When war was declared women formed long queues at local labour exchanges to volunteer for whatever roles were available. New organisations such as the Women’s Emergency Corps sprung into action to co-ordinate employment and the Voluntary Aid Detachment 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.
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.
The turning point came in 1916 when Britain faced a major manpower shortage. With recruitment in decline Britain introduced conscription, but with the devastating casualties of the Somme it was not enough. Looking at the women taking on men’s jobs on the home front and the independent organisations, the idea of women performing basic military jobs no longer seemed ridiculous. A review was launched and on 16th January 1917 Lt Gen HM Lawson published his report, supporting women’s services in order to release men for front-line duty. After two and 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 that 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 W.C.’.
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 7th July 1917. It was 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. Yet 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. One WAAC member recalls how the women were laughed at by the men as they practised drills on the parade ground but once they arrived in France and began working alongside the men, the soldiers’ opinions of them began to change to that of mutual respect.
The first draft of fifteen WAACs were employed as cooks and waitresses in the officers’ club at Abbeville and more drafts followed in a matter of weeks, posted to different bases. In due course roles were expanded to include clerks, drivers, mechanics, telephonists, telegraphers and typists. On 9th 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. The success of the corps led to the establishment of the Women’s Royal Naval Service in November 1917, followed by the Women’s Royal Air Force in April 1918. By 1918 over 57,000 women had served in the QMAAC (9,000 of which were overseas), 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 seventy-five 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.
This week, let us remember all the women who served in the First World War both at home and overseas and established the acceptance of women in the British military.
By Elisabeth Shipton