8 March 2017 by Karen O'Rourke
As soon as war had been declared in August 1914, women had begun ‘doing their bit’ towards the war effort. Initially they worked as nurses, shop staff or office clerks, but as the war progressed, women took on roles that were traditionally more masculine, such as tram conductors, farm labourers and munitions workers. The first shell made entirely by women workers, was produced here on Merseyside, at the Cunard Shell Factory in Bootle.
By the end of 1916, the British Army had suffered substantial losses, due to battles such as the Somme. In Feb 1917, it was decided that women soldiers could be recruited for non-combatant ‘soft jobs’, so that desperately needed men could be moved up to the Front. The soft jobs included clerks, telephonists and cooks.
The WAAC, was not given full military status and the women were enrolled rather than enlisted. They were given non-military ranks, such as Workers, Forewomen and Controllers and their commander, Doctor Mona Chalmers Watson was called Chief Controller.
The first small group of women arrived in France on 31 March 1917. Initially they faced opposition from all sides – the men they replaced felt they wouldn’t be strong enough to carry out their duties and, as every role they undertook freed-up a man for frontline duties, the women at home resented them for effectively sending their men folk into danger. There was also a general feeling that it was inappropriate for young single women to work and live alongside servicemen.
In total, it is estimated that 57,000 women served with the WAAC (later renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps), 6,000 of whom served overseas. There are about 7,000 surviving WAAC records at the National Archives and of those, a little over 200 have a connection to Merseyside.
On 20 September 1917, the Liverpool Echo printed a letter from ‘Private Amy’ a very excited young woman from Wallasey who had been through five weeks of training and was leaving for France the following day. These are some details from her letter:
Amy had been sitting on beach with WAAC companions when she heard they were to leave for France. She described the rush to get back to their hostel and prepare:
“Can you imagine 200 girls buzzing around round one draft sheet?”
She struggled with the training:
“One felt it impossible to get used to the life – the prompt execution of NCO’s orders, the getting up at seven in the morning, the sweeping of one’s own bedroom, the making of one’s own bed, and the food!”
She later says the food was surprisingly good but that her uniform (especially the shoes) was very uncomfortable. In her last paragraph, she advises other girls to join up:
“Although I gave up a good position and equally good salary, I have never regretted it; and apart from having a happy time with new companions, there is ever the underlying and gratifying thought that one is doing one’s ‘little bit’ towards the effecting of that longed-for peace which is to bring home our brothers.”
188 women who enrolled in the WAAC are listed on the Commonwealth War Graves website, most had died of illness rather than injury. I wasn’t able to find an ‘Amy from Wallasey’ so my hope is that Amy made it through the war safely.
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