The Devon Branch of the British Red Cross Society originally dates from its foundation in May 1907 by the Countess Fortescue, following an appeal by Queen Alexandra in 1905 to set up a territorial force of trained nurses to support the new Territorial Army. Two years later the scheme for Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses was taken over by the War Office, which finally recognised that in the event of war, and possible invasion, the Home Defence Force (as originally envisaged for the Territorial Army) would require clearing hospitals, ambulance trains, rest stations, convalescent homes as well as any private hospitals that were expected to be offered. Separate branches of the V.A.D. force were formed for women and men - the men serving, as they did in the war, as ambulance drivers, those working in canteens at the docks and railway stations and others acting as male orderlies, particularly as stretcher bearers. The Devon Branch, ahead of many other Counties, had its headquarters at Southernhay, Exeter, and was vested in the County Committee with a President, Director, Treasurer and other officials, and a separate Finance Committee. The County Director was appointed by the Devon Territorial Force Association. Devon County was then divided into Divisions, each with an Assistant County Director, Winkleigh being situated in the South Molton Division. In 1917, for example, Devon provided 236 nurses for home service in the war hospitals, and 74 for overseas, in France, Belgium, Egypt and Mesopotamia under the ‘Special Service’ scheme. An alternative ‘General Service’ scheme provided for other forms of work and in 1917 provided 338 general service volunteers at home and 63 for Foreign Service. The Devon Patriotic Fund was an offshoot of these efforts, providing among other things the ‘Linen League’ to supply sheets and pillow cases to the V.A. hospitals both at home and in France.
The Devon County organisation was thus well in place several years before the outbreak of war and expansion could take place rapidly. The Education Act of 1902 gave County Councils responsibility for the education of children up to the age of 14, together with the selection of children moving on to the independent Grammar Schools via County Scholarships, besides some early provision of further education courses. Buildings belonging to the County Councils were therefore available in the evenings to hold evening classes for VAD members, with county grants available to cover the expenses. The recruitment and training that had already been achieved made it possible in May 1914, long before most people could imagine that a European war was in any way likely or even threatening, for the Devon County Organisation to hold a test mobilisation on a large scale. ‘Temporary hospitals’ were prepared and equipped at Exeter, Honiton and other places. Rest Stations were established and Ambulance Trains were run to simulate the needs of home defence in case of invasion. The advice and co-operation of the Devon Territorial Force was enlisted, so that on the outbreak of war the V. A. Detachments were in a state of readiness. Invasion seemed, indeed, to be a very real threat in 1914, particularly after the shelling of Scarborough in the first months of the war, and the first duties of the Territorial Army consisted of patrolling the beaches and mounting guard on railway stations, bridges and other key points of the transport system. Unlike other counties, there was no need in Devon to deal with a rush of young women to learn nursing, cooking or clerical duties; they were already available to staff the new voluntary hospitals that were required.
VAD nurses were regarded as ‘Probationers’ - the lowest rung on the professional nurse’s ladder - but Probationers had to be capable of dealing with quite serious cases under the expert control of doctors, trained Nurses and Matrons. In order to reach this standard, the volunteer Probationers had to pass tests more severe than those demanded by the War Office or the British Red Cross Society, while those who in the early days volunteered to nurse the wounded for rather sentimental reasons without realising the enormity of what was involved were quite soon eliminated. Expansion continued throughout the war from the original 850 beds provided on the outbreak of hostilities. No less than five volunteer hospitals were eventually fully staffed in Exeter alone, which together with the civil hospitals making some wards available for the wounded made a total of 1,600 beds, of whom 815 beds were reserved for cases received direct from the Front. The Exeter War Hospitals were situated in the West of England Eye Infirmary (No. 1, mobilized October 4th 1914)), the Episcopal Modern School for Girls (No. 2, October 5th 1914)), the Children’s Home in Havitree Road (No.3, October 31st 1914), the Stone House, Topsham Road (No.4 mobilized February 6th 1915 ), and a final as yet unknown location as the fifth and last hospital to be opened at the special request of the War Office, which was mobilized on April 30th 1915. The building available for No.5 hospital required alterations to adapt it to hospital purposes, and the full number of 200 beds were not available until June 1915. It was in this hospital that Evelyn Johnson, Winkleigh’s second VAD, took up the chance to serve, and her records show that her engagement dates from June 5th 1915. There were in addition out-patients wards, especially for massage and electrical treatment. Altogether the five Exeter hospitals formed a unit of unsurpassed usefulness and efficiency, equal to any hospital in the country in their medical, surgical and nursing care. A report of these activities found in the Red Cross archives, ‘The Red Cross and VAD in Devonshire 1917-18’, reads: ‘No words can express what is due to the VAD nurses and the VAD general service members of the Exeter War Hospitals. Their self-sacrificing devotion to duty and unselfishness is beyond praise, and they have earned the gratitude of thousands of wounded soldiers and sailors.’
