The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was an umbrella organisation of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John, which played a vital role during the First and Second World Wars.
Both men and women, from predominantly middle-class backgrounds, offered their services and undertook a variety of voluntary positions in medicine, transport, and supply. As more men were conscripted into the armed forces and the number of casualties rose, the role of female VADs became increasingly important. Across the island of Ireland, it has been estimated that around 4,500 women served as VADs during the First World War. Kate Slacke (née Dixon) was one such VAD from Belfast. She was born in 1871, the daughter of Sir Daniel Dixon, a prominent businessman, Ulster Unionist and the city’s first Lord Mayor. Today, his statue can be found in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.
On 14 June 1902, Kate married Charles Owen Slacke, a businessman and owner of Slacke & Co. in Ashton Street, Belfast. Charles Slacke was a committed Orangeman and a member of the prestigious Eldon Loyal Orange Lodge No. 7 at Belfast Orange Hall. The couple settled at Wheatfield House in North Belfast and had two children; a son, Randel Charles and a daughter, Edith Avril. Like her husband, Kate was a committed Unionist and signed the Women’s Declaration, the women’s equivalent of the Ulster Covenant, in London on 28 September 1912, otherwise known as Ulster Day.
Kate joined the VADs during the early stages of the war. Every week she helped to provide refreshments for the wounded servicemen arriving at the Great Northern Railway station on Great Victoria Street. Kate also worked one day a week at the Old Town Hall packing parcels for prisoners of war and every other Sunday she was on duty at Belfast’s Rest House for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors.
Tragically, her husband Charles, Captain of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, was killed on 1 July 1916 at Thiepval on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. After Charles’ death, Kate had a memorial plaque erected at St John’s Parish Church in Newcastle, Co. Down, where his grandfather had been a minister. Her name also appears amongst the list of donors to the Ulster Memorial Tower, which commemorates the heavy losses suffered by the 36th Ulster Division on 1 July 1916.
Kate continued to live at Wheatfield House until the end of the War. By 1921, she was living at Parklane, Fortwilliam Park and it was here, on 23 December 1921, that she died from breast cancer, at the age of fifty.
VAD’s played an essential – yet often overlooked – role in the war effort both at home and overseas. The volunteers undertook a variety of roles, including nursing, transport, and the organisation and supply of aid to military and auxiliary hospitals. The First World War also gave women the opportunity to take on traditionally male occupations for the first time, with many becoming medics, teachers, clerks and bus conductors.
In St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast there is a memorial tablet commemorating the eighteen Irish nurses who died during the First World War whilst serving with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). Eleven VADs from Ulster also lost their lives but they have no dedicated memorial. Though they were volunteers, VADs often aided the sick and injured from the battlefields in very dangerous circumstances. One soldier of the 36th Ulster Division described how he watched ‘…our women workers, nurses and drivers, working at terrific speed, under fire, but working, and doing their job magnificently.’ Diseases such as cholera, typhoid and the Spanish flu struck the troops and affected many VADs. The author Nigel Henderson describes them as ‘Ulster’s forgotten or overlooked nurses of the Great War’, something we aim to address with this week’s #greatwomen feature.