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Jim Mumford's Additional Information

From Women in European History

Auxiliary War Work in World War I


In 1914, Britain, despite its status as the greatest naval power in the world, had an incredibly small standing army. Over the span of two precarious years, Britain steadily built up this army, fighting on the continent alongside its ally France. On the Western Front, fortified trench lines caused WWI to become a war of attrition and each side "expended men and materials in titanic proportions... to achieve a breakthrough" (Davies Europe 903). Women were called upon to replace men in factories and other capacities as healthy men were drafted into the army.

During World War I, women performed a wide variety of war work. Some of the occupations were consistent with traditional cultural ideas about women’s work, while others “disrupted gender norms considerably” (Watson 106). For instance, married women tended to volunteer as social workers, working part-time while they continued to take care of their children and their household. Because this work was service-oriented and motivated by “a distinct combination of philanthropy and patriotism,” it was not at all controversial that so many women became involved in the war effort in this capacity (144). As Watson argues, these occupations were inherently feminine.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were women for whom the war became an opportunity to become involved in industries that were traditionally open only to males. Over the course of the war, about 1 million lower and working class women volunteered in munitions factories, building weapons and artillery. In contrast to the upper class women working for philanthropic causes, the factory workers main motivation was financial. This makes sense given their lower socio-economic status and their lack of disposable wealth. Many of these women left their posts as domestic servants and housekeepers to work in factories. Many of these women, on an individual basis, were criticized by their former employers. The reality is that these workers were lured away from their posts in the home by the promise of better wages and more interesting work in the factories. As a group though, these women were praised. Indeed, the image of the women working in a factory was a ubiquitous symbol of the way in which the war was drawing the country together. As Watson insightfully states though, propaganda “did not reflect society” (138). Many men were resistant to the idea of their wives and daughters working in munitions factories. Men simply believed that protecting the social and gender hierarchy was more important than the contribution that women could make by building weapons for the soldiers.

Vera Brittain's experiences as a V.A.D. nurse are an example of the way in which women of different social classes came into conflict with one another when they worked together. Brittain often discusses being mistreated by her superiors, professional nurses. As Watson points out, professional nurses tended to come from much lower classes than the volunteer nurses, who tended to come from wealthy families. Indeed, Brittain herself grew up in provincial comfort in the North of England. It was rare in English society for a person of higher class to be working for a person of lower class. It was only as a result of the war that the situation occurred in hospitals. This was a source of tension for both parties, as no one was accustomed to such a situation.

Women also contributed to the war effort in a variety other ways. Women like Vera Brittain, of course, helped to nurse injured soldiers back to health. And, women also drove ambulances in the field. Other women worked much farther from the front, in the Women’s Land Army. These women worked as tillers of the soil, trying to maintain the nations food supply, ensuring that the war effort could continue. The official Women’s Land Army Handbook reminded the members that “an English girl who is working for her Country on the land is the best sort of girl” (122). The Handbook also reminded girls to “please [stay] womanly” despite the fact that they were wearing a masculine uniform of breeches and a smock (122). In general, the Handbook emphasized the need for women to maintain certain traditions, even though the act of working in the agricultural sector boldly went against established traditions of English society.

Military and paramilitary organizations for women, such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the Women’s Royal Air Force were the subject of intense debate in society. These organizations, even those that were officially approved by the government, were widely criticized. Perhaps more than any other form of women’s work, these organizations confused the concept of gender and social hierarchy. However, these women were not granted full military status during World War I. Rather, they replaced men in certain administrative positions, doing “soft jobs” such as cooking and instructing others in the use of gas masks. This allowed more men to go to the front and fight.

Women were actively encouraged to recruit men for the army. Posters urged "The Women of Britain" to convince the men in their families and in their groups of close friends to join the army. Brittain herself encouraged her brother to do his duty and to be a good soldier early in the war. It is interesting that the government, through propaganda encouraged women to act in such a maternal way, urging the men to "do the right thing." In a way, such actions on the part of women reinforced gender stereotypes, reminding men that they were the protectors of women everywhere. (Grayzel Chapter 2). Women were expected to show their nationalist feelings by reinforcing the traditional ideals of family and motherhood. In theory, this allowed men to have a clear idea of what they were fighting for, of what they were trying to save, of what they were trying to keep the enemy from destroying.

It is also important to note that Vera Brittain was not alone in her decision to become a pacifist after the war. Politically, the war was a catalyst for the formation of several pacifist movements in Britain. In this way, the war enabled women to take a greater role in the public sphere.


Vera Brittain

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