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    Nurse's boots (PLYMG AR.1984.226.1-2)

    Boots (PLYMG AR.1984.226.1-2)

    These boots belonged to Red Cross Nurse Greta May Yeal.

    When the First World War broke out in 1914, Greta May Yeal was a thirty-year old schoolteacher, who lived in Peverell, Plymouth. As many young men volunteered for the army, both within Plymouth and across the country, Greta sought a way to make her own contribution to the war effort. In October 1914 she volunteered her services to the British Red Cross, offering to provide British troops with medical assistance as a member of a newly-formed Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).

    Greta was not alone: many thousands of men and women enlisted for VAD service during the conflict. Although war did not break out until 1914, the British Red Cross began to organise Voluntary Aid Detachments from 1909, after being allocated the task of providing supplementary medical aid to the British Army in the event of European war. County branches of the Red Cross recruited volunteers, who themselves came to be known simply as VADs, and trained them in basic first aid and nursing.

    Although the Red Cross recruited over six thousand volunteers by 1910 alone, numbers increased massively from 1914, as numerous men and women mirrored Greta's example and enlisted following the outbreak of war. By the end of 1914, 74,000 people had volunteered for VAD service, around two-thirds of whom were girls and women like Greta. It is estimated that between 75,000 and 100,000 VADs served across the whole war, for anywhere between one and five years. Amongst these were celebrated novelist-to-be Agatha Christie and, perhaps the most famous VAD of all, Vera Brittain, who chronicled her service in wartime poetry and memoirs which continue to be celebrated today.

    After volunteering in October 1914, Greta immediately received training in first aid, home and wartime nursing. She received certificates confirming her fitness to serve in November. Following this training, Greta was selected for service in August 1915.

    Although Greta returned to civilian life following the end of the First World War, her association with the Red Cross continued: for example, her medical skills and membership were confirmed in 1921. This would prove particularly useful when war came once more to Europe in 1939, only twenty years later.

    Now much older (in her fifties), Greta had moved just outside of Plymouth to the small village of Tideford, in East Cornwall, near Saltash. Despite her South-West origins, Greta's family were spread far and wide, and she kept in frequent contact with her aunt and her family who lived in Ancona, in central Italy.

    Following the war, Greta continued life as a teacher in the South West. In a final turn to her interesting career, she was part of a delegation of British teachers who went on a tour to the United States of America in 1949, as part of an exchange programme. Recruited to exchange position with an American teacher from one of eighty-five large US cities, along with other teachers from the delegation Greta also had the privilege of a personal audience with President Truman in August 1949.

    Researched by volunteer Jane Dinwoodie