Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid. Under this scheme, the British Red Cross was given the role of providing supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service in the event of war.

In order to provide trained personnel for this task, county branches of the Red Cross organised units called voluntary aid detachments. All voluntary aid detachment members (who themselves came to be known simply as 'VADs') were trained in first aid and nursing. Within twelve months of the scheme's launch, they numbered well over 6,000.

Membership grew still further on the outbreak of war in 1914. The British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a body which was also empowered to raise detachments under the War Office Voluntary Aid Scheme, combined to form the Joint War Committee (JWC) to administer their wartime relief work with the greatest possible efficiency and economy, under the protection of the red cross emblem and name. This was such a successful working partnership that when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the British Red Cross and Order of St. John joined together again to form the Joint War Organisation (JWO).

What kind of work did VADs do?

The VADs working under both the JWC and the JWO performed a variety of duties. Both the Committee and the Organisation administered auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes in Britain throughout the world wars and much of the VAD service was performed in these homes and hospitals. Volunteers performed general nursing duties and administered first aid.

Qualified nurses were also employed to work in these establishments, while many VADs gave their service in military hospitals. In addition, VADs performed clerical and kitchen duties. With many men engaged in military service, women VADs took on roles such as ambulance drivers, civil defence workers and welfare officers. VADs were also sent abroad during both world wars as the Committee and the Organisation operated overseas in countries such as France, Italy and Russia.

What records does the British Red Cross hold?

We have a series of indexes recording the service details of personnel working during both world wars. These indexes are very extensive but they are known to be incomplete - there is no guarantee that the person you are looking for will be in the indexes.

Record cards may include the dates of service, the nature of the duties performed, the detachment the individual belonged to, the institutions and places where the individual served, and any honours that may have been awarded. In addition, there are indexes for personnel who served in military hospitals, who were trained nurses, and who received the war medal.

We also have index cards for recipients of the voluntary medical service awards for the period between the 1930s and the 1960s. We don't have records of VADs during the interwar years or the period before the First World War. We have a very limited record of VADs from after the Second World War. Regretfully, an individual's service record cannot be traced by a medal recipient number, as these records have not survived.

How can I search for someone?

For conservation and security reasons, these records are not directly accessible to the public, but our staff are willing to search these records on request. An application should be made in writing, to the museum and archives department, containing as much relevant information about the individual concerned as possible. In particular it is useful to include:

  • date of birth
  • any known addresses
  • date of marriage (if applicable)
  • any already known service details
  • middle names, maiden or married names .

Is there a charge for this service?

There is no formal charge for this service. However, the time taken to carry out a simple search of the records costs the Red Cross at least £10. In view of this, you may wish to make a donation towards the expenses incurred.

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Three First World War Red Cross nurses pose in uniform for a portrait photo

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