In January 1917, the government announced the establishment of a new voluntary service, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). During the First World War these women served as clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks, and as instructors in the use of gas masks. The WAAC was disbanded in 1921.
In 1938 the government decided to establish the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). An advisory council was set up and included representatives of the Territorial Army, the Women's Transport Service and the Women's Legion. It was decided that the ATS should be attached to the Territorial Army and that the women would receive two-thirds of the soldiers' pay.
The Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service was official launched on 9th September, 1938. The first women recruited worked as cooks, clerks and storekeepers.
After the outbreak of the Second World War 300 members of the ATS were sent to France. On the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in May 1940, ATS telephonists were some of the last people to leave the country.
It was now decided to dramatically increase the size of the ATS. Women aged between 17 and 43 were allowed to join the service. However, WAAC veterans of the First World War were accepted up to the age of fifty. By September 1941 the ATS has 65,000 members. Their range of duties were also expanded and women now served as office, mess and telephone orderlies, drivers, postal workers and ammunition inspectors.
On 18th December 1941, the National Service Act was passed by Parliament. This legislation called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. Later this was extended to married women, although pregnant women and mothers with young children were exempt from this work.
Women could choose to join one of the auxiliary services - Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women's Transport Service (FANY). Women in the ATS served as volunteers with the British Army until given full military status in July 1941.
Women also joined the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) to help in supplying a wide variety of emergency services at home. Another option was to become a member of the Women's Land Army and help on British farms. By 1943 around 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were involved in war work.
Provision was made for women to object to the National Service Act on moral grounds. Of the 6000 people to go on the conscientious objectors register, around 2000 were women. About 500 women were prosecuted for a range of offences, and more than 200 of them were imprisoned.
Women were not allowed to fight in battle but as more and more men were called overseas to fight, their duties extended to include radar operators, military police, gun crews, and many other operational support tasks. By June, 1945, there were over 190,000 members of the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service.
Considering the immense importance of having a large number of women in A.A. batteries and that the efficiency of the batteries depends upon carefully organised gun teams, it is imperative that these women should not be moved without reference to the Battery Command. The idea that there is an army of A.T.S. under its own Commander-in-Chief, part of which lives alongside particular batteries and gives them a helping hand from time to time, is contrary to our main interest, namely, the maintenance of a larger number of AA batteries with a smaller number of men.
We quite agree that there are millions of women in the country who could do useful jobs in war. But the trouble is that so many insist on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and yet can't cook her husband's dinner. There are men like that too so there is no need to charge us with anti-feminism. One of the most difficult types of man with whom one has to deal is the one who has a certain amount of ability, too much self confidence, an overload of conceit, a dislike of taking orders and not enough experience to balance one against the other by his own will. This combination is perhaps more common amongst women than men.
These Women's Auxiliary Services, whose trim khaki, light and dark blue uniforms are now seen everywhere, are being sensibly managed; the girls look healthy and happy, and clearly most of them will make better wives and mothers and citizens, if only because they have had some physical and mental training, and been given a glimpse of wider horizons after their years of national service.
I went with two friends - mother and daughter - one May afternoon, keeping them company as they went for their medical exam at Cosham Headquarters. I was just sixteen and five months then and just over five foot tall. As we approached the headquarters building, there was an ATS second lieutenant standing on the steps, who called out: 'Jolly good! I see you've brought another recruit.' There and then I said to my friends, 'Don't say a word. If I can get in, I'll come with you.' It was my answer to a prayer. I wanted to be in on the fight. My father was RN all his life, my elder sister was NAAFI, and my other sister a Wren. So the die was cast. In I went, and while the other two went in for their medical, the officer said, 'While we are waiting for them, you might as well sign your forms.' She filled them in for me, no mention of birth certificate, so I never said a word and signed on the dotted line. The nurse took me in to the doctor, a man in his late fifties, who looked at me and said, 'How old?' I said quietly that I was eighteen, thinking it was all over. But no! He just grunted, 'Hm, youngest I've seen. Keep in good health?' I nodded, and he proceeded with a very short examination and said, 'You'll do,' smiled and I walked away.
Over to the Medical Room we went, to strip to our panties and bras and stand in a row like a lot from a harem waiting for the chief eunuch to inspect us for his master. The Medical Officer would pull the elastic wide in front of our panties, then do the same at the back, remove our busts from our bras and look at each of them. It was just like 'hunt the bloody thimble'. I suppose he knew what he was looking for but we never did, and he never found it. I detested the 'Free From Inspection' parade; it made me feel cheap. When it was the turn for the men, they would tell us in great detail what the MO did to them, how they had to 'drop 'em' and cough, then bend down; that was I suppose to see if their hats were on straight. Then the MO would shift their unmentionables with his stick. But the way they told it was more like a cattle market than anything else. All very undignified indeed.
Now a member of the WAAF, I find myself with an extraordinary amount of free time on my hands. My job consists for the most part of sitting at a table with ear-phones on my head - waiting. The majority of the girls are intensely bored by the job which is extremely interesting when work comes through, but in which there is very seldom any work to do. We work on shifts of 5-8 hours each and nearly all the men and women keep themselves awake by talking or reading.
