Per Ardua Ad Astra?

Now. Women in the First World War. What did they do? I imagine that the first answer of many people would be that they produced the munitions that the army, over in France, fired at the enemy with the hopes of vanquishing them. I would have said the same if someone had asked me that question a few years ago. This last month however, has really opened my eyes to the various jobs that women did in the war. There were over 100,000 women in the armed forces throughout the war – a number that surprised me. I was taught the ‘traditional’ view of the First World War whilst I was at school. It all happened in France, it was the Tommies vs the Huns, there was a great deal of mud and the womenfolk stayed at home and knitted, or if they were feeling adventurous and wealthy, they might do a spot of nursing. Munitions and nursing – that was about the long and short of it – or so I assumed. However, I have been incredibly lucky, as part of my work placement, to be engaged in the creation of the exhibition Women Work War.

The main part of the exhibition focuses on the Barnbow Lasses and the work they did during the war, in Leeds. However, the exhibition also provides information on other things – things that people wanted to know about; childcare provisions for those women who worked, other industries that they took part in and the size of their contribution to the armed forces. It is this last which intrigued me the most. It was not anything that I had ever spent a great deal of time thinking about – but now I had the chance to research it.

It was astounding to realise the scope of jobs that women undertook throughout the First World War. Before the war there were 5.9 million women already in work – but much of this was domestic work. For instance, there were 13,000 women working on the railways before the war – but much of their work was indeed in the domestic sphere; they were caterers or laundrywomen. By 1918, there were over 70,000 women working on the railways of England – as engineers, engine cleaners, guards, plate-layers.. Women had taken on almost every job on the railway – save for one. That of engine driver. There was one particular reason for this. The training period for such a job was too long. Doubtless there will have been many a man who thought that a women could not do such a task, but this once, it was primarily practicality and not sexism which closed this one avenue off.

What really sparked my interest off was not the railways; but the WRAF – hence the title of this post. I was vaguely aware of the fact that women had a part in the armed forces during the First World War; but the specifics were muddy. I knew that the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) had existed during the war, and that the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was also a contingent that women were welcome to join – but I hadn’t realised that in April of 1918 – the two merged to create the WRAF, or the Women’s Royal Air Force.

The idea behind this was originally to train women as mechanics to free up more men to join the armed forces to fight. Instead, there were thousands of volunteers, so even more roles were opened up to women – drivers, pigeon keepers, photographers and welders to name but a few of the 50 roles which were available. Many of these roles were highly skilled and exceedingly important for the running of the RAF.

The RAF were first rather dismayed at the idea of the merging of the WAAC and the WRNS – they did not want to lose the specialist workforce they had gained. However; it quickly became clear that this new force would be even more of an asset than they had been in their previous incarnation. The fact that the WRAF made themselves invaluable can be seen again when, as the contingent which had been posted to the Rhine were commanded to move out, the RAF made their displeasure and dismay quite clear. The women had proved themselves to be an integral part of the RAF in so many different roles that to lose them would be unthinkable.

The AVM, Sir William Sefton Brancker said, “By the end of the year the WRAF was the best disciplined and best turned-out women’s organization in the country.”

Coming from the Air-Vice Marshal, it’s certainly not praise to be sniffed at!

I’ve decided, I’m going to hunt out a book or two (if there are any!) about the WRAF. I’ve read several of Patrick Bishop’s books about the RAF; Wings: The RAF at War, 1912-1920, Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, but as the title of the last two suggest, they are rather male centric! I wonder if my hunt for anything about the women of the RAF will yield much..

Women, Work, War is at Armley Mills Industrial Museum until September 2017. Find out more here.



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