I said to the girl next to me, I said, ‘When I get out of here,’ I said, ‘I’m going to join up because,’ I said, ‘if I’m going to get knocked about I’ll go where I expect it.’ And I did.

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

From the start of hostilities in 1914, women contributed to the war effort. Initially, there were only a few voluntary organisations as well as some official schemes for them to join. But over time, the range of roles and the number of more formal services open to women gradually grew. The motivations to join these varied. For Daisy Spickett, it was a desire to be part of the action.

I always had in mind that I wanted to nurse and as soon as I heard of any talk of forming Red Cross Hospitals I began to make enquiries. I heard also that there was a likelihood of the War Office wanting volunteers for military hospitals, and that was what I decided I wanted. It seemed to me the only hope of getting right into the middle of everything, getting abroad and doing whatever was going, and the idea of the Army attracted me – being in the Army. But it seemed to me the thing I wanted more than anything else and that was how I put my name down for military hospitals and got my posting in July 1915.

Grace Hallam had a simpler reason for wanting to join what became the Women’s Royal Air Force.

I left school and I wanted to be something in the… Well, my father was in the Army so I said to mum ‘I want to be in the flying corps.’ So she said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Well, I like the uniform.’ So she said, ‘Well, you ought to have a better excuse than that!’ So I said, ‘Oh, no.’ So she said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want…’ So she took me to London and mother bravely said yes to my age, so they took me as 17. I’d just left school; I was 15, but I should have been 17 to get in. And mother, she knew how badly I wanted to be in the services, so she lied as well for me! She said, ‘Oh yes.’ They didn’t ask for a birth certificate or anything I was just in; I’d got into the flying corps.

The war offered women an opportunity to take up roles that simply were not open to them before. Alice Russell and her sister drove a baker’s delivery van up until 1917.

And then it got that they couldn’t get the customers… people were getting that they brought bread out more than they wanted it delivered. So he said, ‘Well one of you will have to go.’ So I said, ‘Right, I’ll go.’ And I joined the WRENS and that was the start of it. I’d always been interested. Mother made us sailor suits when we were kiddies, you know, skirts. A cousin lived with me who was the same age and we were both dressed in these sailor outfits. I’ve always loved the Navy and it’s always been… I don’t know why, having been born and brought up in Birmingham, you see. Then of course nothing would satisfy me but… well, I went to a place in Birmingham and joined.

As the war progressed there was an increasing need to free up men to fight. It was noted that many jobs were being carried out by men that could be done by women. Largely as a result of this, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (the WAAC) was established in December 1916. Florence Parrott explained why she joined the WAAC the following year, after being caught in a London air raid.

It was the air raid that done it. When I got in that Blitz, that made my mind up for me. I got hit in this arm. Mind you, it was a glass roof you see overhead that’s why a lot of people got hit, you see. They took us to Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and treated me. They got the glass out of my arm and treated me there; they only kept me a few days. And I said to the girl laying – we had to lay on the floor – I said to girl laying next to me I said, ‘When I get out of here,’ I said, ‘I’m going to join up because,’ I said, ‘if I’m going to get knocked about I’ll go where I expect it.’ And I did. I went along Oxford Street to Marble Arch into Connaught Club and joined up in the WAAC.

A Women's Auxiliary Army Corps recruiting sergeant and assistant talking to potential recruits in Trafalgar Square in London, 1918.
A WAAC recruiting sergeant and assistant busy talking to potential recruits in Trafalgar Square in London. © IWM (Q 31083)

The WAAC was an attractive service for women, offering as it did a variety of roles and financial independence. Elsie Cooper found that she had trouble gaining a place, such was its popularity.

It was in the paper, the evening paper, and I applied the first day the advertisement appeared. I wrote up to Birmingham – which was the headquarters – and they wrote back to say they had sufficient short-hand typists in the district so that they would write again later on. So then I decided, well, I would go on the clerical. You see the short-hand typists got 37 and 6 a week; but the clerical only got 27 and 6 a week! I could do the short-hand so I thought there was no point. But anyway, I offered to go as a clerk but I heard nothing for quite a long time.

As well as carrying out auxiliary military duties, women were needed to work on the land. The Women’s National Land Services Corps – later the Women’s Land Army – recruited women for jobs in farming and forestry. Helen Poulter joined the Forestry Corps with her friend in 1918.

When we went to Caxton Hall they asked why we wanted to join and all things like that, you know, and asked our particulars, as you are, and there’s nothing to keep us at home. And ‘Would we like to work on a farm or work in the forest?’ and we both looked at one another and we just chose the forest, we liked it. Then we waited a few weeks and we had a medical at Maida Vale. A place in Maida Vale we had to go to and we had our medical for heart, I suppose, and varicose veins and things like that. Then they said that we should be hearing from them.

The new female recruits often underwent training for their new roles, although the length of time spent on this varied. E Frances Tipp recalled being drilled as a new member of the Women’s Royal Air Force at RAF Hunstanton in 1918.

