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World War One: Participating British Women

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British Women in World War One

Women were called upon to encourage their men to serve through emotive posters. The result was that men not in uniform were presented with white feathers by women gathered on the streets. This led to the introduction of lapel badges and identity cards for those who were “doing their bit” to avoid them being wrongly accused of cowardice. White feather presentation continued throughout the war, especially after women started losing their men in the conflict. Some who were not serving as a result of injury, sometimes not visible, were also confronted, resulting in the issue of the ‘’’Silver War Badge’’’ to denote their status.

‘’’The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’’’ suspended their campaign for the right of women to vote in 1914 to allow members to campaign for change and concentrate on the war effort. Their efforts were often treated with disdain by the military authorities based on past performances and reputation. This resulted in the formation of other small groups by women of similar backgrounds whose aims were the same. (See Voluntary Units below)

At the outbreak of World War One the lives of Britain’s women were mainly tied to a life of domesticity, their places still largely in the home.

As Britain's men headed abroad to fight, women took their place en masse in factories, shops and offices across the country. And everything had the potential to change.

Women volunteered and served in a non-combatant role; by the end of the war, 80,000 had enlisted.

The gap left by a generation of fighting men was filled by more than a million women who joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918. They worked across the economy - from tram drivers and train cleaners, to postal workers and police patrols. Many volunteered on the home front as nurses, teachers, and workers in traditionally male jobs. Large numbers were hired in the munitions industries.

In her book Female Tommies Elisabeth Shipton writes of the many young British women who did actually make it to the front line. She writes of women who worked as nurses right on the trenches, who helped soldiers in No Man’s Land, and some who even fought in those Allied armies which allowed women to fight. The most common way in which women got to the front line was by joining a medical organisation, going in as a nurse. At the time, it was the most acceptable work for a woman to do, and was particularly popular with female doctors who were struggling to get work in Britain. Those who joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) ended up on the front line, driving ambulances, collecting patients in converted lorries while enemy shells fell. Some volunteered at groups manning first aid stations, often right by enemy lines - others went out to the trenches with welcome gifts of cigarettes and chocolates.

Please link profiles to this project AND to World War One: United Kingdom & Ireland HQ which is where we are recording progress.

See also -

World War One: Armed Forces - Channel Islands
World War One: Armed Forces - England
World War One: Armed Forces - Ireland
World War One: Armed Forces - Scotland
World War One: Armed Forces - Wales
'On War Service' - WW1 (United Kingdom & Ireland)

Object of this Project

The purpose of this project is to gather the profiles of British women (born in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland) who were engaged in military support roles, e.g. as nurses. Please link the profiles of women who served their country in the following Categories:-

Women in the First World War

'Acceptable' activities to those raised in Victorian and Edwardian Society.

  • Red Cross Fund Raising and Others
  • Street Collections
  • Belgian Refugees
  • YMCA ‘Huts’ set up to provide canteens and comforts for the military both home and abroad.

Volunteer Units

These were set up and offered freely to the War Office but not seriously received. After the campaigning and negotiations by well connected and persuasive members with Britain’s foreign allies units were eventually allowed to go abroad.

The Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps set up by Pauline Payne Whitney (March 21, 1874 – November 22, 1916) the first wife of Almeric Paget offered fifty trained masseuses to work amongst the wounded in the United Kingdom. This was the only women’s unit accepted by the War Office in 1914. Mrs. Paget had not pushed to serve abroad which worked in her favour.

First Aid Nursing Yeomanry - ‘FANY’ was raised in 1907. The first troop of 6 women left for France in October 1914.

The small Flying Ambulance Corps set up by Dr. Hector Munro (a feminist sympathiser) was welcomed in Belgium. It included four women - Mairi Chisholm, Lady Dorothy Feilding, Elsie Knocker (later Baroness T’Sercales) and an American Mrs. Helen Gleason

The Flying Field Hospital Column was led by Mrs Mabel St. Clair Stobart on horseback. She was appointed commander of the column in Sept. 1915.

