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Red Cross launches digital A to Z archive of WW1 VADs

26 April 2016

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

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

Now an online archive of more than 244,000 VAD personnel index cards is finally complete. It provides a new picture of the VADs' work on the home front and overseas.

Countless volunteers also performed more mundane, but essential tasks. These included 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. They picked moss as a dressing for wounds.

Mike Adamson, chief executive of the 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.”

Two years, 800 volunteers

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. It is now available to search for free by everyone from relatives of VADs to schoolchildren and local 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 volunteers from as far away as the Czech Republic and Canada, as well as schoolchildren in the UK, have helped to transcribe the cards.

Famous volunteers

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.

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