We had a sergeant major from the, er, oh I don’t know, one of the regular regiments. He wasn’t too bad, I suppose, really but he was a stickler for discipline. And we used to have to drill every morning, I forget how long – half an hour perhaps, might have been longer. We had to learn the bugle calls, which we never had to use at all! But he thought that was part of our discipline, you see. This was before we were in uniform; we were doing all this business in our own clothes that we arrived in, in mufti. Those of us who had sort of looked ahead a little bit wore their plainest, tweediest clothes but some of the others rather dressed up, you know. They must have looked really funny drilling and learning bugle calls like that…!

A wide variety of roles were carried out by women during the war, both at home in Britain and overseas on the fighting fronts. Among other jobs, women were cooks, clerks, storewomen, telephonists, signallers, waitresses, nurses and motor transport drivers. When new WAAC Kathleen Bottomley arrived in France, she found she was expected to undertake some unpleasant duties at the camp where she was based.

It was humiliating, the beginning of it, at this camp. Because they gave me, I hadn’t a job to go to. The other girl, Richardson, that I went with was a dispenser in civil life and they found her a job as a dispenser in the hospital, so she was alright she went straight away. As I’d signed on as a storekeeper, I couldn’t be found a job. But until I could be found a suitable job, I had to help about the camp, cleaning latrines – which were lavatories. It wasn’t a job I liked either, I hadn’t gone out to do that. But we were told we were in the Army and in the Army you do as you’re told and ask no questions.

The work was often tough, and the hours could be long. Josephine Tennent was an ambulance driver with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps on the Western Front. 

The idea was that the women were to take over and free men for other jobs. They had done all the driving up until then and they had always been two to an ambulance. Now, we were one to an ambulance, so there were times when we did the work of two men. At one time, when there was a German advance, things were so bad that we drove day and night for 48 hours and only stopped for two hours on our beds during that time. You had to keep your car in running order. You had to do all the daily jobs, you see, filling up and oiling and greasing and this and that. To swing those cars – there were no self-starters – was extremely hard work. And it took a bit of getting used to, to give it the right sort of flick you see. The tyres were the great trouble because, in those days, tyres went down at the drop of a hat, you know. And I’ve known as many as – I think I’m not exaggerating – if I say I’ve had at least three punctures in a day.

New officer recruits to the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), wearing a mix of civilian dress and uniform, undergo a squad drill at Crystal Palace.
New officer recruits to the WRNS, wearing a mix of civilian dress and uniform, undergo drill at Crystal Palace. © IWM (Q 18695)

It could be just as hard-going for women working in Britain. Doris Robinson of the Women’s Land Army described her daily duties on a farm in Essex.

I had the whole farm to look after. I had seven jersey cows; about four hundred hens; and a goat; and ducks and it was only me! I had to get up at six in the morning, you see, for milking. And I had to stay up until about 10 at night because they had a lot of eggs incubated that had to be turned. So there was nobody else there at all!

Nora Barker had an unusual – though sadly essential – role with the WAAC at Abbeville, in France.

We just went down the little road that went from the camp down to the main road and then up a little way and then a cutting across a field to the French cemetery. Because the English part was a continuation of the French cemetery and our part, the British part of it, was an open cemetery. We had burials every morning. We had runners up every afternoon from the different hospitals; there were a lot of hospitals around. And we had these runners to come up with notes to say how many there would be the next morning. There were two men up there as well who we helped to fill in. The French people looked upon us with horror: ‘Khaki girl, ne bon.’ Dreadful!

Some aspects of the women’s war services had inherent risks. E Vyvyan Garstang remembered one occasion when she could have been seriously injured in her work with the Forestry Corps.

We went down to Hatfield in Hertfordshire, on Lord Salisbury’s estate. But we had the bailiff there that supervised and told us which trees they wanted down. But that was a very densely thick wood and we had a hard job to get the trees down. I know that one tree, we couldn’t get it down. You see, you take off so many branches and then you roll the tree so that the branches holding it would release it. Well this tree wouldn’t come down. So I had to swarm up the tree, and lop off the remaining branches. Still it wouldn’t come down. So I had to lop off the remaining branch and then the tree started to come down. So, of course, I thought I could slide down the tree then – ‘course when it was trimmed it was 50 feet – but I’d stuck to the tree. So I had to come down with it. Of course, I had my legs wrapped round the tree and the bailiff shouted out to me to put my legs out or else they’d have been broken. It came down with a bump! We all had a jolly good laugh over that, it was real fun.

Although they were stationed behind the lines, women who served on the Western Front could face a certain degree of danger, for example from German air raids on British camps. However, Mairi Chisholm defied the rules intended to keep women from front line service in her role driving ambulances behind the Belgian trenches.

Of course you see the ambulances, as far as the Belgian Army was concerned, the ambulances were three miles behind us; they weren’t allowed to be so close to the trenches. But we actually kept an ambulance up at our post hidden in a sandbagged shelter of its own so that we had one available on the spot. I used to take that ambulance out and drive it the length behind the trenches sometimes to get some of the people out. It was exactly like being like a grouse, you know! It was absolutely a case of trying to get through and always changing your timing. The ambulances, although we had shots through the… we used to dart like anything and say, ‘Well, they didn’t get us that time, we’ll dodge them yet!’

