The author, Samantha Philo-Gill, of this book has obviously undertaken thorough and extensive research on her subject. For historians with an interest that is a good thing as we learn at the start that there have really only been two books on the WAAC and they have been out of print for years. In the introduction, which is good, the author does explain her rationale and objectives for the book. The four objectives are to provide a comprehensive history of the WAAC, its social context, to describe life in the WAAC and life after the WAAC. In effect it focuses almost exclusively on the WAAC in France.
It opens with an excellent outline on the roles of women generally prior to and at the time of the war. It offers detail on the situation 1916 from the viewpoints of those involved in setting up the WAAC. Throughout this book there are extensive references to good primary sources varying from official documents through diaries kept by senior personnel in the WAAC to actual statements from ordinary members of the WAAC. This means that there is very good information on the positions taken by senior government personnel and the like on the suitability of women for such roles! Problems with recruitment such as obtaining references, pay rates and interdepartmental issues are revealed.
There is some fascinating discussion (for me) on aspects such as uniform and badges and also saluting. As the women were not actually in the army the positions taken on such things often are highly depending on the role of the person concerned as well as their gender.
Having looked in some detail at the setting up of the WAAC the book explores then explores the WAAC in action as it were. There are stories of joining up getting over there. Over the next few chapters the book looks at various aspects of the WAAC varying from food, medical care and recreation through to the thornier subject of fraternising and discipline and the view of the army on the WAAC.
Also covered is the work actually done with the rationale behind it and categories undertaken. Social history is frequently apparent and here the actual roles tend to be divided along class lines. In the early days of the WAAC in France there are rumours about morality and prostitution (again based on class at times). It all led to a division of the WAAC being created as patrollers.
The dangers to the women such as bombing are very interesting. The statements by actual WAACs make for fascinating reading in this and other sections. The book looks at the Armistice and after with work continuing for many and new duties such as border control being introduced. After that Demobilisation, reflection and the return to work are covered. There is a section on the displays at the Imperial war museum including photography and other exhibits. The role of the WAACs in remembrance is also considered.
At the front there is a good time line and useful glossary . At the end there are extensive references as well as a bibliography section and sources. The book is well indexed. In my review copy the book ended with some interesting illustrations and photographs though I confess I would have liked more.
This really should be a book which is appreciated by social historians with an interest in this period. Indeed I would suggest that this should be of interest to many who simply have an interest in the broader subject matter, war or social history generally. While this is the story of the WAAC in France and covers just four years it is an important story in a wider context. It seems likely that many sociologists as well as historians would consider the changed role of women in the First World War was an integral part of the changes in society in the 20th century generally. In this sense this important book combines a diligent academic approach with ease of reading – not all that common.
Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review