When we talk about the ‘War Poets’, we often picture soldiers. But many poets and writers were active within the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).
Here are three female war poets, all of whom can either be located on Lives of the First World War, which will launch later this year, or whose Life Stories are likely to be added to the permanent digital memorial in the future.
May Wedderburn Cannan
May Wedderburn Cannan is an example of the nursing Life Stories that will be added to Lives of the First World War over the course of the project.
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…
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.
May Wedderburn Cannan’s childhood friend, to whom she dedicated the poem ‘France’, 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’.
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. A BBC film adaptation is being produced this year.
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.
Who are your favourite poets of the First World War? Do you have a favourite poem? When Lives of the First World War launches later this year, we’ll need your help to uncover the stories of these writers and many more.