Women of the Red Cross: Voluntary Aids in the first world war
‘Undoubtedly these women are heart and soul in the war’, wrote Lady Helen Munro Ferguson in 1916, two years after she founded the Australian Red Cross Society following the outbreak of the First World War. (1) The Society has since grown to be among the country’s oldest and most successful voluntary organisations. In July 2016, the Library was honoured to receive the Archives of the Australian Red Cross Society, New South Wales Division, 1914-2014, the cataloguing of which is busily being completed. Among the significant material found within this vast archive is a collection of 92 photograph albums, containing over 8000 photographic prints. The prints serve to illuminate the personal stories of Red Cross Society staff and volunteers, and celebrate the strong spirit of volunteering throughout New South Wales.
Significant among the prints are those documenting the important role played by the women of the New South Wales Division’s Voluntary Aid Detachment, during the Red Cross Society's foundation years. The ‘VADs’ were the principal volunteering force of the early organisation; they were not formally trained nurses, but rather volunteers who worked as orderlies in convalescent homes, children’s homes, and military hospitals. As one VAD remarked: ‘Our work consists mainly of housework on a large scale.’ (2)
From 1915, as wounded and sick men returned home from Gallipoli at a rate of 100 men per week, the Red Cross Society established convalescent homes throughout the state in order that returned servicemen may ‘derive great benefit from the restful conditions and generous diet.’ (3) The photograph album of Strathfield Branch Voluntary Aid Myrtle Innes, documents life and work inside the Red Cross Society's convalescent homes throughout Sydney, including Nugal Hall at Randwick; Cavell House at Summer Hill; and Rose Hall mansion at Darlinghurst with its three acres of gardens. The album shows the VADs performing laundry duties and preparing teas for the returned soldiers. Often pictured smiling and composed and relaxing in the generous grounds of Rose Hall, the returned soldiers appear far removed from the reality of war.
After July 1916, VADs also assisted at military hospitals overseas, following a request from the British Red Cross for colonial assistance. The photograph album of VAD Enid Armstrong follows her voyage to England on the SS Osterley, which saw heavy weather and a submarine pursuit, to volunteer as a VAD at the military hospital at Leicester, England. Enid’s photographs include many portraits of those she encountered at the hospital, and reveal the intimacy of the VAD’s relationships with the recuperating soldiers.
A side of life in Leicester for the VADs is also shown through photographs of visits to castles, bicycle rides in the countryside, and nurses posing in fancy dress. Like the album of VAD Myrtle Innes, the beautifully still images found throughout the album of Enid Armstrong indicate an experience of peace, in the midst of war. However, this perception is sharply contrasted by the images showing amputee soldiers, the presentation of medals to bedridden men, and photographs of flowers on freshly covered gravesites.
The Australian Red Cross Society, New South Wales Division, photographs and scrapbooks, 1914-2014 is a unique collection, that documents not only the history of the organisation, but serves to animate the personal stories of its volunteers and their communities. The Library is pleased to make it available for further investigation by interested historians.
(1) ‘Letter to Elizabeth Haldane, 1 February 1916, Government House’, MS 6026.f.2, Haldane Papers, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, quoted in M. Oppenheimer, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson and the Australian Red Cross, University of Melbourne, 2011, p. 281 [Actually at that time the New South Wales Division of the British Red Cross Society].
(2) British Red Cross Society. New South Wales Division, ‘Report of the Duties at Prince Alfred Hospital’, in Red Cross Report, July 2nd 1917, p. 25
(3) Melanie Oppenheimer, Red Cross VAs: A History of the VAD Movement in NSW, Ohio Productions, 1999, p. 25; British Red Cross Society. New South Wales Division, Annual Report 1915-1916, p. 1 .
- Glenn Wells, Librarian, Collection Access and Description Branch