Scottish Women’s Hospitals all female units set up by surgeon Elsie Inglis. The unit found a placement with the Serbian Army in January 1915. By 1918 there were 14 such units working with each of the Allied Armies (with the exception of the British).

Scott’s Women’s Defence Relief Corps set up by Mrs. Dawson Scott.

Women’s Emergency Corps set up by Decima Moore (an influential and militant suffragist) and The Hon. Evelina Haverfield. Their intention was to provide feeding stations for soldiers and refugees.

Women’s Hospital Corps ,WHC, raised by Dr. Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson in September 1914. The Corps went on the establish military hospitals for the French Army in Paris and Wimereux. The War Office allowed the WHC to establish a Military Hospital staffed entirely by women on Endell Street, London - the first of many

Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps - raised by suffragist Mrs Mabel St. Clair Stobart (born Boulton, 2nd husband Greenhalgh), - which worked in the Balkan War in 1912, was welcomed in Belgium. Mrs Stobart helped establish field hospitals fore the St. John’s Ambulance. She was later captured by the Germans at Antwerp, accused of being a spy and threatened with execution by firing squad, but released. She then set up the Third Serbian Relief Fund unit, establishing their head quarters at Kragujevac in April 1915. A St. John’s Ambulance unit set up by ‘’’Mabel Grouch’’’ had been in Kragujevac since August 1914. In the unit was Flora Sandes who went on to join the Serbian Red Cross and who working in an ambulance for the Second Infantry Regiment of of the Serbian Army. This act made her the only known British woman to legitimately join and serve in a fighting unit during WW1. (see more below).

Women’s Volunteer Reserve sponsored by the Marchioness of Londonderry, the Marchioness of Titchfield and The Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery.

In Uniform

Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS)

Women's Emergency Corps (WEC)

Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS)

Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF)


Nursing became almost the only area of female contribution that involved being at the front and experiencing the war. Many nurses were based in British Hospitals caring for the wounded. These are to be included in this project.

The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was the Russian Provisional Government in 1917. Its few "Women's Battalions" fought well, but failed to provide the propaganda value expected of them and were disbanded before the end of the year. In the later Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks would also employ women infantry.

Nursing Organisations

  • Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS)
  • First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY),
  • Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) - The VADs were not allowed in the front line until 1915.

Military Support

Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), was founded in 1917. It was divided into four sections:

  • cookery;
  • mechanical;
  • clerical and
  • miscellaneous. Most stayed on the Home Front, but around 9,000 served in France.
  • Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC; commonly known as the QAs) - nursing branch of the British Army and part of the Army Medical Services.
  • The Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) was established in 1909 as a sister organisation to the QAIMNS. Its purpose was to supplement the regular service in emergencies and all its members worked as nurses in civilian life. It was renamed the Territorial Army Nursing Service (TANS) in 1920, when the Territorial Force was renamed the Territorial Army. It existed until 1949, when it became the Territorial Army branch of QARANC.

WW1 Time Matrons-in-Chief QAIMNS/QARANC

  • Dame Sidney Browne, 1902 – 1906
  • Caroline Keer, 1906 – 1910
  • Dame Ethel Becher, 1910 – 1919
  • Dame Maud McCarthy, 1914 – 1919
  • Dame Sarah Oram, 1915 – 1919

Espionage and Underground service

Reference - - Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War by Tammy M. Proctor (Author)

The British intelligence service relied on women's work: "there were many strong, educated women who were patriotic and willing to 'do their bit' for a low salary, and it was these female workers on whom the British intelligence establishment precariously balanced."
Besides designing and running the spy-tracking paperwork networks, women also operated postal censorship, and contributed to developing propaganda and cryptography.
Among the actual spies recruited to gather information behind enemy lines, the female constituent was equally crucial to the success of the enterprise. Women "often provided an important component to intelligence and escape networks because their movements aroused fewer suspicions than the activities of men" [Tammy M Proctor]

Female Spies include -

(to be added)

Women Combatants

(Women were not permitted to be combatants in the British army but there were some who did fight - see Dorothy Lawrence below.

NOTE For the time being this project does not include those women in the land army, munitions, (Munitionettes), or other wartime occupations. If there is a need a project to include women who worked on the home front can be established.