For women posted to the fighting front, the basic living conditions could be a challenge. Ruby Ord served as a clerk with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France. She didn’t think much of the food at the camp where she was based in Calais.

Horrible. Horrible! When we arrived, there were no rations for us to begin with. So we had Army biscuits and some cheese, I think. Eventually they got some bread, which was green. The Australians had a bakery in Calais, but we never had any fresh bread in spite of it; it was always stale. They used to section a loaf into six and that was the ration, a sixth of a loaf was the ration. They we had margarine and cheese for supper. I can’t remember what we had for breakfast. I suppose the rations were quite good, but it was badly handled, badly cooked, and nobody seemed to be worried. The officers had the same rations, they told us, and their food was beautifully served. The potatoes were roast potatoes and this sort of thing, and you would see them going in with it, and you would see how we got it, too. I made so many complaints that they gave me the official job.

Accommodation was, unsurprisingly, often less than luxurious. Ethel McCann served with the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment at Camiers.

We were all in bell tents, two in a tent; there wasn’t much room. There were: two camp beds; two little canvas chairs that kept falling over; two washbowls on a stand. Then there were our two trunks with all our worldly possessions. The tent pole was our wardrobe. We had a strap round it at the top and from that we had out coats hanging – our top coats – our outdoor uniform; our indoor uniform. And then we had one small metal mirror hanging on a piece of string, that’s all we had to see ourselves in. But we managed to look smart, so they said, I don’t know how…

Many women who joined the women’s services remembered their dissatisfaction at the clothing they were expected to wear. Ruby Ord described her Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform.

I think mine was down to my ankles. They were one-piece dresses, so you can imagine how it looked, with no shaping. We had to leave England and go to France, of all places, in this type of uniform. We had these terrible greatcoats that weighed a ton. Really, the uniform was a disgrace to anybody. And of course when we arrived in France, it seemed to rain all the time. The roads were liquid mud, and trailing skirts in the mud. We asked if we could be allowed to turn up the dresses. We were told they must be nine inches from the ground.

Carrying out demanding roles left many of the women who served during the war with little free time. But Red Cross VAD nurse Olive Prentice managed to have something of a social life during her time in France.

When we had a gap between a push we might get a day off, yes. But when there was a push you never got any off-duty. And, you see, otherwise you would have two hours off. Well, it’s not very much when you’re working very hard. And when you had a day off you walked away into the country somewhere, got a little exercise and fresh air. And, of course, one did also transgress the rules. We were not supposed to go beyond our area. We were allowed to go to Wimereux, which was three miles. But we weren’t supposed to go beyond that. But, of course, one did get lifts and you went all over the place. You scrounged lifts, you see. You hi-jacked a lift, we went off to Calais, I had a cousin in Calais, so I used to go over and see him.

Despite their contribution to the war effort, many women found that the general public often looked down on them. This was especially the case for members of the WAAC, as Emily Rumbold discovered during a brief return to Britain.

They were mostly slightly hostile at the idea of women. On our first leave we were passing this house to go to our billet which we’d been advised to go to and as a lady came down the steps and we passed quite close to her, and she –skirts were long in those days – she literally gave us one look and drew her skirts aside like that. Oh yes, we should have contaminated her I expect she thought!

A large number of women even encountered open hostility, such as being refused service at canteens. Dolly Shepherd managed to win over an initially disapproving officer when she worked as a driver with the WAAC on the Western Front.

I was called to a captain who said he didn’t want to have a woman driver. He didn’t like the atmosphere, he didn’t like having a woman driver, he didn’t think he would. And so we, the first day he said ‘Oh, I have a dog and I’m afraid she doesn’t like ladies.’ And the first thing this dog did was to get up, put her paws on me and lick my face all over and licked all the powder off. And, well, that was that. And then he said, ‘I’m afraid my job takes me out late.’ So I said, ‘Well what time do you mean. What do you mean, late?’ So he said, ‘Well, I’m afraid sometimes I’m eight o’clock before I’m finished.’ So I said, ‘Oh dear. Well, I don’t mind. We’re used to getting eleven, twelve, one: if you want all night, all right, I’ll take you.’ So he said, ‘Oh, all right.’ And so we began. He got used to my driving. And it came for his man to come back from leave and then he said ‘Oh, he’d rather keep the girl driver.’

Women who served during the First World War had to overcome many obstacles. They did so at a time when women were barred from many traditionally ‘male’ roles, and they encountered resistance when taking on these jobs. But, ultimately, women’s vital contribution to the war effort set in motion a wider change in society’s attitudes towards them. Beatrice Browne, who served as a typist with the Women’s Royal Naval Service, felt that this was an important time for women.

I think that the service people, not only WRNS, but the other two services, also, pioneered the beginning of votes for women and freedom for women more. Because up until then, we were brought up in a very, very strict Victorian stilted youth. It gradually got that you were free, and when the war was over, that first war, you got more freedom. I know I had, I was allowed out later at home when I got back. And you got ideas, you know. I remember starting hockey and cricket and tennis at my office and more or less it taught you to be a leader, which I think we were.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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