Edith Cavell–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
In 1914, British nurse, Edith Cavell was a matron at a hospital in Brussels.  When her attention was drawn to the plight of British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines she decided to help in any way she could. It has been estimated that around 200 British soldiers passed through her hospital – one stop on a developing ‘underground railroad’ that led to neutral Holland. Secrecy was paramount as the Germans had posted warning notices in every town and there was a reward for each soldier that was turned in.  She had a narrow escape when some soldiers of the Royal Munster Fusiliers arrived.  One night they opted to head into town, got drunk in a bar, got involved in a fight and then meandered back to the hospital singing ‘Tipperaray’.  They got away with it but Edith Cavell’s luck would eventually run out!

Their Lives in Her Hands


Image:  Recruiting poster for the Voluntary Aid Detachment.  British troops had a variety of other names for these dedicated young women.


The first two V.A.D. ‘nurses’ crossed to Belgium in October 1914.  Women felt no less patriotic than men and while men flocked to army recruiting stations, thousands of women enlisted in the V.A.D. to do their bit.  They were often well-intentioned women from privileged backgrounds but many had never even made a bed or a cup of tea – the most basic of skills required in their new role.  Emulating their brothers and boyfriends many exaggerated their age, as 23 was the minimum for overseas service. Within weeks they would be washing down soldiers with horrendous injuries and incinerating amputated limbs.  Among the 38,000 to enlist were authors Agatha Christie and Vera Brittain plus actress Hattie Jacques, who earned fame through the ‘Carry On’ series of films.

'Very Active Dusters' Cross the Channel

VADs Poster–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

Image:  Dorothie Fielding (centre) was the first woman to receive the British Military Medal.


On the 16th October 1914 fighting began a dozen miles north of Ypres at the small town of Dixmuide.  The victors of Antwerp were sweeping down from the north, reinforced by a new army that was arriving by train from Germany.   Dorothie Fielding (24) worked as a volunteer nurse / ambulance driver attached to the Belgian army and drove in and out the inferno to collect the wounded.  The beautiful, young English aristocrat had only been given a month’s training and the story of how she coped with the noise and sights of battle was picked up by the world’s press.  The ‘Lady who laughed at bullets’ became an international celebrity.

The Lady Who Laughed at Bullets

Dorothie Fielding–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 13th October 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 16th October 1914

British Tommies were full of praise for the ‘girls’ (their choice of term) of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.  These well-to-do young ladies had to pay a joining fee and also had to contribute the cost of their food and board. From their base at Calais they often drove their own cars (converted to serve as ambulances) back and forth evacuating wounded from the fighting area. 


FANY Badge–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
FANY WW1 Nurses–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

Image: Constance, Duchess of Westminster.


Wounded soldiers arriving at what they took to be a routine army hospital close to the notorious Etaples training camp, were surprised to be delivered to a plush villa.  Here they were greeted by immaculately dressed and bejewelled ladies such as the owner, the Duchess of Westminster. Even when in uniform the ladies who volunteered to work in these hospitals opted to wear ‘designer’ rather than ‘off the peg’ outfits. Had it not been for the fact that morphine was in short supply, the patients might have believed that this vision was generated by chemicals. In fact the Duchess had turned her Le Touquet villa into a hospital and, until the tide of wounded became too great, she and her friends dressed up to greet their ‘guests’ - and this included wearing their diamond tiaras!

Nurses in Tiaras

WW1 Nurses in Tiaras–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

During the coldest nights of December 1914 they had to start up their engines every hour in order to prevent them from freezing. In the course of the war FANY members were awarded 136 awards for bravery and in their down time they were renowned for their parties.

The link between the shown images is not immediately obvious. The film ‘La Vie en Rose’ enjoyed considerable success at the 2008 BAFTAS, winning four gongs including the award for best actress.  Marion Cotillard wowed the judges with her portrayal of France’s national diva, Edith Piaf.  Born, Edith Gassion in December 1915, the diminutive singer was named after World War 1 hero, Edith Cavell. 

Remembering Edith

La Vie En Rose Poster–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

Cavell was a British born nurse who was working at a hospital in Brussels when the Germans invaded.  Wounded and exhausted British soldiers were brought to her hospital and she became an integral link in an underground railroad that helped over 200 to escape captivity.  An informer betrayed her and in October 1915 she was dragged into a courtyard to face a firing squad.  The stress was too great and, when she fainted, an officer stepped forward to fire the fatal shots.  Her story was headline news in many countries and the name Edith became hugely popular.

Death of Edith Cavell-Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

By April 1915, the work of two young nurses was being widely recognised.  In January, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were decorated by King Albert I of Belgium with the Order of Léopold II for their work saving lives near Ypres.  ‘The Madonnas of Pervyse’ had quite literally distanced themselves from army medical provision to set up their own dressing station in a cellar around 100 yards from the front line.  While Elsie patched up the wounded, Mairi transported them to army field hospitals up to 15 miles to the rear.  As they were no longer formally attached to the military, they had to finance operations themselves.  Undaunted they raised money through donations to strengthen their cellar with concrete and equipped it with a steel door that was kindly supplied by Harrods.

Madonnas of Pervyse

Madonnas of Pervyse–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

On 27th June Vera Brittain began her first day’s work as a nurse in a British hospital, tending to wounded men brought back from the Western Front.  That day she heard a Scottish sergeant in the hospital remark ‘We shall beat them, but they’ll break our hearts first’.  This proved prophetic for the 21 year old who lost both her brother and her fiancée in the conflict. In 2014 Vera’s autobiography ‘Testament of Youth’ was made into a feature film with Juliette Towhidi playing the role of the young author.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 27th June 1915

Brittain Goes to War

Vera Brittain WW1 Nurse–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

Emily Hobhouse was despised by Government ministers but revered elsewhere.  Having previously exposed Britain’s use of concentration camps during the Boer War and, she campaigned for peace talks during the Great War.  On this day in 1915, she was working tirelessly to ease the plight of Belgian civilians.  While Kitchener called her ‘that bloody woman’, Gandhi later described her as “one of the noblest and bravest of women”.  When her life – which the Indian leader described as “pure as crystal” – ended in 1926, a crowd of 20,000 gathered to “bury her like a princess”.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 1st July 1915

"That Bloody Woman" Is At It Again!

Emily Hobhouse WW1–Western Front Witness–Women in WW1-WW1 Nurses-VADs-First Aid Nursing Yeomanry