Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) – An Ulster Perspective
With the recent decision by Belfast City Council to honour the nurses of the Great War and the heightened appreciation of medical staff, perhaps it is time to highlight Ulster’s forgotten or overlooked nurses of the Great War – those who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD).
There is a memorial tablet in St Anne’s Cathedral which commemorates the names of 18 nurses from across Ireland who died in the Great War whilst serving with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). However, History Hub Ulster researcher Nigel Henderson has identified 11 women from Ulster who died whilst serving in hospitals with the Voluntary Aid Detachments. These women, and there may be others that Nigel has not yet identified, are not commemorated by name on any memorial tablet, although some are commemorated on civic, church, club, or school memorials.
Nigel Henderson explained, “The Voluntary Aid Detachments was an umbrella organisation for the British Red Cross Society and the St John of Jerusalem Ambulance Brigade. VAD volunteers came from all strata of society, although they mainly came from the middle classes. Whilst its principal purpose was to provide medical assistance, in a variety of roles, VADs also provided social services.”
Mabel Robinson, of Robinson & Cleaver, served in the Hospital Supply Depot in Belfast and later was in charge of the VAD Buffet in the Great Northern Railway terminus.
The buffet provided refreshments to sailors and soldiers, some of them in transit to hospitals, as they passed through the station. Two women associated with the Anderson and McAuley firm served as VADs. Lilla Anderson and Emilie Anderson served as a nurse and as a housekeeper, respectively, at three military hospitals in England. Mrs Kate Slack of Wheatfield House in north Belfast, served at the Rest House for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors in Belfast and packed parcels at the Old Town Hall for Prisoners of War. Her husband, Captain Charles Owen Slack, was killed in action on 1st July 1916 with 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. Mrs Mary Robertson Dunlop Coey of Merville House in Whitehouse prepared sphagnum moss for use as anti-septic packs on the battlefields. Four of her sons served in the Great War and Midshipman John Smiley Coey was killed on 1st January 1915, aged 16, when HMS Formidable was sunk by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U24.
One of Ulster’s best-known VAD nurses was Emma Sylvia Duffin from the Cliftonville Road. Emma and two of her sisters – Celia Marion and Sylvia Mary – served with the VAD and are commemorated on the memorial tablet in All Souls (Non-Subscribing) Presbyterian Church. Emma Duffin served in military hospitals in Egypt during 1915 and 1916 and spent the remainder of the war serving in military hospitals at Le Havre and Calais. She was Mentioned in Despatches by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Emma renewed her VAD service when the Second World War started and was appointed commandant of the VAD nurses based at Stranmillis Military Hospital. Her diary, which is held at the Public Record Office for Northern Ireland (PRONI), provides an account of the German air raids on Belfast. One of the most gripping entries relates to the time she spent in St George’s Market, which was a morgue for unidentified bodies. There, she helped stricken families search among the coffins for their loved ones. Appalled by what she saw, she wrote in her diary: “I had seen many dead, but they had died in hospital beds, their eyes had been reverently closed, their hands crossed on their breasts; death had been glossed over, made decent. Here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible … death should be dignified, peaceful. Hitler had made even death grotesque”. In 2017, the Ulster History Circle erected a blue plaque at the house where Emma Duffin was born in University Square.
Ulster’s VAD fatalities in the Great War
Laura Marion Gailey from Bay View Terrace in Londonderry was serving at the 1st Western General Hospital at Fazakerly in Liverpool when she contracted measles, which developed into pneumonia. Laura Gailey died on 24th March 1917, aged 26, and is buried in the Kirkdale Cemetery in Liverpool. She lay in an unmarked grave for nearly a hundred years until Mountjoy Women’s Orange Lodge No. 29 from Londonderry erected a headstone in March 2017. Laura Marion Gailey is the only female commemorated on the Londonderry War Memorial.
Lizzie Neill Morrison from Killead served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in the Balkans before joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She died in London of influenza and pneumonia on 2nd July 1918, aged 30. She is buried in the graveyard at Killead Presbyterian Church and is commemorated on the Crumlin District War Memorial.
Frances Shortt from Curran near Dungannon was serving at the Bermondsey Hospital when she died on 26th December 1918 and is buried in the graveyard at Tullyniskan Parish Church in Newmills. She is commemorated on the Dungannon War Memorial.
