War poets of the VAD

When we talk about the ‘War Poets’, we often picture soldiers. But many poets and writers were active within the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).


L-R: May Wedderburn Cannan in the 1920s; Vera Brittain in 1914 (© The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford); Carola Oman’s book ‘The Menin Road and Other Poems’.

Here are three female war poets, all of whom have a page on Lives of the First World War.

  • May Wedderburn Cannan

May Wedderburn Cannan was the middle daughter of the Dean of Trinity College, Oxford. She enlisted as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) at the age of 18, three years before the war broke out.

She eventually rose to the rank of Quartermaster and spent time in France running a Red Cross canteen.

May published three volumes of poetry between 1917 and 1923.

You also know
The way the dawns came slow
Over the railway stations out in France…

– ‘France’

In War Time contains the majority of May’s war poetry.

However, she returned to the subject as she mourned the death of her fiancé, who survived the fighting but succumbed to influenza in 1919.

May’s childhood friend, Carola Oman, was also a VAD nurse and poet.

May did not work alongside Carola during the war. However, her poem ‘France’ is addressed to her friend, and reflects on the memories they had in common.

‘Rouen’ is one of May’s most well-known poems. It appears with two other poems in the anthology Poems from the First World War, created in association with IWM.

VAD Motor Driver, painted by Gilbert Rogers in 1918;

‘VAD Motor Driver’, painted by Gilbert Rogers in 1918. Image © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3824)

  • Carola Oman

Carola was May Wedderburn Cannan’s childhood friend – to whom she dedicated the poem ‘France’ – and served as a probationary nurse.

Until 1918, Carola was stationed in various British locations nursing the wounded, including Oxford, Dorset, and London.

Carola Oman dedicated her book to four VAD friends, one of whom was May Cannan.

In September 1918 Carola was sent to France. There, she served at rest stations in Boulogne, Wimereux and Terlingham.

She was not discharged until April 1919, and she published her war poetry in a volume titled The Menin Road and Other Poems shortly afterwards.

Although she did not work directly with May Cannan, their shared memories of the conflict and the experience of nursing influenced a number of Carola’s poems.

May is among four VAD friends to whom Carola dedicated her book.

Carola went on to write several historical novels. Read her poem ‘Brussels, 1919’.

Women serve a meal in the dining room at the VAD base at Etaples, France, during the First World War.

In this photograph, taken by Olive Edis in 1919, women serve a meal in the dining room at the VAD base at Etaples, France, during the First World War. Image © IWM (Q 8026)

  • Vera Brittain

One of the most famous of the VAD poets, Vera Brittain is well known for her memoir of her experiences as a nurse, Testament of Youth.

Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart

– To My Brother

Born in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, she was very close to her brother Edward as a child.

Vera’s war experiences made her into a committed pacifist. Both Edward and her fiance, Roland Leighton, were killed in action. Much of her poetry focusses on the experience of grief.

Four days before her brother died, she had written a poem, ‘To My Brother’ dedicated to him.

Her single volume of war poetry, Verses of a VAD, was published in August 1918.

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5 Responses to War poets of the VAD

  1. Janice TS says:

    Vera Brittain is my favourite. Currently reading Chronicles of Youth. I appreciate how mindful she is throughout. Great lessons to be learnt from her today. Always look up and see what is here right in the moment. A great writer.

  2. Chris Spriet says:

    I recently published the international FWW poetry anthology We werden honderd jaar ouder (ie, We aged a hundred years), Davidsfonds – Leuven Belgium. Three years of compiling, and translating into Dutch, 100,odd English, French, German and Dutch poems from the Great War, have made it utterly impossible for me not to consider every single one of these poets and poems as my children.

    While the poetic reflections by Helen Mackay, Nancy Cunard, Sara Teasdale, Theresa Hooley, Vera B. etc. are utterly poignant, I should like to hold a brief for the French and German poetesses, whose undisputable literary merit thus far has been left unnoticed in the English-speaking world.

    One of the British poems I shall always cherish is Eva Dobell’s wistful poem entitled Night Duty. Eva D. was a much-travelled British poetess, publisher and VAD, whose delicate and moving words just about sum up what War must have meant to a woman. Like Vera Brittain she felt a strong urge to be involved, but could not help feeling as if she always remained on the outside looking in.

    Always willing to share my views and reflections.

    • Penelope Monkhouse says:

      I very much agree with Chris about non-British poetesses. They have been much overlooked. For example, Henriette Hardenberg worked as a nurse in a Berlin hospital tending wounded soldiers. Many of her poems reflect her experiences here; they can be found in the volume “Neigungen”, published 1918. In 1988 her complete poems were republished as “Dichtungen” and after her death in London in 1993, her poems, short prose and diaries were published in 1994 in a volume titled “Südliches Herz”. Incidentally, Henriette lived in the UK from 1937 (being of Jewish origin) and remained there for the rest of her life.

  3. Lucy London says:

    I am attempting with my WW1 commemorative exhibition project Female Poets, Inspirational Women and Fascinating Facts of the First World War to cover as many countries of the world as possible, in order as Chris Spriet and Penelope Monkhouse point out, to include other points of view. Details are on http://www.femalewarpoets.blogspot.co.uk which is linked to the other two weblogs.

  4. Viv Newman says:

    My forthcoming anthology Tumult and Tears tells “The Story of the Great War Through the Eyes and Lives of its Women Poets”. It will be published by Pen and Sword at the end of June 2016 http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/search/author/Newman. It includes multiple poems thematically arranged and placed within the context of the war, poets’ biographies, stories behind the publishers and delves into the unknown world of the Birmingham Scrapbook Collection. The anthology is based upon my 2004 PhD thesis “Songs of Wartime Lives: Women’s Poetry of the First World War”.

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