• Tastes Of History

On This Day: Agatha Christie's final chapter

January 12th, 1976: Crime writer Agatha Christie dies aged 85.


In her posthumously published Autobiography, she briefly details her experiences as a Red Cross nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). This organisation was a unit of civilian volunteers providing nursing care for military personnel in the United Kingdom and various other countries in the British Empire. The VAD system was founded in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and Order of St. John. By the summer of 1914 there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 VAD members in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls.

Agatha Christie is pictured, right, in the uniform of a Red Cross nurse - a long blue cotton dress worn beneath a white apron emblazoned with her organisation’s emblem. Red Cross nurses and those of St. John, whose uniform was a grey cotton dress, a plain white apron and an armband with the brigade emblem on it, became familiar figures during the war.


At the outbreak of the First World War, VAD volunteers eagerly offered their service to the war effort. The British Red Cross was reluctant to allow civilian women a role in overseas hospitals: most volunteers were of the middle and upper classes and unaccustomed to hardship and traditional hospital discipline. Military authorities would not accept VADs at the front line.

Katharine Furse (later Dame Katharine Furse, GBE, RRC), a British nursing and military administrator, took two VADs to France in October 1914. They were, however, restricted to serving as canteen workers and cooks. Caught under fire in a sudden battle the VADs were pressed into emergency hospital service and acquitted themselves well. The growing shortage of trained nurses opened the door for VADs in overseas military hospitals. Furse was appointed commander-in-chief of the detachments and restrictions were removed. Female volunteers over the age of twenty-three and with more than three months' hospital experience were accepted for overseas service.

By 1916 the military hospitals at home were employing about 8,000 trained nurses with about 126,000 beds, and there were 4,000 nurses abroad with 93,000 beds. By 1918 there were about 80,000 VAD members: 12,000 nurses working in the military hospitals and 60,000 unpaid volunteers working in auxiliary hospitals of various kinds. Some of the volunteers had a snobbish attitude towards the paid nurses.


VADs were an uneasy addition to military hospitals' rank and order. They lacked the advanced skill and discipline of trained professional nurses and were often critical of the nursing profession. Relations improved as the war stretched on: VAD members increased their skill and efficiency, and trained nurses were more accepting of the VADs' contributions. During four years of war 38,000 VADs worked in hospitals and served as ambulance drivers and cooks. VADs served near the Western Front and in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. Later, VADs were also sent to the Eastern Front.

The VAD nurses worked in both field hospitals close to the battlefield and in longer-term places of recuperation back in Britain. They provided an invaluable source of bedside aid in the war effort. Many were decorated for distinguished service. Yet, at the end of the war, the leaders of the nursing profession were agreed that untrained VADs should not be allowed onto the newly established register of nurses.


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