Other hospitals were opened at once in Torquay, Exmouth and Sidmouth. Altogether 27 volunteer hospitals were in operation in the County by the end of the war, 26 of these under the British Red Cross Society and one under the Order of St. John. A nurse’s club was established in Exeter and a nurse’s home. The V.A.D. hospitals were used also for training probationers, with the option of joining the staff when a vacancy occurred. Men from the R.A.M.C. Territorial units were also trained in VAD hospitals as ward and theatre orderlies and as stewards, store keepers etc. Each hospital was expected to manage its own affairs, subject to some supervision and inspection. The Medical-Officer in charge was either a surgeon or doctor, with internal management divided between the Assistant Medical-Officer or Commandant, the Matron in charge of the nurses, the Quartermaster who organised hospital supplies and maintenance and the Commissariat dealing with the feeding arrangements. Each hospital averaged a staff of about 135 trained nurses and 34 masseurs - these in particular vital for the regeneration of wounded men. Many of the staff were posted to the hospital by the Trained Nurses’ Department of the Joint War Committee, who paid the salaries of the Matrons, Sisters and Nurses. Below these were the 1,800 or so VAD nurses, cooks and clerks employed throughout the Devon hospitals. As the war went on and prices rose with a rapid inflation, an increasing number of the VAD Probationers found it impossible to survive with only their family’s support, and small salaries were given to those in most need, making further demands on the Finance Committee. From then on, a modest salary to all VADs became the norm.
Without the heroic efforts of the British Red Cross Society and the Voluntary Aid Detachments it is impossible to imagine how the army medical services could have coped with the enormous numbers of sick and wounded men who flooded down the line from the casualty clearing stations to the base hospitals and, for the lucky many, to the voluntary hospitals throughout the country. The scale of the work involved was enormous. Up to May 1917, for example, the Devon first-line VAD hospitals received over 17,000 patients in direct convoys from Southampton and other ports, transferred by ambulance trains to Exeter and other towns. From there motor or horse-drawn ambulances driven mainly by the Men’s VA Detachments of the Red Cross or the St. John’s Ambulance Service brought the wounded from the stations to the hospitals. Already by May 1917 the Exeter Men’s Detachments had transported 9,223 patients, including nearly 5,000 ‘cot cases’. In addition, patients sometimes needed to be moved from hospital to hospital to secure specialist treatment, both within the County and for the many needing specialist care transferred to other parts of the country. Many of the ambulance vehicles themselves, including ambulance trailers, were presented to the hospitals or purchased out of special voluntary funds. Owners of private cars often made their vehicles - together with their chauffeurs - available for hospital transfers or to provide recreational drives and entertainment at convalescent homes.
Very little money was allocated by the Treasury for this work and for the most part the County Finance Committees relied on an extensive permanent programme of fund raising on a massive scale, supplemented in rural areas with the collection of vegetables, fruit, eggs and other necessities entirely on a voluntary basis. In Devon, for example, the worst period experienced was from September 1915 to May 1916, when a deficit of £1,604 was hampering the work of the second-line VA hospitals. Eventually, county funds were enlisted to cover the gap. Winkleigh was situated in the South Molton Division. Besides the recruiting and training programmes, the village took part in Red Cross fundraising, and collecting eggs and vegetables to help supply the five war hospitals in Exeter. In 1917 the village contributed £64 to Red Cross Funds, an average of 1/- per adult member of the community, the equivalent of about £5 today. Already Winkleigh had been much commended between 1914 and 1916 for its support in money, parcels for the front and food supplies for the Exeter hospitals. The Red Cross representative in the village was John Ashplant, in 1914 the 50 year old farmer living just off Barnstaple Street. John farmed the 22 acres of King’s Meadow and a further 100 acres attached to The Parsonage, owned by Squire Ronald H.K. Johnson, Evelyn’s brother. He was very much involved in village affairs, an active and prominent member of the Parish Council before the war, after his father died, and among all his other activities he was commended by the Assistant County Director for the South Molton District for his very valuable war work. Winkleigh Church collections for the Red Cross were also frequent. In 1918, for example, £4.4.0 was contributed, but this sum was far exceeded by a succession of fetes and flag-days. On one ‘Our Day’ alone, in 1918, the huge sum of £600 was collected. It is a proud boast that Winkleigh collected more funds than any other village in Devon, and was exceeded only by wealthy Torquay collecting £1,619.2.6d and Sidmouth which collected £710. Winkleigh, in those days described as a ‘town’, had certainly attracted more outsiders with money than many North Devon villages. In Winkleigh, the flag-day was organised by Mrs. Alexander, wife of Col. Alexander who after the war lived in Town End House, which they had bought in 1916. The Colonel and Mrs. Alexander played a great part in village life, and today lie buried in the churchyard by the South door. Their war had its personal tragedy. The brother of Mrs. Alexander, Capt. H. C. Whipple died of wounds in December 1915, and the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine paid its tribute.