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British Red Cross launches digital A-Z archive of First World War volunteers

25 April 2016

First world war nurses

Nursing dying soldiers, driving ambulances through the trenches and searching for the missing are just some of the ways voluntary aid detachments (VADs) cared for the sick and wounded during the First World War.

Today, the British Red Cross celebrates the completion of an online archive of more than 244,000 personnel index cards, which provide a new picture of their work on the home front and overseas.

Countless volunteers also performed more mundane, but essential tasks such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. One of the most curious roles assigned to hundreds of people as part of the war effort was that of sphagnum moss collector, who collected moss as a dressing for wounds.

Mike Adamson, Chief Executive of the British Red Cross said: “At a time when there were unprecedented numbers of casualties returning from the First World War battlefields, the 90,000 people who served as VADs are famous for having formed the backbone of military nursing, both on the home front and overseas.

“But behind the scenes, many thousands of people were contributing in whatever way they could. A century later, we are paying tribute to their humanitarian service by opening up access to their index cards. By digitising these records we are making them instantaneously accessible for the first time, as well as preserving them for years to come.”

The collection of index cards, which is now more than 100 years old, includes VADs’ names and details such as where they worked and what tasks they did and is now available to search for free at by relatives of VADs and historians alike.

The archive was created in partnership with the Centre for Historical Record at Kingston University London over a period of more than two years. A team of 800 history buff volunteers from as far away as the Czech Republic and Canada, as well as schoolchildren in the UK, have helped to transcribe the cards.

Dr Sue Hawkins, Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University London said: “People don't talk much about volunteers who weren't nurses during the First World War, but the sheer scale of it is amazing. Some people did thousands of hours, including really mundane things like rolling bandages.”

“Nobody else has this kind of collection on non-military activity and digitising these records means that you can analyse them in a way that you couldn't before. The size of it has amazed me, as has the diversity of the people involved.”

“You've got famous people, and others of high standing – including the daughter of a Punjab maharajah – and then many, many ordinary people. Some were rich but others weren't rich at all.”

Famous VADs include authors Agatha Christie, E.M. Forster and Vera Brittain, who wrote of her work as a Red Cross nurse in Testament of Youth.



For further information, interviews or images of the VAD cards, including those of Vera Brittain or Agatha Christie please contact Anna MacSwan on 0207 877 7519 or 07710 391 703 out of hours

This project has been generously funded by a grant of £80,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund ( @heritagelottery). Transcription volunteers have been trained and managed by the Centre for the Historical Record at Kingston University London.

90,000 people served as VADs during the First World War under the banner of the Joint War Committee, which consisted of the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (now St. John’s Ambulance). Throughout the war VADs worked alongside medical or technical staff in hospitals, convalescent homes, rest stations, packing centres and medical supply depots. The collection includes 244,124 index cards as many VADs had more than one card in the collection.

The British Red Cross helps millions of people in the UK and around the world to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies, disasters and conflicts. Our volunteers and staff help people in crisis to live independently by providing support at home, mobility aids and transport. We also teach first aid skills. We are part of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent humanitarian network.

We refuse to ignore people in crisis.

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