Go Home and Sit Still

March 30th, 2015

The First World War caused a huge surge in voluntary work, organisations and fundraising. Volunteers came from all classes, but it was largely driven by women and the Home Front whilst their men were away at war. The most popular causes were comforts such as food and clothing for servicemen, medical services, Belgian refugees, support for wounded servicemen, assistance for prisoners of war and relief for distress at home. Derbyshire was a hub of voluntary activity during the First World War.

In the years preceding the war there was drive to boost the number of British Red Cross volunteers. Queen Alexandra even released a message encouraging women to volunteer:

I urge all women of the Empire to assist me in carrying out this great scheme, which is essentially a woman’s work and which is the one and only way in which we can assist our brave and gallant Army and navy to perform their arduous duties in time of war. (Reprinted in Instructions for Township Leaders)

In Derbyshire, Evelyn Cavenish, the Duchess of Devonshire, set up the county Branch of the British Red Cross and reorganised it in preparation for war. Derbyshire Record Office holds letters and documents detailing the changes that took place during this period. She re-organised the branch to follow a more military structure:

The simplest way of explaining it is that the President is like the General, the Vice-Presidents like Colonels, The Township Leaders like Captains… and those who enrol in any capacity as the Rank and File. (Colonel Brooke-Taylor in Instructions for Township Leaders)

There were 3,000 auxiliary hospitals across the country, 41 in Derbyshire. It took thousands of volunteers to run these hospitals and relied heavily upon the work of women, many of whom worked for free. It also trained and employed many nurses, including Buxton’s Vera Brittain, and even had a female doctor which was incredibly rare at the time. Female doctors were often treated with disrespect and suspicion and in many places were only hired because of racial prejudice towards foreign or ethnic male doctors.

One of the earliest women to qualify as a doctor was Elsie Inglis in London. She approached the government offering the services of a group of women to support the medical corps or set up hospitals. Her proposal was dismissed; one ministry official remarked “My good lady, go home and sit still”.

However, Inglis was not deterred and went on to organise the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee. This raised tens of thousands of pounds and helped to establish hospitals in France, Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta.

The aid that medical volunteers provided was invaluable. Derbyshire’s Red Cross volunteers certainly helped to manage the overwhelming influx of injured military personnel being sent to Derbyshire hospitals for treatment. They continued to provide service to some extent after the war had ended to help with the soldiers and sailors who still needed treatment and rehabilitation.

The Red Cross is making its archive available on line at: redcross.org.uk/ww1