Over the course of the war:

  • 200,000 women took up jobs in governmental departments.
  • 500,000 took up clerical positions in private offices.
  • 250,000 worked on in agricultural positions.
  • 700,000 women took up posts in the munitions industry, which was dangerous work.

Many more women did hard heavy work, including ship building and furnace stoking. These types of jobs had excluded women prior to the war.

Notable British individuals

  • 1914: Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a man in order to become an English soldier in the First World War - a young British woman, who smuggled herself to Paris, stole a man’s uniform and headed to the front. She later had to give herself up - but not before she fought.
  • 1914 : Flora Sandes, an English woman, joined a St. John Ambulance unit in Serbia and subsequently became an officer in the Serbian army.
  • Englishwoman Flora Sandes - on 12 Aug 1914 Flora steamed out of London, along with 36 other eager nurses, bound for Serbia. Within 18 months, during the great retreat to Albania, she had exchanged bandages for guns. She insisted on acting as a soldier, and being treated as such; therefore, like male combatants, she cared for the wounded, but only 'between shots'. She curtly informed one correspondent on 10 November 1916 that if people thought she ought to be a nurse instead of a soldier, they should be told that 'we have Red Cross men for first aid'. Her martial valour during World War One was recognised in June 1919 when a special Serbian Act of Parliament made her the first woman to be commissioned in the Serbian Army. See
  • 1914: British nurse Edith Cavell helped treat injured soldiers, of both sides, in German-occupied Belgium. Executed in 1915 by the Germans for helping British soldiers escape Belgium.
  • Elsie Knocker and teenager [[Mairi Chisholm Mairi Chislom]. The pair met on a motorcycle unit (Mairi’s father was a mechanic and she set off on his bike), and later set up a first-aid station by the British trenches.

The station was within shouting distance of the German trenches and after a while, the German officers started to recognise the two women. “The story goes they told them, provided you wear the nurses’ wimpoles rather than tin hats, you can go into No Man’s Land and we won’t shoot you," [Elisabeth Shipton].
Consequently when planes were shot down into No Man’s Land, the nurses were able to rush across in their uniforms and rescue the pilot if he was still alive. The only condition was that they had to be identifiable as nurses, and they could not try and salvage any parts of the plane. It meant they had access to a part of the battlefield that men didn’t, and they could save lives.

Notable Women from elsewhere

  • Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert Parties – were women who risked their lives to journey to war weary soldiers, in order to sing to them – in order to boost their morale.
  • 1914 : Maria Bochkareva Russian: Мария Леонтьевна Бочкарева, née Frolkova, nicknamed Yashka, was a Russian woman who fought in World War I and formed the Women's Battalion of Death.
  • 1914: Olena Stepaniv, a Ukrainian officer of Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. Was the first woman to receive officer rank in the world.
  • 1915: French artist Madame Arno organized a regiment of Parisian women to fight the Germans.
  • 1915: Olga Krasilnikov, a Russian woman, disguised herself as a man and fought in nineteen battles in Poland. She received the Cross of St. George.
  • 1915: Russian woman Natalie Tychmini fought the Austrians at Opatow in World War I, while disguised as a man. She received the Cross of St. George.
  • 1916: Ecaterina Teodoroiu was a Romanian heroine who fought and died in World War I.
  • 1916: Milunka Savić, Serbian war hero,and the most decorated female fighter in the history of warfare, awarded with the French Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) twice, Russian Cross of St. George, English medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbian Miloš Obilić medal. She is the sole female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross) with the palm attribute.

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[1] Women in the War Zone:

Hospital service in the First World War by Anne Powell 2011

[2] The Roses of No Man's Land by Lyn MacDonald

[3] Female Tommies - Elisabeth Shipton

[4]Fighting on the Home Front - Kate Addie

Women mentioned


  • Miss Grace Ashley-Smith [1] ... who in 1910 became one of the organisers of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps (FANYs).


