'Then my evil spirit and restlessness began to catch up with me. I wanted to be a WAAC and do my bit.'
Lia Parfitt, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, 1917
In 1917, as the First World War (1914-18) drained Britain's manpower, an official force of women soldiers embarked for France in uniform for the first time.
The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) were formed to free up valuable and experienced soldiers from the rear areas for front line service. As part of the mobilisation of the whole country this milestone in the push for equal rights formed the basis for women’s service in the British Army to this day.
As the war progressed, many women felt they should be doing more for the war effort. On 21 July 1915, a march took place in London to persuade the authorities to widen women's role using the slogan 'The Situation is Serious'. The Government, faced by shortages of men in key industries had no choice.
Women were soon recruited as bus and train conductors. Later that year they were recruited as factory workers. These 'Munitionettes' played a vital role, taking over men's jobs, often at great personal risk.
As well as accidents, many suffered from the chemicals they worked with, which turned their skin yellow, prompting the nickname 'canaries'.
In 1915, Lady Londonderry proposed the creation of a unit to cook for the Army. In August 1915 the creation of the Women's Legion was sanctioned by the Army Council.
Based in Dartford, this cookery section formed the basis of a growing force. It provided cooks, waitresses and gardeners and from 1916, motor transport drivers. The latter chiefly served with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
As the manpower shortage worsened in 1916, conscription was introduced. After the heavy losses on the Somme in the summer of 1916, a report by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Lawson was commissioned to investigate the possibility of using women as substitutes for men in auxiliary roles. Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, felt it was a good idea. The sister of Brigadier A C Geddes, the War Office Director of Recruiting, Mrs Chalmers Watson, was appointed to lead the new force in the United Kingdom. A smaller contingent would embark for service in France.
With the support of the War Office and the Headquarters in France, the WAACs arrived on the Western Front on 31 March 1917, under their first commander in France, Assistant Controller Helen Gwynne Vaughan. One of this first group was Emmy Gaunt, who later wrote:
'All the preliminaries completed, we duly received embarkation orders to proceed to Victoria Station, there to take the Continental Boat Train to Folkestone, and thence to Boulogne - the first draft of khaki-clad members of the Women's Army who were destined for the duration to do their bit side by side with the soldiers.'
On arriving in France, Vaughan began to organise the women. She proved an able commander despite the obstruction of some of her male colleagues, writing later:
'I discovered that the objection to the employment of women was almost universal. The Services, of all professions, had, naturally the least experience of working with women, they knew little of the extent to which, even then, men and women were working easily together, they mistrusted the complications which the influx of a large body of women might entail, they disliked the intrusion into their offices and workshops of an alien element.'
'Service with the Army' 1942
Recruiting was initially done at Labour Exchanges, the women being enrolled, rather than enlisting, as with male soldiers. This gave them a different status to men, more like that of civilians in uniform. The chance of Army service was attractive to many young women, like Lia Parfitt, 'an excitable spitfire',
'In 1917 I began to see girls in khaki uniforms, these were the original WAACs, members of the women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Then my evil spirit and restlessness began to catch up with me. I wanted to be a WAAC and do my bit - this was my usual theme of conversation whenever my poor father was home, and his usual answer was No, No, No! Unbeknown to my father I wrote to the Recruiting Office of the WAACs and offered my services. Soon a long envelope bearing the magic letters OHMS (on His Majesties Service) came for me.
It advised me that my application had been received and told me to report to the Board of Examiners for an oral examination and also a medical examination at Southampton. My father would happen to be home at the time and he hit the roof!'
Sent for training, the women were issued with their service clothing as Florence Hill later recalled:
'Next was the uniform. So down I went to the Issue Room. Honestly, my 5ft 2.5 inches was quite a problem. Everything was much too big and WAAC greatcoats out of stock. By the time I got my uniform it was a Tommies greatcoat for me. What a sketch I looked and it caused a lot of laughter when I put it on. The next step was the tailors...
Skirts in those far off days had to measure 8.5 inches from the ground so that tailor had a lot of work to do on my uniform.'
Based in hostels and camps behind the lines, the accommodation sometimes left much to be desired. Unit Administrator Isobel Turner described a hostel in Rouen in 1917:
'This Hostel was a dreadful little place...the only bathroom was in a built-on shed through the coal cellar, and there was a wooden partition, shielding it from the street, which unfortunately had cracks in it. One used to see bright eyes glued to these cracks, whilst one had one's bath, unless you remembered to hang something over it!.'
