In 1917 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) and The Women’s Land Army were established, followed by The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1918.
Women from across Norfolk responded to the recruitment calls and signed up to serve on the home front and abroad proving that their strength and bravery was essential to the war effort and beyond.
WOMEN’S ARMY AUXILIARY CORPS (WAAC)
The WAAC was formed in March 1917 from the Women’s Legion (WL) and the Army Pay Department (APD). Over 57,000 enrolled; most served at home but around 10,000 served in France. Applicants had to provide two references, undergo a medical and appear before a selection board.
Women were allocated to one of four sections: The Cookery Section – cooks and waitresses; The Mechanical Section – driver mechanics; The Clerical Section – clerks, typists, telephonists and messengers; The Miscellaneous Section.
Initial training was at Bostall Heath near Woolwich. Those going abroad worked for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. Those at home worked on various bases, depots and training schools around the country. Communal living in the Nissen huts fostered strong friendships.
The WAACs were rightly proud of their status but sadly, not everyone saw them in quite the same way. On a trip into town one WAAC commented “We were regarded as scum”. A Women’s Commission of Enquiry was dispatched to France to investigate rumours of immoral conduct. On 15 April 1918 the Eastern Daily Press reported on their findings: “We can find no justification of any kind for the vague accusations of immoral conduct on a large scale which have been circulated about the WAAC.”
The WAAC was renamed the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) in 1918. About 200 WAAC are recorded to have died either as a result of or during their war service. Many did not leave the WAAC until late 1919 as there was still much to be done after the war. After their discharge, some took up the offer of free emigration. The WAAC was disbanded in 1921.
“Women from Norfolk have proved excellent material for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.” Miss Thompson, Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps
In Foreign Fields
When joining the WAAC references were requested. Violet Baker of Cromer was provided with a letter from her Sunday School teacher who commented “quite conscientious but needs toning down yet”. Perhaps it was because Violet needed “toning down” that she was prepared to leave Cromer for the first time in her life and work abroad. Violet worked as a clerk in Camiens and Boulogne, returning to Cromer in October 1919.
When Gertrude Betts from Great Malton enrolled she was in service to the Countess of Albemarle in Belgrave Square. Her reference from the Vicar states he hardly knew her but it spoke well of the family and her brother Sidney who was serving in France. Gertrude worked as an orderly in Etaples. She was discharged in June 1919 to marry Cyril Mayfield who had written to request her release.
Discharged on Compassionate Grounds
After the war there was still much to be done and many WAACs were not discharged until the final months of 1919. This led to the ironic situation of many men being demobilized before the women unless there were extenuating circumstances. For example, Gertrude Vickers from Norwich was released to marry Stephen Tingey following an imploring letter from him. Unfortunately for Gertrude, he married Mabel Stoot instead! Some, like Lilian Botley (nee Betts) were released because they were pregnant. Lilian, from Norfolk but living in London, worked as a cook at Barnham Cross Camp near Thetford.
Women could also be discharged for medical reasons or without notice if found ‘unsuitable’ during their training. After the war, some WAACs took up the opportunity of free emigration. Alice Vickers from Norwich, who had served as a waitress at Etaples, emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1920.
THE WOMEN’S ROYAL AIR FORCE (WRAF)
In April 1918, the separate flying sections of the Army and Navy were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was created at the same time. The WRAF drew upon women already serving as well as new volunteers. Immobiles lived and worked locally while mobiles lived in quarters and could be transferred anywhere. All officers were mobile. The WRAF were nicknamed the ‘Penguins,’ because, like the birds, they did not fly.
Women had to be at least 18 and were required to pass a medical examination and provide a satisfactory reference. Most chose to be immobile. They were allocated to one of four categories: CATEGORY A – Clerks and Typists. Most work was in this category; CATEGORY B – Household. Cooks and waitresses, this category worked the longest hours; CATEGORY C – Techinical. Offered the widest range of employment and gave women training opportunities. Some jobs such as doping were hazardous; CATEGORY D – Non-Technical/General. Some trained as drivers; they proved difficult to discipline as they often missed camp drills and routines.
