Women Played An Essential Role In The First World War

The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps marching in London at the end of World War I.

Not surprisingly, the First World War required a prodigious amount of manpower ranging from foot soldiers to officers.

The resulting drain of civilian workers three years into the war was replenished by women who traded in their routine lives to become mechanics and clerks, even having to face the danger of life on the front lines.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary (WAAC) was formed in March 1917, a century ago this month.  On the 31st the initial detachment of members, waitresses, and 14 cooks, were bound for France.

Members of the Q.M.A.A.C. encamped in a big forest in France.
Members of the Q.M.A.A.C. encamped in a big forest in France.

Volunteers dressed in khaki uniforms like male soldiers, but any skirt higher than 12 inches from the ground was prohibited.

Even though they did not participate in combat, women replaced men in support positions at army bases and offices.

Some went from being maidservants back in Britain to serving in France as mechanics. This was unthinkable prior to the war.

They commonly worked as cooks at army camps and hospitals, frequently serving up dishes that were a vast improvement compared to what men had relished at home.

Initially, there was some opposition to the concept of using women in France.  Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Army, was anxious they would not be capable of managing the physical labor performed by men.

He also questioned whether the presence of women in storerooms – where male soldiers changed their clothes – would weaken moral values.

WAAC’s in France find German helmets useful substitutes for market bags.
WAAC’s in France find German helmets useful substitutes for market bags.

Women’s contribution to the war effort vastly increased the respect they received from men.  Women 30 years of age and over who possessed property were given the vote in the final year of the war.

Haig accepted the idea, writing to the War Office on March 11, 1917: ‘The principle of employing women in France is recognized, and they will be made use of wherever conditions admit.’

About 50,000 women enlisted in the WAAC by the war’s end in 1918, with every recruit being paid upwards of 24 shillings per week.

After 1918, the organization was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and continued to exist until 1920.

However, it was not only via the WAAC that women assisted the Allied effort throughout the war.

Multitudes worked as ambulance drivers and nurses for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, whose best-known participant and leader was Katherine Furse.

There was, in addition, the Women’s Royal Navy Service, established two years into the conflict, Mail Online reported.

While many were never close to the front line, there was a single female soldier – 20-year-old Dorothy Lawrence, a journalist who joined the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, by posing as a man.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE