‘Doing everything together’: the experiences of the Dodsworth sisters during the Great War

By Dr Linda Maynard

Like many of their middle-class peers, after the declaration of war in 1914, sisters Kit and Eve Dodsworth immersed themselves in wartime initiatives: collecting for Belgian refugees; helping with teas at the YMCA; knitting socks for the troops; and filling hot water bottles and other ‘thankless’ duties at their local hospital. From January to May 1915, variants of the refrain ‘very dull’ and ‘nothing of interest’ litter Eve’s diary entries. The Dodsworths epitomised the ‘many sisters’ in Rose McCauley’s 1914 poem, for whom the war was ‘poor fun’; idling at home while their ‘many brothers’ sat in the ‘blood and muck’ of the trenches. York was a garrison town and the bay windows of the Dodsworth family home proved an ideal site for the sisters to view the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry parading on the green opposite. Eve wept the day the regiment departed for the Western Front. Their status as passive bystanders stoked the siblings’ restlessness. Having determined to volunteer for overseas service as part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs), formed in 1909, ‘the most exciting moment of their lives’ occurred on Friday 7 May 1915 when they received the wire asking them to proceed to France.

VAD recruitment poster designed by Joyce Dennys
Image: © IWM Art.IWM PST 3268

Although there are records of other blood sisters serving as VADs, the Dodsworths’ lively wartime writings, authored individually and jointly, provide a rare narrative account of sisters serving alongside each other.[1] Seen through the wartime filter of their experiences as volunteer nurses in Rouen, Birmingham, Brighton and Alexandria, their writings also offer valuable insights into the dynamics of their particular sibling bond.

Sibling interactions powerfully reflect the values and identity of individual families. Eve and Kit were typical of the early VAD recruits drawn predominantly from the ranks of the elite. Although Kit characterised their upbringing as ‘terribly strict’, their father, a prominent local solicitor, maintained a comfortable household, employing four domestic servants which left the sisters with ‘no real work to do’. Accustomed to inhabiting this cosseted domestic sphere and embedded in the social routines of their hometown, Eve and Kit found a sense of security and comfort in serving together. The theme of sisterly unity underpins their representations of their war work, supplanting the legend of sisterhood established by women’s service organisations during the First World War.

British Voluntary Aid detachment dressing station
Image: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-25057 

On arrival at No 12 General Hospital on the outskirts of Rouen, Kit and Eve worked on adjacent wards. The sisters’ strict upbringing had made them ‘quite sufficient unto ourselves’ and they clearly appreciated the ward sisters’ willingness to schedule their off-duty time together. This made, Kit observed, ‘a great difference to life’. Like other new recruits, Kit and Eve were unprepared for the physical and emotional demands of their work. As their initial seven-month contract drew to an end in December 1915, Kit felt increasingly tired, her energy depleted by the excruciating cold, the hard physical work, and being ‘chivvied and chased’ by a new intake of trained sisters who looked down on the ‘amateur’ volunteers. When Eve was assigned to night duties during this period, the kindness of her fellow VADs could not dissipate Kit’s feelings of loneliness. Until then, the pair, ‘had always done everything together’.

Such sibling solidarity protected women workers, sustaining the war effort by ensuring they were fit and able to carry out their work. Kit recounts several instances of Eve nursing her through bouts of poor health. After a short period of illness, and suffering from a weak heart, Kit found one disorganised journey to Boulogne particularly gruelling, involving an absence of provisions, and a lengthy wait at a railway station on a bitter winter night. Arriving at the Red Cross headquarters, Eve, ‘worried to death’ about her sister, launched a tirade at Commandant Isabel Crowdy. Perhaps fortunately for the sisters’ prospects in the service, Miss Crowdy was sympathetic to her complaint. On another occasion, Kit had broken down crying whilst attempting to haul her heavy hold-all to Victoria station. Ashamed of her ‘unpatriotic’ behaviour, Kit marvelled at how her sister, finding the journey equally trying, still raised ‘a cheering word to keep me going’.

19th General Hospital Alexandria where Kit and Eve served as VADs
Image: Australian War Memorial A02858 

Depleted after their first stint of overseas service, the sisters recuperated at home and had short periods of service in Birmingham and Brighton before responding to a request for volunteers to go out East. When Kit’s service in Egypt was placed in jeopardy due to her heart condition, she begged the Medical Officer to reconsider to ensure that Eve did not go without her. On 30 December 1917, the sisters experienced tragedy first-hand, when the Germans torpedoed their transport ship, HMS Aragon just outside of Alexandria. The destroyer, HMS Attack, coming to the rescue of survivors, was also torpedoed and sank, with a loss of 610 soldiers and crew from a total of 2,700 passengers. Along with other nurses and VADs, Kit and Eve had been quickly loaded onto a lifeboat and rowed to safety. They watched on despairingly, believing ‘that all our friends were drowning before our eyes’. On reaching shore, the women were sent by ambulance to a nearby hotel. Once there, with their nerves gone, their emotions caught up with them, compounded by the stark contrast of hearing New Year celebrations in the streets outside. Both sisters ‘got very upset’ looking down at the jubilant troops from their open window. Weeping, they looked across to find they had joined a communal expression of grief with their fellow survivors, also standing at their bedroom windows in tears.

Kit met her future husband, Lieutenant Phillip Vaughan-Phillips, in Alexandra. This was a whirlwind war romance. The couple met at the end of February 1918, got engaged two months later, and wed two days after the Armistice. After the ceremony, their guests saw them off at the railway station. Once again, Kit confessed her regret at leaving Eve behind. Apart from ending her wartime service, her departure as a married woman marked an end to a long-established pattern of siblinghood. The Dodsworths’ close sisterly bond is a common thread throughout their writings, bolstering their resilience and spirits, and providing much-needed emotional and practical sustenance throughout their time as wartime volunteer nurses. As Kit remarked again, the sisters had ‘always done everything together’.

1.   C. and E. Dodsworth, Diaries and memoir, Imperial War Museum, 82/12/1.

About the Author:

Dr Linda Maynard is an independent researcher. Her book, Brothers in the Great War was published by Manchester University Press in 2021. It examines the emotional lives of brothers and sisters during and after the First World War. Her current research focuses on a family dispute in the early twentieth century.

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