Recruitment actually increased when the war ended to allow more servicemen to go home. Those with an exemplary record could volunteer to work in France and Germany. Sports days and parties were frequent events to alleviate the boredom of the men waiting to go home. The WRAF had left Germany by October 1919 and France by March 1920.
Officially 108 WRAF died during, or as a result of service; most were victims of the influenza epidemic in 1919. Although there was some hope and expectation that the WRAF would continue after the war it was disbanded in 1920.
Norfolk had over 30 airfields and landing strips in the First World War so its need for women workers was great. Sadly, many of these women remain largely unknown including those who worked at RAF Mousehold Heath in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Sedgeford or Pulham. Fortunately there are good surviving records for Narborough Aerodrome. This was the largest aerodrome in the country in the First World War and a major training station.
Over 100 women worked at Narborough. Many came from Kings Lynn, arriving each day by train at Narborough and Pentney station. They were transferred to and from the aerodrome by tender or occasionally they had to walk.
Drawing from the locality, it was inevitable that members of the same family would enrol. The Easter Sisters from Middleton enrolled in March 1918; Stella first then Ivy the following day. Stella doped the aircraft and it is believed that Ivy did the same. Both sisters died within months of each other in 1921, this is believed to be as a result of working in the doping shed. Stella’s autograph book is a legacy of her time at Narborough and gives some insight into the strong friendships formed.
Many at Narborough had worked in the home or in domestic service so were well placed to take up domestic roles working as cooks or waitresses in the messes. One of them, Waitress Florence Patterson, became well-known for being the last living WRAF veteran of the First World War.
It was not all ‘women’s work’. Sarah Hammond, Edwina Lacey (known as Teddy) and cousins Grace and Nellie Shipp (known as Trixie and Peggy) were telephonists. As there was no other telephone on the base the only number they needed to know was Lynn Exchange 220. Sergeant Gertrude Crome and Marion Heathcote were drivers. Daisy Coggles worked as a stenographer.
Others had technical jobs. Alice Barrett worked as a rigger, Ethel Boothroyd stitched the aircraft fabric and Alice Witt’s job was to splice the wires for the aircraft. Estella Haverson packed parachutes and worked in the doping sheds.
Towards the end of the war a women’s hostel was built and some stayed on the base. A number of the WRAF stayed on after the war until the aerodrome closed in December 1919.
THE WOMEN’S ROYAL NAVAL SERVICE (WRNS)
The Royal Navy was the first of the armed forces to recruit women in 1916 as part of the Auxiliary Patrol. In November 1917, the WRNS was established and its aim was to ‘free a man for the fleet’.
The women became known as the Wrens and by 1919 over 7,000 were working in a range of trades from domestic to intelligence. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had formed in June 1914. Many women worked on naval air stations where the work related to aeroplanes rather than ships. Most transferred to the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) when it formed in 1918.
Women could enrol at the age of 18 as officers, subordinate officers or ratings. Immobiles worked locally while mobiles served elsewhere in the UK and, later, abroad. Harwich was the headquarters for the eastern area. Ratings had a two week induction while officers had four weeks.
The Wrens were forbidden from mixing with naval ranks which was a problem when their own family were in the Navy. They were sometimes referred to as ‘Perfect Ladies’ because of their strong moral code but this also led to a less complimentary nickname – ‘Prigs and Prudes’.
The expertise of the local fishing communities was put to good use. A Fish Profits Fund was set up using money raised by fishing trawlers to provide facilities for the women. The Gorleston net mine workers were part of RNAS Great Yarmouth. The beatster women of Gorleston, worked as net mine workers. They filled mines and wired together glass floats and attached them to anti-submarine nets. They were experienced in net making and were often married with children so needed to be able to work locally.
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had stations in various parts of Norfolk including Bacton, Burgh Castle, Great Yarmouth, Holt, Ludham, Narborough, Pulham and Sedgeford. At RNAS Great Yarmouth planes flew from South Denes and Hickling Broad. It also had additional landing grounds at Bacton, Burgh Castle and Covehithe. Local sisters Sarah and Amelia Balls and Laura Boast, all from Great Yarmouth, trained as mechanics at the station. However, not all recruits were from coastal towns. Sisters Maud and Elizabeth McCurry and Dorothy French came from Norwich. Maud and Elizabeth trained as mechanics while Dorothy worked as a typist.
