The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed during World War One. In the build up to its creation, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps encountered the prejudices that existed at that time to women in general, but to their part in the military in particular. As with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps played an important part in the war – despite the initial obstacles put in its way.
WAAC's recruiting in London
On January 16th, 1917, Lieutenant-General H Lawson recommended using women in the army in France. To the critics of his idea, Lawson played on the importance of women working in vital ammunition factories in Britain and the work they were doing for the war effort. The Adjutant-General, Sir Neville Macready, believed that if women were to join the army, they should be treated exactly the same of male soldiers. The War Secretary, Lord Derby, was in broad agreement with Macready but was anxious that the whole issue did not stir up agitation as was witnessed before the war. Dame Katherine Furse, in charge of the VAD’s, believed that the issue was so big, that women should be consulted as a right – a belief supported by Millicent Fawcett.
“The dilution of the army by women can only successfully be carried out if the whole Mother wit of women can be brought to bear.”
Towards the end of January 1917, Mrs Chalmers Watson, a well-known medical practitioner in Edinburgh, was invited to meet Lord Derby in London to discuss the issue of women in the army. Mrs Watson also happened to be the sister of Sir Auckland Geddes, who was the Director General of National Service. Though the minutes from this meeting are patchy, in 1918, Watson gave two interviews in which she described, from her point of view, what had been said in that discussion. Watson claimed that Lord Derby had made it clear that he did not want the full enlistment of women. This others issues discussed were what would be the status of uniformed women captured by the Germans in France (though this did not become an issue); discipline in the Army and the pay women should receive.
Chalmers Watson then met Sir Neville Macready to discuss the way ahead. Watson claimed the Macready asked her if she would head any female organisation approved by Lord Derby. Watson had Macready’s support as he wanted a “working woman” in charge of it whereas Derby wanted a titled woman to lead it. Chalmers Watson asked for time to consider the offer and left for a tour of the front in France. In fact, by this time many in the military had come to two conclusions:
Women should have some role in the British Army
Mrs Chalmers Watson would be the person to lead it.
By the Spring of 1917, even the commander-in-chief of the British Army, Sir Douglas Haig, had come round to the belief that women could play a vital role in the British Army. On March 11th, 1917, Haig wrote to the war Office:
“the principle of employing women in this country (France) is accepted and they will be made use of wherever conditions admit.”
However, Haig did attach a long list of concerns to this statement. His overriding concern was that women simply would not be able to do the physical labour of the men in France. He stated that they would be able to work as cooks but clearly did not have the strength to handle carcasses. He also stated that they could not work in clothing storerooms as men had to change in these and a woman’s presence here would be unacceptable.
To be accepted into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, you had to provide two references and go before a selection board. They also had to have a medical. Far more women applied to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps than had been anticipated. The Army Council Instruction Number 1069 of July 7th, 1917, is the date considered to be the official start of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Mrs Chalmers Watson was appointed Chief Controller but general control of the WAAC was vested in the Adjutant-General.
The WAAC had no officer ranks to it – a result of British Army tradition that had assumed that only men would veer get a commission. Instead, the WAAC had controllers and administrators. NCO’s were replaced by forewomen. Inevitably, given the structure of society at the time, the controllers were from middle/higher class backgrounds and the NCO’s from what would be deemed a working class background.
Pay in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was dependent on work done. In the lower ranks, unskilled work was paid at the rate of 24 shillings a week. Shorthand typists could get 45 shillings a week. 12 shillings six pence was deducted per week for food though uniforms and accommodation were free.
The WAAC was organised into four units: cookery, mechanical, clerical and miscellaneous. The War Office had stated that any job given to a member of WAAC, had to result in a man being released for frontline duties. Chalmers Watson spent much of her time up against politicians and bureaucrats who saw what the WAAC did in one-dimensional terms. Watson's main complaint was the disparity in pay between women in the WAAC doing a specific job and a man in the Army doing the same work for more pay. By February 1918, the constant battle had taken its toll and Chalmers Watson resigned as Chief Controller and was succeeded by Mrs. Burleigh Leach.
"The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2005. Web.