The 1,500 volunteer nurses who lost their lives during the world wars could finally be honoured with a permanent memorial, thanks to campaign by former colleagues.
A group of surviving nurses are attempting to trace the names of all the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) volunteers who lost their lives in WW1 and WW2, to be added to a proposed memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
The VAD system, providing volunteers who were trained by the Red Cross and St John nurses, and then sent to help out in the field across the British Empire, was founded in 1909.
By 1914, there were some 74,000 volunteers (known as VADs), two-thirds of them women and girls.
But by the end of World War II, 1,500 of these were dead. To this day, there is no proper memorial to mark the efforts of nurses who lost their life in service.
But now retired nurses from the New Cavendish Club - a London-based ladies’ club opened in 1920 for female VADs - are campaigning for a proper memorial.
Sonja Curtis, head of The Nursing Memorial Appeal, explains: “We think about 1500 of these women died in the world wars but although there are a few memorials to nurses generally, there are none specific to VADs, and no women are named. That is the thing that gets me,” she says. “These people should not be forgotten.”
In order to compile a list of VADs who died in service - to be added to a proposed memorial at The National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s Centre for Remembrance in Staffordshire - Curtis and her team of volunteers are “starting from scratch”.
“We’ve had the help of the Royal College of Nurses, who hold in trust a roll of honour, and by asking for information from any living relatives of the deceased. But it is a long process, every name on our list has to be verified,” Curtis explains.
Margaret Brierley, 84, who was a member of the Royal Naval branch of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, added: “I made a lot of friends during this time, some of whom are still around,” she says. “It taught us to be a very tough band of women.”
Following a fundraiser at their London headquarters, the New Cavendish Club is proposing a follow-up at the setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle. “This was one of a number of places which was turned makeshift hospitals during the war, because there weren’t enough for the boys and men coming back from Flanders,” Curtis says. “Countess Carnarvon, who lives at the house with her husband, the Earl, is keen for us to do something at Highclere.”
The New Cavendish Club Ladies are looking for £50,000 for the memorial, but Brierley says it will be worth every penny: “[The nurses] would have been absolutely delighted that people were thinking of them and their efforts, and were bothering to properly mark their memory”.
“On the whole these nurses weren’t paid at all, they were volunteers,” Curtis adds. Although some, like Agatha Christie, a pharmacist by trade, were given a small wage because they had specific skills. “These were very special people who learned on the job; they didn’t have any training so there weren’t treated as the elite of nursing so really, their story is even more valuable.”
* To get involved or donate visit newcavendishclub.co.uk