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WW1 at Black Country Living Museum

Gertrude Bytheway, V.A.D. nurse

/media/ww1/library/vadposter.jpgVoluntary Aid Detachment Nurse, Red Cross

Aged 33 in 1914

Occupation prior to the war: Teacher

Place of Birth/Residence: Walsall

Although we have no pictures of Gertrude, we have several records of her V.A.D. contributions.

In 1911 Gertrude is living at 20 Foden Road, Walsall with her uncle William Grant and her sister Effie Bytheway, who was also a teacher.



Voluntary Aid Detachments

In 1909 it was decided to form Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) to provide medical assistance in time of war. By the summer of 191, there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain and 74,000 VADs, of which two-thirds were women and girls.

During the next four years 38,000 VADs worked as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain.

At first the military authorities were unwilling to accept VADs on the front-line. However, this restriction was removed in 1915 and women volunteers over the age of twenty-three and with more than three months experience, were allowed to go to the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. Later VADs were sent to the Eastern Front.

A VAD nurse had varied duties, some served in hospitals at home and others served abroad.  They cared for wounded soldiers the British Royal Red Cross Society trained the Voluntary Aid Detachment in roles such as first aid, bed making, giving a patient a blanket bath, feeding a patient and keeping a ward clean.

VAD Recollections


[VAD nurse with wounded British soldiers in France, source Getty images]


These brave women serving on the front, remained resourceful and courageous whilst enduring such overwhelming hardship and grim conditions. Vera Brittain, a V.A.D. recalls a time in a field camp hospital in Etaples,1918 in her book 'A Testament of Youth':

"The picture came back to me of myself standing alone in a newly created circle of hell during the 'emergency' of March 22nd 1918, gazing half hypnotized at the dishevelled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy clothing, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy bloodstained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited for me and all the equipment that I had for attacking it in this ex-medical ward was one pair of forceps standing in a potted meat glass half full of methylated spirit."


Roll of Honour, Getrude Bytheway

/media/ww1/library/gbrollofhonour.jpgSource: British Journal of Nursing

The most distressing tragedy of these deaths emphasises the risks continually taken, with the utmost courage and coolness, by the members of the various Nursing Services, who well know that they go at the peril of their lives, whether on hospital ships or on transports in the seas sown with mines and infested with submarines. Nevertheless, not a Sister but thinks it an honour to brave the peril to place her skilled help at the service of our sick and wounded men, and when death confronts her she meets it with unflinching courage.

The two ships sunk in the Eastern Mediterranean were the transport Aragon, which was torpedoed and the Osmawieh, which was sunk by a mine the following day on the same spot. There were 40 or 50 Sisters on the Aragon, who were all saved, Captain Bateman giving the order; ‘ Women first.” In fifteen minutes the transport had disappeared. Many of the men on board were picked up by the destroyer accompanying her only to be torpedoed once again. One survivor relates how four nurses pulled him over the side of the trawler to which they had been transferred from the life-boat, but for their help he would have fallen back into the water.

The loss of life amongst the nurses occurred on the following day, when the Osmawieh was mined. All the nurses-forty to fifty-were thrown into the water, and eight of them, unhappily, were drowned. As the disaster occurred near to land they were taken to the mortuary of a hospital on shore, where we may be sure that every honour and respect which could be accorded was paid to them.

The members of the nursing profession to whose traditions were faithful unto death will assuredly ever honour their memory and strive to follow their example.



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