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Dutiful comforter’s diary

08 November 2013

Sarah Mullally on the daily life of a VAD

Dorothea's War: The diaries of a First World War nurse
Richard Crewdson, editor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT611 )

IT WAS my experience that people who had been involved in the First World War didn't like talking about it. So, for those of us who are not historians, what we know of that war tends to come from poetry or fiction - books or films - and focus on its horror and heroes. In contrast, the diary of Dorothea Crewdson (right) provides factual documentation of her life as a VAD, a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, between June 1915 and March 1919.

Crewdson was one of more than 100,000 women who served in the VAD in the British Red Cross in three military field hospitals in northern France. Her nephew, Richard Crewdson, has edited her diary, which records her living arrangements, conditions of service, pay, work, and friends, relatives, colleagues, and patients.

The editor has usefully taken time to establish a timeline of the war to help us to contextualise the events. The entries in the diary go further, however; for it provides for us a point in time against which we can measure changes in society and health care. Take, for example, the social position of women: Dorothea notes how she was unable to go out with men unchaperoned - even her brother. On returning to London on leave in June 1916, she comments on how women have replaced men in various professions and callings.

We can observe differences in health care, such as the fear that pneumonia and even a septic finger caused before the use of antibiotics. Dorothea herself died of peritonitis in March 1919.

Her writings hint at the horrors of war, but there is little indication of her motivation to work as a VAD, except the mention of wanting to provide comfort. She was clearly committed to what she did, and was awarded the Military Medal in 1918 for devotion to duty during an enemy air raid.

Dorothea's War is an original diary, written only for herself, and as such can feel pedestrian; but that is the nature of her life, even amid the horrors of war.

The Revd Dame Sarah Mullally is Canon Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral.

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