  • Miss Bickmore [1] ... served as a Nursing Sister on a ambulance train in France between 1914 and 1917.
  • Grace Buffard [2] ... (Territorial Force Nursing Service)


  • Mairi Chisholm [1] ...18 year old Scots girl
  • Dr. Hilda Clark [1]




  • Lady Dorothie Feilding [1] Dr. Hector Munro's Ambulance
  • Miss Kate Finzi [1] ... (born Kensington RD MarQ 1890) - British Red Cross Nurse, arrived in Boulogne in Oct. 1914
  • Mary Fitzgibbon [2]
  • Mrs. Katharine Furse, [1] ... Commandant of the British Red Cross VADs arrived in Boulogne in October 1914. She and her party of VADs started a Rest Station at the Gare Centrale in 3 trucks and 2 2nd class coaches on a siding. There were 25 nurses, eight orderlies, a coo, 2 quarter-masters and Commandant Furse.


  • Helen Gleason [1] Dr. Hector Munro's Ambulance
  • Madame Mabel Grouitch [1] ... was an American married to the Serbian secretary of State for foreign affairs. She had gone to England urgently seeking doctors, nurses, medical supplies and financial aid.


  • Henrietta Hall [2]
  • Christina Hastings] [2]





  • Mrs. Elsie Knocker [1] ... divorced from her husband, was a trained nurse and midwife and also an expert driver and mechanic. She joined Dr. Hector Munro's Ambulance Corps


  • Sister K E Luard [1], [2] ... experienced Nursing Sister in the QAIMNS arrived at Le Havre on 20 Aug 1914, sent to St. Nazaire, and then Le Mans


  • Miss Sarah MacNaughton [1] ...- well known author, musician and painter, member of the British Red Cross Corps, arrived in Antwerp to serve as a senior orderly with "Mrs. St. Clair Stobart's unit - which was made up of women doctors, nurses and orderlies.
  • Sister Joan Martin-Nicholson [1] ... a Red cross sister - arrived in Brussels on 9 Aug 1914 - worked at the Hôpital Militaire. Also went to Serbia
  • Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland [1] ... went to Brussels but discovering that there were ample Red Cross workers and so equipped an ambulance unit and went to Namur.
  • Dr. Flora Murray, M.D. CBE (8 May 1869 – 28 July 1923, [1] ... a physician and Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, surgeon (daughter of Dr. Elizabeth Garrison), were militant suffragettes in the years preceding the outbreak of the First World War. They realised that their offer to serve as doctors would be refused and so they approached the French Red Cross who asked them to organise a unit to go to Paris. They assembled the Women's Hospital Corps, which arrived in Paris on 14 September.




  • Mrs. Eleonora B. Pemberton [1] ... member of Katharine Furse's VADs
  • Lynette Powell [2]



  • Mildred Rees [1] ...- one of the nurses who accompanied the Duchess of Sutherland.


  • Miss Flora Sandes [1] ... accompanied by her violin travelled to Serbia with a St. John's Ambulance Unit. She was not a trained nurse but had been an active memebr og the St. John's Ambulance Brigade for 3 years. She was one of 8 women

  • Emily Simmonds [1] ...with the same unit as Flora Sandes - trained in England and went to America where she became a theatre sister.
  • Miss May Sinclair [1]... - aged 51, established novelist, became the 'Secretary and reporter' to the thirteen strong ambulance unit raised by Dr. Hector Munro when war was declared. Her role was to keep the accounts, write Dr. Munro's reports and articles for the daily newspapers.
  • Mary Stollard [2]


  • Sister Violetta Thurstan [1] ... (born Anna Violet Thurstan in Hastings in 1879, the daughter of Dr. Edward Paget Thurstan) was a trained nurse asked to take a party of nurses to Brussels to work under the auspices of the Belgian Red Cross Society. She organised a hospital at the fire station and then in Charleroi. When the Germans ordered all English doctors and nurses to leave she and her nurses were taken under armed escort by train to the Danish border. The Dowager Empress of Russia arranged for her and 3 other nursing Sisters to be transferred to the Russian red Cross. They arrived in Russia at the end of October - they were sent to Warsaw after some training in Russian ways, joining the Prince and Princess Volonsky's Flying Ambulance Surgery Service at the height of the battle for Lodz.

Sources, References and Further Reading


// this project is in History Link