Medical and Emergency Women’s Organisations of the First World War
On the outbreak of the First World War many women wanted to do something to help and within weeks thousands had joined existing or newly created organisations. Many groups were voluntary and aimed at providing medical care at home and near the fighting. The latter was contentious as British and French authorities did not want women near the trenches. There were also concerns that an increasing role for women would lead to greater pressure for them to have the right to a vote.
There was also disquiet over women taking on what were perceived as masculine roles. This led to a ‘Catch-22’ situation. To perform their role in a professional manner they needed to carry out all aspects of training, including drill, and usually wore a ‘practical’ uniform; this led to criticism for adopting ‘mannish’ behaviour. But if they did not train they were criticised for not being professional. Some commentators believed that only soldiers should wear khaki and the length of the skirt was also a source of contention.
What, at the time, were considered ‘humorous’ postcards did not help attitudes towards members of, in particular, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and rumours spread of inappropriate behaviour that had no basis in reality. Several people were convicted under the Defence of the Realm Act for making unsubstantiated claims of ‘immoral conduct’ in the WAAC with fines ranging from £2 to £50.
Indicative of the official attitudes that were faced is shown when Mabel St Clair Stobart offered the services of the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps during a war in the Balkans in 1912. Sir Frederick Treves, chairman of the British Red Cross, is quoted as saying that ‘soldiers would object to being nursed by women, and as to women surgeons – a woman would be incapable of operating in a hospital of war’. These attitudes underwent a change, at least temporarily, when the losses in the First World War grew and men had to be taken from non-combatant roles into combatant ones.
An aspect that is often forgotten is that many of these organisations were entirely voluntary and relied on donations of money and equipment to be able to carry out their work.
The following are brief outlines of some of the organisations:
British Red Cross Society: Recruited both men and women. Set up local branches in 1907. The branches were to be ready to put their skills into use in any emergency. It was considered an official organisation and administered the Voluntary Aid Detachments. British Red Cross nurses worked on the Western Front, as well as in other theatres of war, such as Serbia. Hospitals in the Poole area linked with the Red Cross were the Cornelia Hospital and auxiliary hospitals at Branksome Gate, Springfield. The Lodge, and The Mount for officers (all under Lady Dudley), Sandacres (Parkstone) (Sir Ernest Cassel) and Woodlynn, Branksome Park (Lady Carter) also for officers.
Dr Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Unit: Dr Munro, a Scot, decided to set an ambulance unit to work on the Western Front. The initial unit consisted of around twelve men and women who went to Belgium in September 1914. They drove two ambulances while part of a Belgian hospital. The group included Elsie Knocker, Mairi Chisholm, Helen Gleason, and Lady Dorothie Feilding – see Women of Pervyse.
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry: Edward Baker had seen first-hand that lives could be saved if medical attention could get to the frontline quickly. He formed the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in 1907 with the idea that women nurses on horseback would rapidly get to wounded soldiers and provide medical aid while the slower horse-drawn ambulances followed behind. The advent of the First World War transformed the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. In common with many similar organisations, it was the Belgians who were keen to use their services in 1914. It was only in 1916 that the British Army began to use it to convoy wounded soldiers and even then there was a dislike of their independence and so-called ‘unfeminine behaviour’.
Queen Alexandria’s Imperial Military Nursing Service: Existed prior to the First World War. At the start of the war it had nearly 300 nurses and during the war it grew to around 11,000 nurses.
Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps: Queen Mary became Commander-in-Chief of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps whose name was changed in April 1918. At its height it had nearly 60,000 members. Over a thousand worked with the American Expeditionary Force in its records departments. Several thousand QMAAC’s later became part of the Women’s Royal Air Force. The Corps closed on September 27 1921 when its last members were demobbed. The local Poole newspaper reported in 1920 on the formation of a Bournemouth and District QMAAC Old Comrades Club with Miss Lever of Sea View Road, Parkstone as the honorary secretary.
St John Ambulance Association: Created in 1887 ‘to train men and women in First Aid’. The branches were to be ready to put their skills into use in any emergency. It was considered an official organisation and administered the Voluntary Aid Detachments.
Scottish Women’s Hospital: Elsie Inglis was a doctor with 30 years’ experience but was turned by the Royal Army Medical Corps with the comment ‘my good lady, go home and sit still’. Instead she created the Scottish Women’s Hospital – Scottish because it was the Scottish Federation for Women’s Suffrage that supported its formation. Medical teams were sent into France, Serbia, Salonika, and Russia. The situation in Salonika was especially dire with nearly 400,000 troops being based there, most of whom were either ill from, or dying, from malaria.
Serbian Relief Fund: This had both male and female medical staff. The first of many medical units were sent to Serbia in November 1914. Often the units would have to create a hospital before starting to provide medical care in a region where the front was forever changing. As well treating wounded soldiers and POWs, they also had to cope with a major typhus epidemic in the civilian population and many nursing staff died from the disease. Around 150,000 civilians and military died during the epidemic.
