British Women in War

The British must have had a premonition that the war was coming. In 1909 the Voluntary Aid Detachment, was formed to provide medical assistance in the event of war. The effort was so successful that in just five years time over 2,500 chapters existed with 74,000 members of which almost 50,000 were women. When the war broke out the first detachment of the VAD was sent to France. Throughout the war the 38,000 VAD volunteers, lead by Katharine Furse, worked as nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. Most large cities in England had VAD hospitals.  Initially VAD volunteers were prohibited on the front-line. However, by 1915 the restriction was lifted and women volunteers began service on the Eastern and Western Fronts, Mesopotamia, and Gallipoli.

In 1918 Britain formed the Royal Air Force (RAF). At the same time it formed the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) and Gertrude Crawford was appointed its first commandant. Crawford’s tenure was short-lived as she found that she was only a figurehead. She resigned her post in protest. She was replaced by Violet Douglas-Pennant, who resigned for the same reasons but promised to return to her position if her complaints were addressed satisfactorily. This did not occur, and after another unsuccessful appointment, Helen Gwynee-Vaughan was named Commandant. Under her leadership 9,000 were recruited into the WRAF. The WRAF was disbanded after the war with the objective that the organization should be reactivated to help the country in time of crisis. In 1939, prior to the Second World War was Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was asked to lead the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), but she declined because of her age. Jane Trefusis-Forbe was instead named commandant.

British women also took to replacing men in the workforce as the country continued to be embroiled in the war. In 1916 the Women’s Land Army was formed to help assure that food and other goods would be produced to fulfill the national need and to aid the war effort generally. Initially, farmers resisted women’s involvement in agriculture. To combat farmers’ resistance the Board of Trade conducted a campaign to encourage farmers to accept women as farm workers. By 1917 it was estimated that over 260,000 women were working as farm laborers. Women worked in other fields as well, many of them in dangerous situations, including 700,000 who worked in the munitions industry. Women worked within government as bus conductors on buses, engineers, shipbuilder as well as all in other industries which desperately needed labor.