Norah Ellen Dugan from Articlave in County Londonderry had only served three weeks at the Second Southern General Hospital in Birmingham when she died of pneumonia on 26th July 1916. She was 27 and is buried in the graveyard at Articlave Presbyterian Church.
Mary Louise Morrell from Articlave in County Londonderry served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Salonika and died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 18th August 1919, aged 29, and is buried in the graveyard at St Paul’s Church of Ireland in Articlave.
Winifred Elizabeth Atkinson from Belfast was serving as a VAD Nurse at the Waverley Abbey Military Hospital in Farnham when she died of appendicitis on 14th February 1917. She was 19 and is buried in Belfast City Cemetery. Winifred Atkinson is commemorated on the memorial tablets for Belfast Royal Academy and the Cliftonville Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club.
Alicia (Lily) Hamilton was born at Milltown in Dungannon but lived in Belfast from 1901. Lily served as a VAD Cook at Catterick Military Hospital in Yorkshire, where she died of pneumonia on 28th November 1918, aged 31. Lily Hamilton received a military funeral to Carnmoney Cemetery but lay in an unmarked grave for nearly 100 years. Nigel Henderson explained, “When I started photographing and documenting war graves and memorials in Ulster, Lily Hamilton was recorded (albeit with an incorrect age) on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database under the “UK Book of Remembrance”. This was used when CWGC did not have evidence of burial. I had a newspaper article referring to the funeral to Carnmoney Cemetery. The staff at Newtownabbey Borough Council provided details of Lily’s burial and the plot reference. I passed the evidence on to CWGC and a headstone was erected in 2018. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only CWGC headstone for a VAD fatality in Northern Ireland.”
Wilhelmina Maude Isabel Baily from Seymour Hill in Dunmurry and served as a VAD nurse at military hospitals in Yorkshire, Salonika and Italy. During her service, she was awarded two Scarlet Efficiency Stripes. Wilhelmina was attached to the 38th Stationary Hospital when she died at No 11 General Hospital on 23rd September 1918, aged 40. Wilhelmina Baily is buried in the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa and commemorated at the Charley family memorial at St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland graveyard in Drumbeg.
Margaret Cameron Young served as a VAD nurse at the 2nd General Hospital in France and died on 30th July 1918, aged 25. She is buried in the Terlincthun British Cemetery at Wimille in France and is commemorated on the family memorial in Shankill Graveyard. She is also commemorated on the Roll of Honour for Newington Presbyterian Church.
Eliza Jane Martin was serving at a UVF Hospital in Belfast when she died of typhoid fever on 13th June 1917, aged 21. She is buried in Belfast City Cemetery and is commemorated on the memorial tablet in Belmont Presbyterian Church and on the Strandtown and District Unionist Club memorial.
Gertrude Annie Taylor served as a nurse at a UVF Hospital in Belfast and at 20th General Hospital at Camiers in France. She was serving at the 1st London General Hospital at Camberwell when she died of pneumonia on 12th December 1916, aged 35. She is buried in Belfast City Cemetery and the inscription on her memorial declares that she died on active service. Gertrude Annie Taylor is commemorated on the memorial tablet in Belmont Presbyterian Church and on the Strandtown and District Unionist Club memorial.
In his sermon on Sunday 17th December 1916, the Reverend MacDermott, Minister of Belmont Presbyterian Church, paid tribute to Gertrude Annie Taylor and included these words:
“Miss Taylor’s death reminds us that not all the heroes in the war were men; they were not all to be found among the fighters at the front. Not infrequently they were to be found among those who, all unmentioned, faithfully performed their duties at the bedsides of the wounded and weary. For them there was no roar of the guns, no excitement of the charge—nothing but the endless battle against suffering and death; but they were heroes and heroines all the same.”
HHU Chair Gavin Bamford says, “in the light of the current Covid-19 pandemic and the tremendous work being undertaken for all the community by the front-line workers, the words spoken so gracefully by Reverend MacDermott only too easily fit into today’s praise.”
The website of the British Red Cross Society can be searched for VAD record cards.
If you have information on any other Ulster VADs who died in the Great War, please email details to History Hub Ulster (email@example.com)