Where there are male soldiers and young female nurses, there’s bound to be trouble. At least, that was the view of many when the First World War began. Red Cross volunteers were under strict instructions not to socialise with soldiers. But what could you do when young men flirted with you?
Helen Beale, a VAD in France, bemoaned the strict rules about socialising with men in her letters home: “The rule is that nobody must go out with a man, even if it’s your own brother and you are with other people, too.”
The rules, she said, simply didn’t make sense: “Although you mayn’t go and have tea at a shop with anyone it’s apparently quite permissible to go with them for a lonely walk on the sandhills and bring them back for tea.
“And though you equally mayn’t go motoring with a friend you may get a lift given you by any casual motorer-by and nobody says nuffink!
“I believe these questions are settled and rules made by a pack of silly old women in England.”
Male visitors at the field hospital where Helen worked (the one that inspired The Crimson Field) were not encouraged. Men seemed to quickly realise they were not welcome. When Helen’s family friend popped in unannounced at the camp, she wrote: “I was at lunch so just missed him as he said he really didn’t dare face a sisters’ mess to come and find me.”
Sex and the VAD
Although the rules seemed ridiculous to people like Helen, they were in place to protect VADs. Many of these young women had led very sheltered lives and had never been told about sex. The Red Cross offered self-defence classes to many VADs as part of their training.
In her memoirs, VAD Kathleen Theodora Rhodes recalls how naïve she was. She was “on a troop train in Rouen in the afternoon – the only female on it – and had to travel all night, alone in stygian darkness, with an unknown officer.
“But I was such a sweet innocent in those days that it did not occur to me to be nervous. […] After some hours he said to me, ‘Aren’t you nervous, alone like this in the dark with a strange man?’
‘Not in the least’, I replied and asked innocently: ‘Why should I be?’ He did not explain! But he treated me with the greatest chivalry until we were dumped on the station in Etaples at 4.30am and he said goodbye quite reluctantly.”
Flirting in the wards
Whilst they couldn’t socialise in private, the injured soldiers and the nurses spent many hours together in the wards. As we’ve seen from Oona Chaplin’s Kitty and Richard Rankin’s Captain Gillan on The Crimson Field, emotions in a hospital could run high.
If a patient wanted to flirt, nurses had little opportunity to escape. Helen Beale wrote to her mother: “We have a very tiresome new patient in the wards… he is by way of being very gentlemanly and swagger but as it takes the form of calling us ‘you girls’ and the like – and worse – I strongly object and shall snub him when opportunity arises!”
Other flirtations were more welcome: “Another such nice boy in the ward comes from Lincolnshire and is the most incorrigibly cheerful thing you can imagine considering that he has lost his leg and part of his left hand has been blown away, too. He nearly made me lose countenance the other day when I was washing him.
“I was diligently rubbing his back etc when the jolly old YMCA man came in to bring the men parcels of fruit that he had brought up for them from the village. What must my boy say than ‘wouldn’t you like to be me, sir, lying here being washed by a nice young lady like this!’”
Helen also enjoyed watching the military nurses flirting with the doctors: “I scent a love-affair between the Sister and the house surgeon, who comes in constantly and stays much longer than I feel sure there is any need to and they have long confabulations together! A somewhat exposed way of being great friends though, as all the ward and all the nurses can see and speculate about it!”.
Rumours of flirtations and secret liaisons between VADs and “khaki” must have reached Red Cross headquarters. Dame Katherine Furse, the Red Cross Commandant-In-Chief wrote an open letter reprimanding VADs because “there is too much inclination at present to replace good work with sloppy sentiment.”
“A soldier is very adaptable and will accept what is given him”, she wrote. “If his nurses are familiar, and discipline is replaced by slackness and sentimentality, he will respond accordingly.”
She urged VADs to act professionally and prove themselves “worthy of their responsibilities” so that their patients would respect them.
Many nurses carried autograph books with them as a souvenir for patients and colleagues to sign. Some men took this as an opportunity to write flirtatious notes. An example in our archives has a poem from an injured soldier, who wrote:
“Sister Orrell is her name,
Single is her station;
He’ll be a very lucky chap
Who makes the alteration.”
Others knew that flirting – even in writing – was not worth the risk, as one wry poet explained:
“What? Write in a book
Where young ladies look
And old maids spy?
Not I; not I.”