It is a well-documented fact the the Great War brought many new opportunities for women. They moved into areas of public, commercial and industrial life that had previously been out of bounds. Women’s efforts in the war also embraced many different voluntary activities, in raising funds and providing materials for the forces. As the economies of Great Britain and the Empire geared up towards a total war footing, such voluntary activities proved to be insufficient. Towards the end of 1916 the British Government began organising women’s auxiliary military services to replace men in non-combatant roles and so release more men for fighting. Unprepared by pre-war life for the conditions that many now faced, they bore it with great fortitude and laid a foundation for undreamed-of levels of emancipation that came in the post-war generations. This page is little more than a passing tribute to the important women’s organisations and the vital work that they did in supporting the war effort.
The women’s organisations
Military nursing services
Details of the nursing services have now been moved to this page
A procession of women, led by a band, demanding the right to enter the war services in 1915. The banner reads: “The situation is serious. Women must help to save it.” Imperial War Museum image Q105767.
Women’s Hospital Corps
A very early war time voluntary group formed in September 1914. Dr’s Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson established military hospitals for the French Army in Paris and Wimereux, their proposals having been at first rejected by the British authorities. The latter eventually saw sense and the WHC established a military hospital in Endell Street, London staffed entirely by women, from chief surgeon to orderlies.
Scottish Women’s Hospitals
Founded by the extraordinary Dr Elsie Maud Inglis, who was not only a suffragette but one of the earliest qualified female medical doctors. Her idea was for the Scottish Suffrage Societies to fund and staff a medical hospital; the military authorities told her to “Go home and sit still”. Not to be held down, Inglis pressed forward. The first unit moved to northern Serbia in January 1915 and by 1918 there were 14 such units, working with each of the Allied armies except the British. Dr Inglis was taken prisoner of war in Serbia in 1915, but was repatriated. She immediately moved with another unit to Russia. Evacuated home after the revolution there, she died in Newcastle the day after her return home in November 1917.
The Women’s Volunteer Reserve
This organisation developed from a very early one, the Women’s Emergency Corps, which came into existence in August 1914. It was the initiative of Decima Moore and the Hon. Evelina Haverfield – a militant and influential suffragette – who seized the opportunity provided by the crisis to organise a role for women. It was soon joined by many women from the higher classes and was in the early days an unlikely mix of feminists and women who would not normally have mixed with such dangerous types. They became involved in several ventures, not least of which was in providing until 1918 a uniformed group called the Lady Instructors Signals Company, who trained Aldershot army recruits in signalling. However the work was largely of a domestic, fund-raising nature. The WVR was however rather expensive to join – one had to pay for ones own uniform which at more than £2 could not be afforded by lower classes. This was an influence in the establishment of the Women’s Legion, which had a more widespread appeal.
Women’s Auxiliary Force
Launched in 1915 by Misses Walthall and Sparshott, the WAF was an entirely voluntary organisation for part-time workers. Uniformed, they worked in canteens and provided social clubs; they also worked on the land and in hospitals.
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Force working on an allotment in Highbury in 1915. Imperial War Museum image Q108033.
An organisation named the Women’s Agricultural Auxiliary Corps also existed, but it is not clear whether this was the same or part of the WAF or was entirely separate: “Lady Mabel Smith’s Visit to France. Ref her appointment as inspector for the whole county of Yorkshire under the newly created organisation of the Women’s Agricultural Auxiliary Corps”. 19th January 1918, Yorkshire Weekly Post, page 13
The Women’s Legion
Launched in July 1915 by the Marchioness of Londonderry, the Women’s Legion became the largest entirely voluntary body. Although it was not formally under Government control or part of the army, in the spirit of the times its members adopted a military-style organisation and uniform. The WL volunteers became involved in many forms of work, including cooking and catering for the army in England. The success of the WL was a definite factor in influencing the Government to organise female labour in the latter half of the war.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC)
Announced by the War Office in February 1917 and established a month later as a part of the British Army, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was to be made up of volunteers of whom eventually 57,000 were employed. The response was swift and the planned establishment soon achieved. The first WAACs moved to France on 31 March 1917. By early 1918, some 6,000 WAACs were there. It was officially renamed the QMAAC in April 1918. The organisation of the WAAC mirrored the military model: their officers (calledControllers and Administrators rather than Commissioned Officers, titles jealously protected) messed separately from the other ranks. The WAAC equivalent of an NCO was a Forewoman, the private a Worker. The women were largely employed on unglamorous tasks on the lines of communication: cooking and catering, storekeeping, clerical work, telephony and administration, printing, motor vehicle maintenance. A large detachment of WAACs worked for the American Expeditionary Force and was an independent body under their own Chief Controller. Some 57,000 women were enrolled to serve in the WAAC.
