Monday, 21 July 2014

Role of women in World War I

When investigating my family history I discovered that my great grandmother, Annie Hutton,  and her elder daughter, Eleonora, set off from Sydney for England in 1916 to assist the war effort in the Home Country. For Australian civilians to travel to England during a war seems a strange and reckless undertaking. Even more so as Annie and her father were born in New South Wales and her mother was born in Ireland making close family reasons to undertake such a journey unlikely.  For Australian women wishing to assist the war effort, there were also many opportunities to do so at home.

However Annie, who was 52 when she left Sydney, and her daughter were away from Australia for three years. Initially Annie worked as a supervisor in a munitions factory. My mother has a couple of the hairnets that the women wore in the factory. Annie was known as a good organiser and was later in charge of a canteen. What type of canteen and where in England she worked is unknown.  All my mother knows is that when rations were short Annie always found some way of obtaining what was needed. The information about what Eleonora did is even more sketchy except that it is said that she worked in a government department in some capacity. As she had not had previous working experience in Australia this seems unlikely, but we do not know. Unfortunately stories of their experiences were not passed on to other family members.

During the First World War women were involved as nurses and members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in hospitals as well as working in factories and most essential services and generally taking on roles in offices vacated the men serving overseas. Kate Adie's book, Fighting on the home front: the legacy of women in World War One discusses the various roles undertaken by women in England during the war, including working in canteens.

Chapter 8 'We need volunteers - you, you and you' discusses the voluntary work, often overlooked, done by women prior to 1914 and how this tradition of involvement in voluntary groups, particularly by the middle classes transferred to volunteering for the war effort. For married women there was the Mothers' Union, Sunday School movement, temperance movement as well as other parish and social activities. Women, particularly younger women, had recently become involved in the Red Cross, undertaken St John first aid courses and some had joined the Girl Guides, formed in 1910, where girls could learn practical skills - members could obtain badges as a cyclist, photographer, air mechanic or electrician. Girls, too young for the workforce, could knit warm clothes for boy scouts undertaking coast watch duty. According to Adie they then 'progressed to scullery maids, laundresses, waitresses, canteen workers and orderlies, and also to spinning, weaving and sandbag making. They taught English to refugees and in London worked as messengers in government departments.' And of course they provided free labour.

In Edwardian times there had been a shift in education opportunities for many young women. The suffrage movement had provided some women with a better idea of politics and the possibility of a freer lifestyle than that experienced by the previous generation of women. Adie described the situation:
    When hostilities started these women were already well versed in knitting, sewing, first aid, fund-raising, charitable work, gardening, tea-making, organizing and setting a good example. What the war brought was public recognition that they were wanted, and had moved from 'helpful' to essential. Even if they were still not wanted on the front line, there were ever increasing opportunities on the Home Front.
At the outbreak of war, the YMCA quickly established huts attached to army camps in France to look after soldiers returning from the battlefield. Although women were permitted to work in these huts they were not permitted to make decisions, so in December 1914 the Women's Auxiliary Committee (WAC) was formed to provide volunteer female workers to staff the huts at the base camps. The women were vetted by members of a WAC committee before being allowed to volunteer and travel to the camps. The huts provided a welcoming environment away from the trenches for the men, a cup of tea, chocolate, a friendly face and someone to talk to. In some places they developed into recreation huts where letters could be written and hot drinks, biscuits and cigarettes could be purchased. The next stage, in a few locations, was the development of hostels for the relatives of the wounded, dockside canteens, convalescent centres - all provided by female volunteers. Some of the women also worked as drivers. During the war almost 2,000 women volunteered in these huts operated by women.

The WAC also operated in England providing services to refugees who were flooding into England, soldiers on leave and women working in the munitions and other factories providing war equipment and provisions. The WAC and other welfare groups were particularly concerned about the conditions faced by the thousands of working women who had left home to work for employment in war related industries. Canteens for these women were operated in munitions factories. Rest rooms and recreation huts for women were also established. It became acknowledged that safe leisure environments needed to be created for these women. Other welfare organisations for women, such as the Girls' Friendly Society and similar groups from churches, worked to help the young women whose lives had been greatly changed by the outbreak of war.

Adie's book highlights the many opportunities for women's involvement in the war effort - working in canteens being only one - plus the social changes that occurred for women as a result of the war.

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