Female Tommies: women in the First World War
On 28 March 1917, the first women were enrolled into the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and embarked to serve in the First World War in France three days later. Yet in 1914 the suggestion of women in the army was considered ridiculous by the war office. Military historian Elisabeth Shipton explores why, three years later, there was such a big U-turn…
Following the declaration of war in August 1914, women formed long queues at local labour exchanges to volunteer for whatever roles were available. New organisations such as the Women’s Emergency Corps sprang into action to co-ordinate employment, while Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) staff organised basic training for eager new volunteers. Female medics such as Dr Elsie Inglis offered their services to the Royal Army Medical Corps but were flatly refused. As far as the British military was concerned, nursing was the only suitable military role for women: over the course of the war, 19,000 women served as nurses and between 70,000-100,000 as VADs.
Meanwhile, a small but determined number of women established their own privately funded medical organisations such as the Scottish Women’s Hospital and the Women’s Hospital Corps and made their own way overseas. In 1915 the VAD introduced ‘general members’ who would undertake non-medical work, such as cooking, cleaning and administrative roles. Alongside groups like the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, these women proved they could operate in a war zone under duress, despite the opposition of the war office.
A turning point
The turning point came in 1916 when Britain faced a major manpower shortage. With recruitment in decline, Britain introduced conscription, but coupled with the devastating casualties of the battle of Somme it was not enough.
As increasing numbers of women took on men’s jobs on the home front, the idea of women performing basic military tasks no longer seemed ridiculous. A review was launched by the Army Council and, on 16 January 1917, Lieutenant General HM Lawson published his report, supporting women’s services in order to release men for frontline duty.
More like this
After two and a half years of conflict there was no more time to waste; within a month, Mona Chalmers Watson was appointed chief controller of the new women’s corps with Helen Gwynne-Vaughan as the overseas chief controller. Gwynne-Vaughan would later recall that she was emphatic they should be called the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) opposed to ‘Women’s Corps’ as she did not want to be known as ‘Chief WC’.
Before the WAAC could be sent overseas, the chief controllers had to ensure that there was suitable accommodation and facilities for the women. This meant that the first drafts sent out were small, numbering up to 25 women at a time. But by the summer, WAACs were embarking for France in groups of 200. The corps was established in such a rush that the chief controllers were still negotiating details of pay and accommodation for months after the first draft arrived in France, and the corps was not officially instituted until 7 July 1917.
At this point, the war office clarified that the women had enrolled as civilians and would not be enlisted in the army; this was only a temporary force created out of necessity. Regardless, Gwynne-Vaughan was determined that the WAAC would be viewed as a military organisation on a par with the men and insisted that both chief controllers wore lieutenant-colonel badges and that WAACs would stand to attention, salute and use rank titles. It was important for the WAACs to be irreproachable if the corps was to be a success and expand.
Introducing women into the army and in particular by stationing them in military bases put the women’s propriety ‘at risk’. Unlike the nurses, who were based within hospitals with a clear medical role, the WAAC wore military-style khaki uniforms and worked alongside the men. Some WAACs recall that French people in the towns in which they were billeted were fairly hostile, believing them to simply be camp followers sent out to ‘comfort’ the troops.
During their training the women were lectured, by female doctors, on basic hygiene and venereal disease. They were forewarned that if army men were rude or ungracious towards them to maintain their dignity at all times. Signaller Annie Martin recalled that she and her fellow WAACs who were billeted outside of the base camp were accompanied by military police as they went to and fro, while Nora Baker, a gardener, said that the women required chaperones to attend dances.
In January 1918, the WAAC started to receive bad press in Britain with rumours of impropriety between the men and women; as a result, recruitment figures began to drop. Fortunately, a government report into the situation was published in March 1918 and was extremely favourable, going a long way to rebuild the reputation of the WAAC.
While the first draft of 15 WAACs were employed as cooks and waitresses in the officers’ club at Abbeville, more drafts followed in a matter of weeks, posted to different bases. In due course, the range of roles was expanded to include clerks, drivers, mechanics, telephonists, telegraphers, typists and gardeners.
