We’re all familiar with the famous red cross emblazoned across old-fashioned nurses uniforms and fancy dress costumes, but links to that famous symbol and the nursing profession go waaay back.
Today marks World Red Cross Red Crescent Day, the birthday of founder, Henry Dunant, who set up the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva over 150 years ago after witnessing horrific scenes during the Battle of Solferino in Italy, where thousands of soldiers, on both sides, were left to die on the battlefield.
He founded the movement on seven fundamental principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality – of which all Red Cross societies around the world still base their work today.
I can’t help but think those principles apply just as much to nursing – in fact, Henry Dunant says that it was the work of Florence Nightingale in the Crimea that inspired him. It’s pretty amazing to think that the heroic efforts and ideas of a nurse inspired the largest humanitarian movement in the world!
During the first World War, thousands of nurses were needed at home and on the front line to care for soldiers wounded in battle. Under the banner of the Red Cross, trained nurses were sent to military hospitals across Europe, while at home, they recruited thousands of volunteers – known as Voluntary Aid Detachments or VADs – to help run all kinds of vital services including new auxiliary hospitals being set up around the country, often in stately homes like Dunham Massey in Cheshire. By 1918, there were over 90,000 Red Cross VADs, both men and women.
These volunteers, many of whom might not have ever thought of nursing, were suddenly thrust into a strange and scary world, learning to treat horrific wounds that had never been seen before, most of which was way beyond their experience or comfort zone. Sound familiar?
Like now, there was a huge emphasis on training but exam questions were a little different, like: ‘How do you make peptonised beef-tea?’ or ‘How would you prepare a linseed meal poultice, an ice poultice, and a mustard poultice? What are the indications for their use?’ Their version of pharmacology and drug calculations!
Some Red Cross VADs, like Vera Brittain, joined trained nurses in hospitals on the front to care for British and German soldiers alike. Vera Brittain famously wrote about her experiences in her biography A Testament of Youth, published some years after she returned from a military hospital in France, heartbroken having lost her brother and her beloved husband. It’s definitely worth a read – or the film is on Netflix, if you’re looking for a study break!
Red Cross nurses became a familiar sight during World Wars I and II, but they were still needed after war had ended. While the NHS was finding it’s feet, Red Cross nurses and VADs continued to run hospitals around the country – and the link with the NHS still continues today, with Red Cross volunteers offering support to patients when they return form hospital as part of the their support at home services.
Anyway – history lesson over, I promise! I just wanted to take a moment to remember all the Red Cross nurses before us – as the next generation of nurses, we owe so much to their courage and determination.
Was one of your family a VAD? The British Red Cross have an online archive of thousands of VAD record cards, so you can find your own little piece of Red Cross history.