Tuesday, March 1, 2016


DON’T expect your own particular feelings or likes to be considered. You are but one of many.
DON’T think you can pick and choose your own work at first. Do all that comes your way with your whole heart, and others will soon see what you are best fitted for.

These were just some of the rules that were drilled into women joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a unit that provided hospital services to millions of wounded during the First World War in an attempt to address the critical shortage of trained nurses and doctors.  An estimated 38,000 women served as VADs in hospitals, canteens, and ambulance corps in England, France, Belgium, Mesopotamia, and Gallipoli.  A BBC article explains, “Poorly paid VADs were used mainly as domestic labour, cleaning floors, changing bed linen, swilling out bedpans, but were rarely allowed until later in the war to change dressings or administer drugs.  The image and the conspicuous Red Cross uniforms were romantic but the work itself exhausting, unending and sometimes disgusting.”

Winifred Mary Letts enrolled as a VAD in June of 1915.  In 1916 she published a book of poetry that included the poem "Screens."

(In a Hospital)

They put the screens around his bed;
a crumpled heap I saw him lie,
White counterpane and rough dark head,
those screens — they showed that he would die.

They put the screens about his bed;
We might not play the gramophone,
And so we played at cards instead
And left him dying there alone.

The covers on the screens are red,
The counterpanes are white and clean;
He might have lived and loved and wed
But now he’s done for at nineteen.

An ounce or more of Turkish lead,
He got his wounds at Sulva Bay
They’ve brought the Union Jack to spread

Upon him when he goes away.

He’ll want those three red screens no more,
Another man will get his bed,
We’ll make the row we did before
But — Jove! — I’m sorry that he’s dead.              

Unnamed and faceless hospital workers (“They”) erect red screens that offer discrete privacy to the dying man, and yet the screens isolate him from the world before he has left it.  A respectful silence is imposed, and the music of the gramophone is temporarily forbidden.  Vera Brittain, who also served as a VAD, described the music that sounded from the “blaring, blatant gramophones.” Although the music was intended to comfort the wounded and dying, she felt that the upbeat popular tunes added “a strident grotesqueness to the cold, dark evenings of hurry and pain” (Testament of Youth 221).

The clean purity of the stark white sheets and the vivid red of the screens contrast with the untidy end of the nineteen-year-old who lies dying in a crumpled heap.  The voice in the poem "Screens" that bears witness to his death is most likely that of a wounded soldier, not a member of the hospital staff.  The other patients, helpless in the face of death, can do nothing but watch, and so they strike up a game of cards, an activity that may recall the dice game played by the soldiers at the foot of the cross.  

Canadian soldier suffering after mustard gas attack
In the mechanized world of war, in the assembly line of the hospital, the dying man will be moved out and others will take his place, for there exists a never-ending supply of wounded and dying men.  And after the nineteen-year-old has died, the surviving patients will return to making “the row that we did before,” their laughter, cries, and moans accompanied by the gramophone’s notes of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” 

These men in the hospital meet death with a brave front.  With the pluck and good cheer that the Tommies were famous for, they mask their grief and fear with an offhand expletive – "Jove!"  The speaker's last words -- "I'm sorry that he's dead" -- strike us as almost shockingly inadequate, a numb and blunted reaction. 

Scottish Women's Hospital by Norah Neilson-Gray
©IWM (Art.IWM ART3090)

By the end of the poem, we realize that the title carries a double meaning:  red screens shut the dying man off from the rest of the hospital ward, but the patients in the ward are also using screens to shield themselves from the wrenching realities of death and loss. 

Mary Borden, another volunteer who worked in hospitals near the front, described the detachment that was necessary to cope with the horrors of the war: “Someone near is having a fit.  Is it epilepsy?  I don’t know.  His mouth is frothy. His eyes are rolling.  He tries to fling himself on the floor.  He falls with a thud across his neighbor, who does not notice.  The man just beyond propped up against the wall, watches as if from a great distance.  He has a gentle patient face; this spectacle does not concern him” (The Forbidden Zone 154). 

The rules applied to everyone:  DON’T expect your own particular feelings or likes to be considered. You are but one of many.


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  3. Wonderful selection in this post. I devoured "Testament of Youth" and read "The Forbidden Zone" just last year. I find the selflessness and bravery of the VAD's inspiring and really enjoyed reading more poetry from one of these remarkable women. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding -- they were remarkable women! The rigid standards to which the VADs were held makes their work and service that much more admirable.

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