Of the two world wars, the first provided the greatest challenge in terms of widescale female participation in the war effort.
British society found itself at war with more than just the Germans. There was a psychological war, too, with the changes in society and its values that total war (the mobilisation of the entire population and all their resources for the war effort) demanded.
Although it was against it until the actual declaration of war against Germany, the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies became ardently patriotic as soon as hostilities started. On 6 August 1914, two days after the declaration, the women’s suffrage newspaper Common Cause expressed the hope that:
‘In the midst of this time of terrible anxiety and grief, it is some little comfort to think that our large organisation, which has been completely built up during past years to promote women’s suffrage, can be used to help our country through the period of strain and sorrow.’
Women acted as subtle and not so-subtle recruiters for the army. Admiral Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather, which encouraged women to hand a white feather to any young man who had not enlisted.
'Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon.'
Reading newspaper accounts of the outbreak of war in 1914, you will find many references to the militant Women’s Suffrage movement, which had been so opposed to the government just months before, now backing the war effort. Christobel Pankhurst made a series of speeches in favour of the war effort, encouraging young men to join the army and women to play their part, too.
Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon. When the distinguished Scottish medic, Dr Elsie Inglis offered to form a women’s ambulance unit, she was rebuffed at the War Office with the words, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still!’
Flora Sandes (1876-1955) couldn’t sit still, and joined a seven-woman ambulance unit in August 1914 that went to aid the Serbs, who were then allies of Britain and struggling against the Austrians. Sandes achieved recognition without disguise, but in a foreign army fighting for a foreign nation’s survival.
There were, in 1914, two uniformed services in Britain that were open to women. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was created in 1907 as a link between front-line fighting units and the field hospitals.
During the war, FANYs ran field hospitals, drove ambulances and set up soup kitchens and troop canteens, often under highly dangerous conditions. By the Armistice, they had been awarded many decorations for bravery, including 17 Military Medals, one Legion d'Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre.
'... women volunteers over the age of 23 were allowed to go to hospitals overseas ... '
Then there were the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) of nurses, formed in 1909 to provide medical assistance in time of war. By the summer of 1914 there were more than 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain.
At first the War Office was unwilling to accept VADs at the front, but this pointless restriction was removed in 1915 and women volunteers over the age of 23 were allowed to go to hospitals overseas serving the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli.
During the next four years 38,000 VADs worked as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. Both the FANY and VAD tended to (or were perceived to) recruit only from the middle and upper classes.
Initially, British female medical staff, were kept away from the traumas of front-line nursing. But two Englishwomen not content to adhere to the rules were Elsie Knocker (later Baroness T’Serclaes) and the 18-year old Mari Chisholm, who tended wounded in the Belgian sector from August 1914. They collected their wounded out of the mud, gave them first aid and drove them to a base hospital 15 miles away, running a gauntlet of shellfire all the way.
'It was decided to use women to replace men doing uniformed administrative jobs in Britain and France ...'
In 1917, they were both awarded the British Military Medal for arranging a truce with the Germans and rescuing a British pilot who had crashed in No Man’s Land. Their war ended in March 1918, when both were gassed in the German offensive and had to return home. Both had achieved recognition as women, but working in the front line, against official British regulations.
Eventually - and only after it was apparent that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’ (the cry of August 1914) - female branches of the hitherto all-male armed forces were established. This development happened surprisingly late in the war - too late for many impatient women - and stemmed from the heavy losses sustained on the Western Front in 1916. It was decided to use women to replace men doing uniformed administrative jobs in Britain and France - thus releasing the men to fight at the front.
The Royal Navy was the first of the armed services to recruit women. Formed in 1916, the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS - the ‘Wrens’) took over the role of cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians.
By the war’s end 5,000 ratings and nearly 450 officers had joined, and their success had spawned the army and air force equivalents also.