Gallery: War history - Britain’s women rose to the challenge as wounded soldiers flooded back from the Western Front

Women on the Home Front - Hannah Fulcher in her VAD uniform, with sister Emma working farm machinery

Women on the Home Front - Hannah Fulcher in her VAD uniform, with sister Emma working farm machinery. - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, historian with Galloway Travel, looks at how troops were cared for in Suffolk by folk like Hannah Fulcher.

When Britain declared war on Germany in August, 1914, the Government knew this would be a war of unprecedented scale. Although much had been done to prepare the armed forces for a modern war in Europe, preparations for the care of casualties on a huge scale were nowhere near as advanced.

In fact, as the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the English Channel to face the advancing German Army, the hospitals of Britain could amass a total of only 7,000 beds.

Within days of the first battles of the summer it was obvious to all that this was woefully inadequate. Casualty figures were soaring and an immediate and dramatic increase in the number of hospital beds was urgently needed.

The first steps taken were obvious. Existing hospitals were expanded: extensions were added to wards, and outbuildings were hastily converted into satellite wards. This gave the medical authorities a small increase in capacity but it was still far short of what was needed. The flow of wounded and sick men returning from France was increasing steadily.


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The situation was further complicated by the diversity of wounds, injuries and fevers that the hospitals were required to treat. The majority of those asked to treat the wounded lacked the expertise and experience to deal with wartime injuries. They had to learn fast. Dedicated military hospitals were quickly established and added to the network of pre-war hospitals, but still the tide of wounded threatened to overwhelm the increasingly hard-pressed system.

In an attempt to create more bed spaces, a new type of facility was activated: the auxiliary hospital. Staffed in the main by voluntary organisations, the auxiliaries were not intended to deal with seriously ill or badly wounded soldiers.

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The conversion of large country houses, schools and pre-war rest homes into a new type of medical facility was initiated on a national scale. The auxiliary hospitals provided thousands of new beds and their creation relieved pressure on overworked military hospitals.

Volunteers at the auxiliary hospitals all over the country and in the Commonwealth cared for recovering and less seriously wounded men. By the end of the war, the total number of hospital beds in the UK had risen to the staggering total of 364,000.

The majority of staff at auxiliary hospitals were women from Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD). They were at the forefront of the charge as women stepped into the shoes and boots of men who had left their jobs to go to war.

VAD was formed in 1909. By 1914 there were 2,400 VAD in the UK, with a total strength of 74,000. Two thirds were women.

As the war progressed, the role of VAD women expanded. Although they had little formal medical training they were employed primarily as assistant nurses. Their presence in hospitals and auxiliary sites released qualified doctors and nurses to focus on those in most need of medical care.

The need for staff increased as more and more men left to enlist. The women of the VAD took on additional work as ambulance drivers and cooks.

This all sounds very Downton Abbeyesque, and perhaps a little like something from a historical novel, but actually it is very much closer to home than most of us would imagine.

Recently I was talking about the First World War centenary to Mrs Pat Stewart of Needham Market. She showed me some really interesting photographs that brought the VAD story home to Suffolk.

Pat told me about her “Auntie Nan”, a remarkable lady better known as Hannah Fulcher. Hannah was one of five sisters who lived at Maltings Farm, Creeting St Mary. She was a member of the local VAD and worked for most of the war as an assistant nurse.

She worked alongside many other local VAD women at the auxiliary hospital at Shrubland Hall in Coddenham.

Hannah features in a series of pictures that gives a real insight into what life was like for the women of the VAD and the convalescing soldiers they cared for. The pictures show life on the ward, concert parties, outdoor exercise and, above all, the prominent role that women played in running the hospital.

Hannah was obviously a carer by instinct. After the war she carried on caring, working with blind people for many years. She also ran the Sunday school at Creeting St Mary Church for 30 years.

She was a committed Christian, and when she died in 1974 was buried in the churchyard at Creeting.

Women like Hannah Fulcher played a vital role in Britain’s war effort. They also significantly furthered the cause of women’s rights.

All of these things are important and changed British society beyond recognition.

However, for me, speaking as an ex-soldier, the most important thing they did was to complete the original, unglamorous task they had set out to do with the VAD. The care, encouragement and respite they gave to the wounded was priceless. To this day, we owe Hannah and all of the women like her a huge debt.

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