While the government was appealing ever more desperately for men to enter the Great War, women had a battle on their hands just be allowed to volunteer. Women, at the turn of the century, were considered to be inferior to men in practically every way. Despite the fact that the numbers of educated women were increasing, even the least physical professions were resistant to women entering them. Partly this was because of worries that there might be less jobs to go around and lower wages if women starting competing for posts, but also many men doubted that women would have the mental capacity to do office jobs properly.
As men poured overseas, the war led to a shortage of labour in the British Isles and a need for qualified medics to attend to the wounded on the battlefields. By now there were many qualified nurses in the country, and even some woman doctors. Many of these eagerly volunteered their services, only to be flatly turned down by the War Office and the Royal Army Medical Corps. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) had been established in 1907 especially to take care of British soldiers in the field. According to Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’ the ladies, aged 17-35, were trained in first aid, home nursing, horsemanship, veterinary work, signalling and camp cooking; in short, every skill that was likely to be called for out in the battlefields. Members were willing to pay for their own uniforms and own travel, and some could even provide their own horses. However, the British government spurned the charity’s help, saying that it had no practical use for the ladies, while the British Red Cross Society refused to recognise the organisation. Meanwhile, Dr Elsie Inglis, the founder of Scottish Women’s Hospitals, also offered her group’s services to the army, but was reportedly dismissed with the words, “My good lady, go home and sit still.”
Luckily, some European countries were a little more progressive in their thinking than Britain. Grace Ashley-Smith (later Mrs McDougall), the head of FANY, was lucky enough to bump into and catch the ear of the Belgian Minister for the Colonies. He immediately recognised how valuable such well-trained women could be to the war effort, and entreated Ms Ashley-Smith to help his country out. The first FANY ambulance convoy dutifully wound its way to Belgium in October 2014, and set up a small hospital. Gradually the group amassed staff and equipment, and in 1915 again offered its services to Britain. Again, they were rejected, although ambulances were in short supply and often the RAMC had to ask FANY to lend them theirs. In the end, Surgeon General H.R. Whitehead was forced to defy orders by inviting the group to set up a similar convoy for British soldiers in particular. Such was their success, more convoys were soon established – yet still the government was not happy, and an attempt was actually made to shut down the FANY convoys, spearheaded by a delegation from the Red Cross. France and Belgium had to step in, and take over control of all convoys but one thereafter. By the end of the war, FANY had 450 members overseas, over 1/5 of whom earned decorations for bravery.
Dr Elise Inglis received similar support from European armies. France and Serbia welcomed her talents and offer of aid, and throughout the war her organisation provided doctors, nurses, orderlies, cooks and drivers and set up multiple medical facilities. By the end of the war Scottish Women’s Hospitals was cooperating with 5 different nations… but not Britain. Many independent women doctors were eventually grudgingly accepted into the RAMC, from 1916 onwards, but were stunned to find that they were never allowed to wear uniforms or given formal commissions. Thus, they were considered junior to literally every male doctor.
Ultimately, the rule seemed to be that the less qualified a woman was, the warmer her welcome from the RAMC. The Voluntary Aid Detachment, established in 1909, had always accepted both men and women, and women from this group were sent to France as early as 1914. By November 1918 over 90,000 women were serving both home and abroad under the supervision of St John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross. These women were dedicated and hard-working, willing to work for just £20 a year – and that only after 1915 – and brought a lot of comfort to the soldiers, but they were only trained in basic first aid. Just 23,000 were nurses, 18,000 nursing orderlies, and the rest trained in hospital administration and maintenance. By refusing to recognise far more qualified women, the army was putting lives at risk.
Of course, a happy medium was found in the form of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. These groups were intended to provide staff for military hospitals, and most of the TFNS nurses had worked as nurses before the war. The standards of training were far higher than in the VAD, and the members did great work in all fields throughout the war, with the QAIMNS expanding in size from 297 members to 7,700 as the years went by, and the TFNS boasting 8,000 members by 1918, 2,300 of whwom were working overseas. However, even these ladies were not always well treated, with the bulk being granted short-term contracts only and never properly accepted within the forces. As well, QAIMNS missed a trick at the start of the war by demanding high social, as well as professional, standards. ‘The Western Front Companion’ notes that only ‘ladies’, meaning the well off and gentile, were accepted at first. How many more recruits could have been drawn to do this vital work, had the army only accepted that qualifications and aptitude were far more important in a working woman than obedience and gentility?
Throughout the war women did brave work, not only as nurses, but as farm hands as part of the Women’s Land Army, collectors of food for horses in the Women’s Forage Corps, workers in the very hazardous munitions factories, and in other professions generally considered to be a man’s domain (as bus conductors, builders, mechanics and stokers, for instance). By the time the Register of Women for War Service was established in 1915, 50,000 women had, according to Philip Warner’s ‘World War One: a Chronological Narrative’, already volunteered. Though most would lose their jobs once the men came back from the war, women had proved themselves capable of all sorts of tasks that the government had never dreamed they could do, and fiercely patriotic besides. In recognition of their service, the vote was granted to women in 1918… that is, women of property over the age of 30. That meant only 40% of women in Britain were able to stand up and be counted. However, by 1928 the age was lowered to 21, and thanks to their great work in World War One, women found the government considerably more willing to accept women as part of the Forces in World War Two.