Take it away, Jennifer...
A century ago, at the outbreak of the Great War, women were almost entirely excluded from all wings of the military in most combatant nations. That’s not to say that soldiers of the past hadn’t marched and fought without women among them, for women had been present as wives, servants and camp followers for as long as human beings had fought in organized wars. Few observers could have guessed, in August 1914, how vitally important the contributions of women would soon become to the success of the war effort, in Britain in particular.
Other women’s auxiliary services of note were the Women’s Royal Naval Service, popularly known as the Wrens, which was founded in 1917 and had 5,500 members at its height; and the Women’s Royal Air Force, established in 1918, which eventually had approximately 30,000 members. The Voluntary Aid Detachments, though they were never formally aligned with the military, also played a significant role in the war effort. First appearing in England in1909, largely as a way of training the civilian population in basic first aid and emergency preparedness, the VADs had nearly 40,000 members serving as nurses, cooks and ambulance drivers by the end of the war.
The Women’s Legion, founded by Lady Londonderry in 1915, provided cooks, waitresses, gardeners and motor transport drivers to the British Army, but never in very great numbers. In any event, it was largely superseded by the establishment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which was founded in the early months of 1917.
Of all the women’s services, it was the WAAC that arguably had the greatest effect on the war effort and, in the long run, helped most to change perceptions of women’s roles and their place in society. It was created with the express intent of freeing able-bodied men from non-combat duties; casualties and lower-than-expected conscription rates had left the army badly undermanned. In the words of a WAAC recruiting poster, “Every fit woman can release a fit man.”
Women responded enthusiastically to this call to not-quite-arms, with thousands vying to join the WAAC in its early months. By the end of 1918 there were 57,000 WAACs, most of them based in Britain, working in a wide variety of occupations: as clerks, cooks, waitresses, mechanics, drivers and more.
The admission of women into the military, even in an auxiliary role was highly controversial at the time, not least because of fears for the safety and virtue of the young women taking on such roles. Helen Gwynne Vaughan, the Corps’ first Controller, later described her disappointment at the initial reaction to the WAAC among other branches of the armed services:
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.
Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate that WAACs were engaging in inappropriate and even licentious behavior, although an official investigation later revealed that only 21 WAACs were discharged between 1917-1918 as a result of pregnancy.
Anxiety about the WAAC didn’t arise simply because women were being asked to take part in dirty, disagreeable and dangerous work, for being a WAAC was no more dangerous than making munitions, nor was it any more physically taxing than being a scullery maid or a charlady, for instance. It was highly visible, however—its members wore uniforms, they could be seen going about their work, and when they were injured or killed there was no hiding it.
And yet, in spite of all this, by the end of the war most observers were readily able to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of the women’s services. Queen Mary herself—never at the vanguard of change—was so impressed by the WAAC that she allowed the corps to be renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps in April 1918.
The vote was extended to a minority of women in time for the general election of 1918, with a full extension of the franchise not following until 1928. At the time, Prime Minister David Lloyd George publicly acknowledged that women’s contribution to the war effort had played a factor in offering them the vote, although privately he and other leading politicians considered women’s suffrage less important to postwar stability than extending the franchise to all returning servicemen.
Women being part of the military’s auxiliary services hadn’t turned Britain on its ear, for there were greater rifts to mend in the fabric of society. It had, however, opened the door on a world of wider horizons and greater possibilities for women of all social classes, and it had also set a precedent that would not easily be set aside or forgotten. When war came again, a generation later, women were ready, and flocked to “do their bit” for their country as their mothers had once done.
About Somewhere in France
Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lilly is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward's best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily's dreams. She doesn't care that Robbie grew up in poverty -- she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lilly is the most beautiful -- and forbidden -- woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he's determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.
In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?
About the AuthorJennifer Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, and later served as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. A former copy editor, she holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. This is her first novel.