The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France reviewed

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France, 1917 – 1921 Book Cover The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France, 1917 – 1921
Samantha Philo-Gill
Non fiction
Pen & Sword
28 February 2017

In March 1917, the first women to be enrolled into the British Army joined the newly formed Women s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The women substituted men in roles that the Army considered suitable, thereby freeing men to move up the line. The WAACs served, for example, as cooks, drivers, signallers, clerks, as well as gardeners in the military cemeteries. Due to their exemplary service, Queen Mary gave her name to the Corps in April 1918 and it became Queen Mary s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). By the time the Corps was disbanded in 1921, approximately 57,000 women had served both at home and in France. This book details the establishment of the Corps and subsequently explores the experience of the WAACs who served in France. It follows the women from enrolment to the camps and workplaces overseas, through to their experiences of the Spring Offensive of 1918, the Armistice and demobilisation. The final chapter reviews how the women have been remembered in art, literature, museums and memorials. Throughout the book, the author locates the women in a society at war and examines how they were viewed by the Army, the general public and the press. The author draws on a wide range of sources to provide the background and uses the oral and written testimonies of the women themselves to tell their stories. This book will be of interest to social, women s and military historians, as well as family history researchers.

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