Women’s Land Army
Much less well-known that its WW2 successor, the Women’s Land Army was formed in February 1917 in spite of male resistance in farming communities, in an attempt to provide a full-time, properly regulated workforce for agricultural industries. It was not part of the army or even under the control of the War Office – it was funded and controlled by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries – but as an organised body supporting the war effort, it deserves its place in any consideration of the fighting forces. It eventually employed 113,000 women; female labour made up some one-third of all labour on the land, the remainder being a mix of enemy prisoners, Army Service Corps, infantry labour units and agricultural workers outside military age.
Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps
An initially civilian organisation founded in England by Mr & Mrs Almeric Paget. 50 trained masseuses were supplied for work with wounded soldiers. Their early form of physiotherapy was found especially useful in the treatment of muscular wounds. Eventually the organisation was accepted by the War Office and gained official recognition. The APMMC began to work at medical facilities in France in 1917 and by the end of the war had grown to 2,000 staff.
Women’s Forage Corps
The British army largely ran on horse power, and demand for forage was huge and incessant. The civilian Women’s Forage Corps, formed by the Government in 1915, came under the control of the Army Service Corps
Women’s Forestry Corps
Controlled by the Timber Supply Department of the Board of Trade, this organisation maintained a supply of wood for industrial and paper production at home, but also for construction purposes in the theatres of war.
Members of the Women’s Forestry Corps grinding an axe. Imperial War Museum image Q30720.
Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF)
Women had been employed by both the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service before the WRAF was established as part of the newly-established Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. Those working for the RFC had been members of the WAAC and those with the RNAS had been with the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Transfer to the WRAF was voluntary and over 9,000 women accepted service with the new force. The WRAF was organised into Clerks and Storewomen, Household, Technical (which were mainly aircraft mechanics) and Non-Technical.
And we should not forget …
Other organisations and persons worthy of mention include Mrs St Clair Stobart’s Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps that worked with the Belgian Army, in addition to her Serbian Relief Fund that did the same in the Balkans; Flora Sandes, the only British woman known to have served officially as a soldier and to have fought against the enemy, became a Sergeant-Major in the Serbian Army. Flora was not only seriously wounded, but was awarded the high honour of the Order of Karageorge; Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker (later Baroness t’Serclaes) – often known as the “Women of Pervyse” – who organised a first aid post in the support lines of the Belgian army on the Yser; the many British and other women in France, Belgium and other places that provided their services for the care of the wounded, the feeding of soldiers and civilians, the hiding of soldiers caught behind lines and of escaping prisoners.
Researching women’s service
See also my page on the nursing services
The service records of the WAACs were held at the Army Record Centre that burned in an air raid fre in 1940. The records of some 7000 WAACS of the 57000 who served survived the fire. They are held in the National Archives WO398 collection; they have been digitised; and can be searched and downloaded (for a small fee) from the Discovery part of the National Archives website.
The service records of the WRAFs are held in the National Archives AIR80 collection; they have been digitised; and can be searched and downloaded (for a small fee) from the Discovery part of the National Archives website.
There is no central archive and in many cases original records no longer exist. It is always worth trying a general trawl of the national and local archives (that is, local to where the woman lived) and local newspapers.
Those women who served overseas qualified for campaign medals with the same regulations as men and their medal records can be traced in the same way.