Red Cross honours selfless women of war

THE language, culture, education of the day was very different, but the sentiment of selfless giving, remains the same in 2017 as it was more than 100 years ago when Red Cross made the first calls for Australian volunteers.

Today, 80-year-old Beryl Skinner, current Treasurer of Sunnybank Red Cross, recalls the beginning of her life-long service as a 19-year-old Red Cross volunteer in Brisbane. Beryl followed in the footsteps of the Aussies, known as VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments), who answered the call from Lady Helen Munro Ferguson for 'women of Australia' to contribute to the war effort by joining the Red Cross in August 1914. From that call, VADs were formed throughout Australia, with volunteers coming from both Red Cross and Order of St John.

During the ANZAC centenary year, Queensland Historian Louise Kear wished to shed light on the largely forgotten efforts of VADs, the women who during World War I volunteered in hospitals to care for wounded soldiers on their return to Australia, besides taking on the tasks such as cleaning, cooking, washing, clothes, dressing injured servicemen, entertaining patients and fundraising.

Ms Kear said it was important not to just remember the men who fought, but the women who helped them recover from the horrors of war.

"Our work to honour VADs reminds us of the humanity that can be found even in the darkest pages of history," she said.

The history of VADs and historical items were on display at the Red Cross Brisbane Branch, Milton.


  • VADs were a quasi-military organisation, with uniforms, rules and commandants, and often engaged in drilling in their detachments.
  • Although many British VADs served in the war zones of Europe in World War 1, in Australia, VADs were restricted from traveling overseas by the Australian Defence Council.  Many chose to travel on their own initiative and join British detachments, often in Australian military hospitals overseas.
  • The policy was changed in 1916 after a request from Great Britain, and the first detachment of 30 official Australian VADs to serve overseas left Australian in September 1916.  They served in Australian Military hospitals in Britain and convalescent homes hastiliy established throughout the country.
  • The Australian uniforms was based on the British Red Cross uniform and according to historian Rupert Goodman: "The dress was a light blue overall of Oxford shirting white linen collar and cuffs, a Sister Dora cap, an apron with pocket and red cross bib, black leather belt, while a dark blue serge overcoat with belt was essential for outdoor winter wear."
  • VADs had to supply their own shoes.
  • When peace was declared in 1918, a major service was held at the Royal Agricultural Showground, Sydney.  Hundreds of VADs marched alongside soldiers and nurses.
  • Although VADs were largely women about 5% were men.

Typical VADs were:

  • Young women 18-35
  • Of independent means as the VAD was unpaid
  • Often with a spirit of adventure and patriotism
  • Powerful desire to do their bit

If you have a story of a Red Cross VAD in your family during the period of 1914-18 that you wish to share with Red Cross, please contact the Red Cross Archives Team at

Topics:  red cross vads voluntary aid detachments world war i wwi

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