As with all other bases and forces; the range of jobs was many to enable the smooth running of the base. Some women kept the base fed while others kept it clean. From Great Yarmouth came Lily Giles, May George and Gladys Spandler. Lily cooked the food, May prepared the vegetables and Gladys kept the base clean.
In 1919 recruitment stopped but there was still a high demand for Wrens to administer demobilisation. In October 1919 the WRNS was disbanded although some chose to continue to work for the Navy as civilians. 25 Wrens are known to have died while in service, largely due to the influenza epidemic.
WOMEN ON THE LAND
At the outbreak of the First World War the British government failed to anticipate the need to take control of the organisation of food production at home. Agriculture was already in depression after decades of under-investment and migration into towns. By 1915, 100,000 men from the rural labour force had enlisted and farm horses were being requisitioned in huge numbers by the Army. German U-boat attacks upon merchant convoys were endangering food imports.
Schemes like the Women’s Forestry Corps, the Women’s Forage Corps and the Women’s National Land Service Corps began to mobilise women into emergency war work. George Edwards, former General Secretary of the National Agricultural Labourers Union, appealed in the Eastern Daily Press in January 1916, “To the working-women of Norfolk, the wives and mothers and sisters of our brave boys… to help in this hour of need.” Countrywomen had always done farm work on a seasonal basis but there was deep opposition within rural communities; it was not ‘respectable’ and the lower rate of piecework pay kept down wages. Women’s War Agricultural Committees kept registers of women between 16 to 60 willing to work locally in agriculture, dairying, gardening etc. so that farmers knew who was available and what they could do. Over the course of the war the Norfolk Women’s War Agricultural Committee claimed to have placed 1,700 part-time workers. Nationally, the Food Production Department would eventually have around 300,000 part-time workers on its books.
Preserving fruit and vegetables for home consumption became vital war work. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (WI) was founded in 1917 to organise food production in villages. WI branches could borrow fruit sterilising units and were allocated special supplies of sugar. Catfield WI’s programme for 1919 included talks on Egg Production in Winter, Vegetable Growing for Pleasure and Profit, Cheese Making and Haybox Cookery.
The Women’s Land Army
The Women’s Land Army – a civilian labour force of full-time mobile workers – was set up in March 1917, to recruit and train women over 18 for farm work and persuade farmers to employ them. A recruitment campaign of posters, rallies and cinema films was mostly aimed at middle-class young townswomen keen to ‘do their bit’ for the war effort. They signed on for six or twelve months, were supplied with uniforms and paid 18/- per week during training and 20/- after passing an efficiency test.
By the time the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was demobilised in 1919, 23,000 women had passed through its 247 training centres. Agricultural training (4-6 weeks) covered the use of farm implements, working with horses, care of young livestock and the majority occupation milking. Timber work (4-6 weeks) covered cutting, stacking, loading and transporting timber. It also included operating sawmills, tree nursery cultivation and planting. Forage workers trained on the job in gangs which moved from farm to farm, operating steam baling machines to produce hay bales for feed, straw for bedding and chaff cutting. At Agricultural College women learnt to operate tractors for ploughing, harrowing, seed drilling and mowing. They were also taught how to do their own repairs. Tractors were an innovation on most farms and farmers were impressed with their speed of work. Women also worked as shepherds, bailiffs, thatchers, market gardeners and stockbreeders.
Women’s Land Army members were at first regarded with scepticism and suspicion in enclosed rural communities and ‘Punch’ cartoonists had a field day. Some looked askance at their uniforms of breeches, jumpers, smocks, gaiters and boots.
Whether in or out of uniform, women performed the crucial work of keeping the nation supplied with food throughout the war years. As the certificate awarded to all female agricultural workers said: “Every woman who helps in agriculture during the war is as truly serving her country as the man who is fighting in the trenches or on the sea.”