Women were employed in a variety of jobs. As well as cooking and waiting on officers, they served as clerks, telephone operators, store-women, drivers, printers, bakers and cemetery gardeners. The WAACs had a different command structure to the male Army. Officers were called 'Officials' (Administrators and Assistant Administrators), Non-Commissioned Officers were referred to as 'Forewomen' and other ranks as 'Workers'. Thus in name at least, the WAAC resembled the factory structure familiar at home, rather than a military formation.
The work of the WAACs was also much appreciated by their male colleagues. On 13 May 1918, Private Thomas Dyson Fuller wrote home:
'The WAACS can cook much better than the old Army cooks used to, so we shall miss them when we get to a battalion up the line.'
The WAAC also shared the dangers of their male colleagues. Air raids on the camps and depots were frequent and in one, on 30 May 1918, nine women died in an air raid at Abbeville, with six wounded. Marjory Peacock knew one of the dead girls, writing of her funeral:
'Graves in France were just long trenches so before Trixie was buried some of us went out into the woods and gathered daffodils and brought packets of hair pins from the canteen and went down into the grave and lined her part of it by pinning daffodils to the sides before she was buried.'
Other women fell victim to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-19 which killed millions across the world, as Lia Parfitt remembered:
'The Spanish Flu epidemic swept over the whole command like a whirlwind leaving many vacant places in our ranks... Every hospital was filled beyond capacity, and as soon as we were able to stand on our feet we were discharged for light duty.'
With the German offensives on the Western Front in March 1918, the women of the WAAC were in grave danger as the Germans advanced rapidly through the British front. Forewoman Ada Gummersall, later recalled this tense time:
'In March 1918 our troops were driven out of their trenches and were in general retreat. It was an anxious time for all of us. We could hear the guns of the enemy quite close and were told by the Red Cross that arrangements were being made to evacuate us to England if it became necessary.'
Thanks to proper organisation the WAAC was evacuated from the danger area safely and the battle turned in favour of the British once again. Their overall conduct led to Queen Mary becoming the patron of the Corps. On 9 April 1918 it was renamed Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) in honour of their bravery.
Surprisingly, QMAAC attracted a mixed reception from the press and public. Some wives and mothers resented their male relatives being sent to danger at the Front to be replaced by women whilst newspapers suggested that improper relations took place between QMAACs and 'Tommies'. This last rumour persisted, despite an investigation and report in March 1918 by Miss Tennyson Jesse, which found that only 21 women had been sent home pregnant in the past year.
By 1918, nearly 40,000 women had enrolled in the QMAAC. Of these, some 7000 served on the Western Front, the rest back in the United Kingdom. With the end of the war, the QMAAC were no longer of use in an army being cut down in size to peacetime levels. On 27 Sept 1921 the QMAAC was formally disbanded. The Corps maintained a very healthy Old Comrades Association and these links remained throughout the period between the wars. Some women organised themselves into an 'Emergency Service' which could be mobilised if required.
This opportunity arose with the rise of Hitler and on 9 December 1938, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was formed. Many former QMAACs rejoined the new service, which served with distinction in the true tradition of the female pioneer soldiers of the First World War.
Some women have disguised themselves as men to go and fight. Christian Davies was born in Ireland, and served as a soldier in the Duke of Marlborough's army. After she was wounded at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706 her true identity was revealed. She later had a successful career as an Army sutler (a camp follower who sold provisions). She died in the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Her memoirs, The life and adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, first appeared in 1740
Women have followed the British Army on campaign for centuries. They have looked after the soldier, born his children, and even looted the dead after battles. Regiments would take quotas of women on campaign to accompany their husbands and by the mid-19th Century, officers' wives were also accompanying the Army, like Fanny Duberly during the Crimean War (1854-56), who provided a detailed account of her experiences on campaign.
During the Boer War (1899-1902) despite the misgivings and sometimes disapproval of senior commanders (including Lord Roberts himself), women from across the Empire served in hospitals in South Africa. After this experience, in 1902 the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service was formed and in 1908, a Territorial Force Nursing Service followed.
The most famous pioneering women's unit before the First World War, was the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). The idea of an army officer, Captain E.W. Baker, in 1907, the FANY were originally supposed to act as a mounted link between care on the battlefield and military hospitals.
If his ideas appeared fanciful to many at the time, by the outbreak of war in 1914, the organisation was well organised and served with distinction in France as drivers and in hospitals. They still exist today as an independent unit serving with the Army and celebrated their centenary in 2007.