Women at the Front
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC)
After the heavy losses of men on the Somme in the summer of 1916, it was decided that women should be used in the army. Lieutenant General Henry Lawson estimated that 12, 000 soldiers working in non-combatant roles on the Lines of Communications in France could be freed for front line service by women taking on their jobs.
The Corps did not have the same status as men; instead of ranks it had grades – officers were called ‘Officials’ and Non-Commissioned Officers were called ‘Forewomen’ and other ranks as ‘Workers’. Like the women working in munitions factories and other civilian jobs, they were paid less than their male counterparts. The WAAC were employed in a variety of jobs including cooking and waiting on officers, and serving as clerks, telephone operators, store-women, drivers, printers, bakers and cemetery gardeners.
Queen Mary became the patron of the Corps and thus it was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) on 9th April 1918. By 1918, nearly 40, 000 women had enrolled in the QMAAC. Of these, some 7, 000 served on the Western Front, the rest back in the United Kingdom. With the end of the war, the QMAAC were no longer of use in an army being cut down to size to peacetime levels and so the the QMAAC was formally disbanded on 27th September 1921.
Betty Stevenson (1896 – 1918)
Bertha ‘Betty’ Stevenson was born in York on 3 September 1896. Betty’s parents were activists of the YMCA and she became heavily involved, at a very young age.
In January 1916, one of Betty’s aunts went to France to manage a YMCA Canteen in St Denis Hut, on the outskirts of Paris. Betty was keen to join her. At 19, she was considered too young but a month later she went anyway, paying her own expenses. She enjoyed the work, writing:
‘We know how grateful the men are, and they know us well, I somehow feel it would be mean to leave then for a new place.’
Once her term at St Denis was completed, Betty returned to the UK but she was soon anxious to get back to France. In April 1917, she was posted to Etaples as a YMCA driver, responsible for transporting lecturers, concert parties and relatives from England visiting the wounded in hospital.
Betty was killed by an air raid the following year having, despite the danger, stayed in the area to assist some French refugees.
She was given a military funeral and was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by General Petain, for courage and devotion to duty.
The personal inscription on her headstone reads simply, ‘The Happy Warrior’.
Betty described Etaples in a letter to her father:
‘I’m awfully fond of the river here. There is a bridge over it from which you can get the most wonderful view of everything, On one side the river mouth and the sea and the little fishing boats; the quay and the big sailor’s crucifix, where the women pray when there is a storm at sea. The boats anchor quite near; and they look like something hazy and unreal, sitting on a shiny wet river; with every sail and mast and man reflected in the water. Behind them are houses – filthy and ramshackle, but with the sun warming their pink, white and grey roofs. Behind the houses again is the camp – the tents crawling up the hill like whit esnails, and more hills and pines behind them. The whole thin is so illogical, boats and fisherman on the one hand, and on the other, war.’