The reasons girls gave for joining up - between ourselves of course - not to the officers, - had very little to do with 'doing one's bit'. General boredom with life was the keynote. Nearly everyone said that on the night before she left, she almost decided to back out and that all the way up on the train, she kept thinking 'What a mug I was. Why did I join?' Afterwards, opinion was divided according to how the girls took to the life. There were two deserters one week. But on the whole, those who hated it - small minority - wouldn't go home because of the 'I told you so's of their friends. They had all been discouraged from joining up by their friends. My friends also discouraged me from joining. In the East End it was considered a fine thing to do, almost an honour, but my friends told me I'd be bored. In Romford, on the other hand, the information was received with raised eyebrows. 'The WAAF', I was told, 'is merely the groundsheet for the Army'. There is a WAAF camp near Romford and its reputation was terrible.
The demobilisation of the special industrial effort after the war will have to be of a positive as well as a negative nature, maintaining a balance in favour of what we want over what we no longer need. The shifting of women out of war industries as these become no longer necessary, and the drafting of both men and women into the industries of peace, will require nice judgment as well as immense organisation.
Mass-Observation, in a recent survey, has tried to examine the wants and expectations of the women themselves. Do they wish to stay in industry, to what extent, and why?
That women's place is the home, is a slogan that has been used dishonestly in many contexts and circumstances. It is true, nevertheless, that the average human being's idea of a life centres round having a home and children. It is more or less true also that the average human considers the bearing and rearing of a family, combined with looking after a house and husband, a full-time job for a woman, leaving her little time to go out to earn an independent living. In general, therefore, the ranks of female labour have always been recruited on a short-term basis from young unmarried women who wished to keep themselves for a few years with marriage in view, and from a minority of women who for one reason or another had been left without a provider.
The war has changed all this, and has forced women of all classes, and all ages from 18 to 50, to break or neglect home ties, and embark on an independent wage-earning existence.
There was one young man with a neatly trimmed fair moustache and a quiff of very fair hair. His hands gripped the black rail just above his head, and sweat glistened on his pallid face. He was only partly in this world, for a mortar shell had removed his leg and shattered his hip. He had had what we call a hindquarter amputation. He had also lost part of his colon. He was suffering acutely; morphine had not helped. As I approached, his eyes looked searchingly into my face, and he made a feeble attempt to move his position. A doctor came to my side and said in a low voice, 'Give him heroin, Sister.' I looked into the doctor's lined, strained face and knew that this was one patient who would not leave France. An hour later I passed his bed again to accompany the first batch of wounded back to the boat. I saw him lying there, arms now by his sides, completely relaxed, lost in a dream world where the lotus-eaters smiled and pain was never known.
I have considered carefully your minute to me about the A.T.S., and I am willing that the principles you propose should have a trial. It is up to you to make these batteries attractive to the best elements in the A.T.S. And those who are now being compelled to join the A.T.S. I fear there is a complex against women being connected with lethal work. We must get rid of this. Also there is an idea prevalent among the ladies managing the A.T.S. that nothing must conflict with loyalty to the A.T.S. And that battery esprit de corps is counter to their interest or theme. No tolerance can be shown to this. The prime sphere of the women commanders is welfare, and this should occupy their main endeavours.
The conditions are very bad and rough, and I expect will get worse now that large numbers are being brought into the War Office grip by compulsion or the shadow of compulsion. A great responsibility rests upon you as Secretary of State to see that all these young women are not treated roughly. Mrs. Knox and her assistants should be admirable in all this, but do not let them get in the way of the happy active life of the batteries or deprive women of their incentives to join the batteries and to care as much about the batteries as they do about the A.T.S.
I joined the Voluntary Nursing Service working from the Chingford post most evenings and at weekends in order to do my bit, so to speak, in the war. Five days a week I made soldiers uniforms working for Rego in Edmonton North London and then nursed at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London travelling there by bus. Along with my "indoor and outdoor" uniforms, which I was given I was issued a tin hat (which I had to pay for) but all this made me feel great.
Anti-Aircraft Command was already being denuded of men to reinforce the field units; it was patently clear that there were simply not enough men to go round - demand was outstripping supply. Consequently, to make up for this deficiency in manpower, there was only one course of action open to the Ministry of Labour and National Service: more use would have to be made of womanpower.
From this realization came a new policy: the total manpower resources of the country from then on were to be assessed by counting men and women together. The Secretary of State for War explained this new policy to the House of Commons, prefacing his exposition with the words: "The Auxiliary Territorial Service has proved so valuable to the Army in the replacement of men that the Government has decided to enlarge the range of duties which it performs."
Similar expansion policies were pursued by all the women's Services and, as the manpower situation became increasingly acute, women took over more and more duties and trades to release men for active service. In the ATS, for example, from the five categories of trades open at the outbreak of war there quickly grew over a hundred. For the first time in history women were overcoming doubts about their ability to replace men much needed for other duties. Women became armourers, carpenters, coach-trimmers, draughtsmen, electricians, plotters, radiographers, sheet metal workers, vulcanizers and welders, to quote but a few of the new trades taken over.
Until my experience in London I had been opposed to the use of women in uniform. But in Great Britain I had seen them perform so magnificently in various positions, including service with anti-aircraft batteries, that I had been converted. Towards the end of the war the more stubborn die-hards had been convinced and demanded them in increasing numbers.