Saturday, 16 September 2017

Review of “The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France 1917 – 1921” by Samantha Philo-Gill, published by Pen & Sword History, Barnsley, 2017.

These days, when women serve in the British Armed forces alongside their male colleagues, it is all too easy to forget how different things were a hundred years ago.

Drawing on official documents, letters and diaries written by those involved from the WAAC’s inception in 1917, through the change of name to the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, disbandment in 1920, founding of the WAAC Old Comrades Association, up to the laying up of the Corps’ flag in Guildford Cathedral in 2012 and present day commemorations, this book gives us the story of one of the Corps in which women served during the First World War.  It is a reminder of the on-going struggle for emancipation that women in Britain had in the early years of the 20th Century.

Philo-Gill takes us on a voyage of discovery finding out about the background to the setting up of the Corps at a time when Britain was in desperate need of men to fight at the front and the women who were brought in to help.  As she points out, this was the first time in Britain’s history that women had ‘officially work(ed) alongside the British Army’.  

The book gives a clear explanation of how the various women’s suffrage societies were involved in the setting up of the WAAC – ‘no woman was to be employed unless a soldier was released for combat’ - the establishment of rules of conduct, rates of pay – deductions for board and lodging, etc. – uniforms, recruitment methods and so on. This is followed by a description of the work undertaken in France by the Corps members and the women who were in charge of them and the locations in which the women worked, such as Officers’ Clubs, base camps, records offices and Army schools of instruction.   Initial reluctance to the idea of women near the front lines eventually led to acceptance that women were needed to help win the war.  Women could undertake such tasks as clerical work, telephonists (they had to speak French), cooking, baking bread, cleaning, waiting at tables, driving, gardening and looking after graves in cemeteries – not grave digging as that was undertaken by men.

The women posted to France worked extremely long hours, sometimes 8 hours on and 8 hours off, and, when possible, had a half-day off each week, yet the healthy life with regular exercise, even with a rather Spartan diet, meant that the women who joined the WAAC were a happy band.  They were also “expected to attend church parade and service on Sundays”.

I found so much of interest that it is hard to choose just a few for the review – I was fascinated to read about the employment of French civilian women, that “In 1915, the hemline of civilian women’s dresses was raised by several inches’ and ‘Married women were allowed to apply and did not require their husband’s approval” – that must have raised some eyebrows at the time.  Descriptions of day-to-day life for the WAACs in WW1 France and how the women coped with the difficult conditions they encountered I found particularly interesting. And did you know there were three female artists who were assistant administrators in the WAAC who ran camouflage units in France?

After the Armistice in November 1918, Corps members were assigned to new duties such as Border Control.   Also interesting is the description of the change in attitude to the women who served during WW1 when they tried to find work in post-WW1 Britain.

There are some very good photographs included, many of them the author’s own, and an interesting chapter on the women who were despatched to write about the work of the Corps for the British press, as well as those who took photographs, painted official pictures or wrote books about the WAAC. 

One of the Corps’ Administrators (equivalent to the rank of Officer in the men’s army) was Margaret Gibson, who was the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal - for her bravery during an air raid.   Sadly, Mrs Gibson died on 17th September 1918.  She was buried in Mont Huon Military Cemetery, Le Treport, France, along with three women who died while serving with other organisations.

“From the time of their arrival in France in March 1917, the WAAC was subjected to air raids” and there were quite a few wounded or killed during those air raids. There were also those who died of diseases contracted while serving in France. They were buried in cemeteries in France and I often wonder how many of those graves receive visitors?  This book is a fitting memorial to all the women who served in the WAAC/QMAAC.

“The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France 1917 – 1921” by Samantha Philo-Gill, published by Pen & Sword History, Barnsley, Yorkshire, UK, 2017 is available from good bookshops.  For further information please visit https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/

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