Territorial Force Nursing Service: The Territorial and Reserve Forces Act of 1907 created units for home defence. It included the Territorial Force Nursing Service which had, by the end of the war, over 8,000 nurses of which more than 2,000 served overseas.
Volunteer Aid Detachment: Formed in 1909 to assist the Territorial Force Nursing Service and was overseen by the British Red Cross Society and St John Ambulance Association. Its role was to set up emergency hospitals in Britain in a time of conflict and offered basic medical training to volunteers. With over 50,000 women members and many more volunteering their services during the war, and the sheer scale of the conflict growing, the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) found its role expanding. By 1916, the VADs were highly important in running military hospitals at home and abroad.
Women of Pervyse: Elsie Knocker was with Dr Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Unit but became increasingly dismayed by the fact that medical stations were being overwhelmed by casualties who needed treatment closer to the front. Along with her friend, Mairi Chisholm, Helen Gleason (an American), and Lady Dorothie Feilding, a first aid post and soup kitchen was set up in November 1914 close to the Belgian front at Pervyse. They got a reputation for bravery, kindness, and determination in very difficult circumstances. Knocker and Chisholm were presented with the Belgian Order of Leopold by the King of Belgium in January 1915; Gleason and Feilding received the Order shortly afterwards. They had to leave Pervyse when the front moved. Knocker and Chisholm returned to Pervyse when the front moved again and remained there until March 1918 when both suffered from the effects of a gas attack.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps: Formed in 1917 by the War Office but not officially into being until July 1917. It tended to recruit from the working classes who had practical experience in the roles that needed to be filled. They were not enlisted but enrolled so that they were still civilians. The first group went in March 1917 to France to be maids, waitresses and cooks in a club for officers. As more women went to France, their roles expanded into working on telephones and in administration. Some became intelligence workers decoding German messages and went under the name ‘Hushwaacs’. Became the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps in April 1918.
Women’s Auxiliary Force:
Women’s Defence Relief Corps:
Women’s Emergency Corps: Founded by Evelina Haverfield, who was a staunch suffragette, in August 1914. The aim was to provide a pool of women with various skills and professions. Details of their skills were circulated to councils and organisations throughout Britain to help in any sort of emergency.
Women’s Hospital Corps: This hospital unit, with female surgeons, was set up by Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray and ran hospitals in Paris and near Boulogne in the early part of the war. It was a small organisation and had to close its overseas units when the Director-General of the army’s medical services asked it to run a military hospital in London. It is ironic, given the authorities concerns over calls for the vote, that Garrett Anderson and Murray were ardent suffragettes. The Endell Street hospital looked after 26,000 patients and was staffed by women who came from Britain, the Dominions and America. The hospital’s motto was ‘Deeds not Words’. It closed in 1919.
Women’s Land Army: Formed by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1917 to bring together many smaller groups. Louisa Jebb, the first woman to get a diploma in agriculture from Cambridge University, helped establish it.
Women’s Legion: Formed in 1915. The British army employed them as cooks, who were actually paid for their work, at bases in Britain. In late 1917, 7,000 members of the ‘Cookery Section’ of the Legion were absorbed into the WAAC, however, the 6,000 in the ‘Motor Transport Section’ remained part of the Legion.
Women’s National Service League: Mabel St Clair Stobart formed the Women’s National Service League on the outbreak of war with the aim of providing all levels of female hospital staff for work at home and abroad. In 1914, it offered its services to the British Red Cross but they were not interested. However, Stobart was asked to set up a hospital in Brussels by the Belgium Red Cross but this proved impossible because of the German advance. A hospital was set up in Antwerp for a time and with the fall off Belgium the League then ran a hospital in Cherbourg. The League is sometimes referred to as the Women’s Imperial Service League because of its work overseas.
Women’s Reserve Ambulance Corps: Provided ambulances to transport Red Cross patients to and from Cornelia Hospital, Poole.
Women’s Services Committee: Set up in 1916 to consider how best to use women in war work. Conclusions included a central organisation and that women should be used instead of men in non-combatant roles. The Lawson Report advocated that women could be used increasingly in roles in France away from the front and highlighted the jobs in Britain that were successfully using women, such as in munition factories. Field Marshall Haig favoured having a skilled job split into several unskilled roles. Women would then be employed in these unskilled posts while leaving the ‘skilled’, and by implication, male role untouched. The outcome was the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Women’s Volunteer Reserve: Founded by the Marchioness of Londonderry in 1914 with the aim of providing support, such as despatch riders.
Fara, Patricia. ‘A Lab of One’s Own’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)
Shipton, Elizabeth, ‘Female Tommies’ (Stroud: The History Press, 2014)