During service, the women were to be in uniform at all times, even during their leisure hours. Women were issued with a coat dress, a khaki overcoat, two overalls, one hat, two pairs of woollen stockings and one pair of shoes, but had to provide their own underclothes. The uniform was ill-fitting and drab, made from gabardine. Annie Martin said that all the women immediately altered the coat dresses, bringing in the waist, removing pleats and gathering them at the back, while Nora Baker said that the women felt terrible in their uniforms and Kathleen Bottomley, a telephonist, said: “the shoes were dreadful, they were like cast iron, when you had them on you could hardly lift your feet.” The women adapted their uniforms and wore their own boots and waterproof coats. There was a general acceptance that they were in the military and had to take what was given to them, but there was no reason not to make the best out of what they had.
The women were housed in Nissen huts, with eight to twelve women in each. These were small temporary structures with corrugated iron roofs, insulated with wood and heated by a cast iron stove. The chimney came straight up out of the stove and then bent at a right angle and out through the wall. The join often came loose and inevitably filled the hut with soot and smoke.
The winter of 1917-18 was particularly cold and Kathleen Bottomley recalls her boots freezing to the floor of the hut. She said that she and her fellow WAACs pulled their beds together and doubled up the blankets to keep warm, but that their superiors banned them from doing this on the grounds that it was unhygienic.
The women slept on hospital beds using hard military mattresses known as 'biscuits’. These were stuffed with straw and came in three pieces held together by the bedsheet. Often the biscuits would have gone their separate ways by the morning. Over time the women made their huts more comfortable with personal items, but spent most of their money on food.
The rations were poor; the majority of food was tinned and then heated up. The metal in the tins reacted with the starch and often the stew contained black potatoes. The women were issued with a loaf of ‘standard’ bread made with low-quality flour, which was shared amongst eight women. They were unlikely to have any fresh milk or any fresh meat, instead they ate bully beef [tinned corned beef]. To augment their basic provisions, the women relied on purchases from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Salvation Army.
Women from different backgrounds
As a result of recruiting for a range of roles, the WAAC brought together women from different backgrounds. The first draft of cooks and bakers came from the Women’s Legion, who according to other WAACs put on “airs and graces” because they worked for the officers.
Women employed as signallers tended to come from an educated middle-class background. Doing well at school they had entered the civil service and trained as telegraphers with the General Post Office. These women had watched as the men they worked with at home were called up with the Post Office Rifles, before beginning to follow them overseas. They worked sending encrypted messages in Morse code between the different armies and back to London. Signallers worked alongside the Royal Engineers doing 12-hour shifts and, although this was exhausting, the fact that they had often been working the same hours back at home meant that they soon adapted to army life.
Prior to the war, gardener Nora Baker had been a children’s nurse. When men from her local estate in south Wales went to war, she was taken on by the head gardener. On joining the WAAC, Baker and the other gardeners were interviewed by a professor from Kew Gardens. He asked them what experience they had: one woman said she owned her own ranch, while another said that she sometimes helped her father out in the garden. It wasn’t until they arrived in France that the women realised they would be tending British graves.
Messengers would arrive from the hospital informing them how many bodies to expect. Digging was done by the men, while the filling in and tidying was done by the women. The women watched as the burial services were conducted and the Last Post could be heard back in the base camp playing throughout the day. On one occasion, after Abbeville was bombed in an air raid, Baker recalls having to bury nine members of the WAAC. After this, the women were moved to the relative safety of the Crecy Forest to live in tents.
The legacy of the WAAC
On 9 April 1918, the WAAC was honoured when Queen Mary became the corps’ commandant-in-chief and it was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. This act helped restore the reputation of the WAAC, and the success of the corps led to the establishment of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in November 1917, followed by the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in April 1918.
By 1918, more than 57,000 women had served in the QMAAC (9,000 of which were overseas), around 5,450 in WRNS and 9,000 in the WRAF. Each service continued after the end of the war, until October 1919 when the WRNS was disbanded followed by the QMAAC and the WRAF in 1920. During the war, five members of QMAAC were awarded the Military Medal, eight ‘officials’ (equivalent to officers) and 75 members died in service. Although disbanded, the precedent had been set and, on the eve of the Second World War, each of the three services were re-established as the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Elisabeth Shipton is a military historian and the author of Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War (The History Press, paperback May 2017)