What Was the Role of Britain’s Women in World War One?

Peter Curry

5 mins

26 Oct 2018

World War One saw the deployment of vast armies across Europe and the rest of the world. Since these armies, and the British army was no exception, were almost completely male, women were needed to do many of the critical tasks that kept the economy running at home.

During World War One, women in Britain were recruited en masse into the workforce.

While they were already present in the workforce, this was primarily within the textile industry, and when there was a crisis in shell manufacturing in 1915, women were drafted into munitions manufacture in large numbers in order to bolster production.

Over 750,000 British soldiers had died, which amounted to roughly 9% of the population, which became known as the ‘lost generation’ of British soldiers.

With the introduction of conscription in 1916, even more men were dragged away from industry and towards service in the armed forces, and the need for women to replace them became even more urgent.

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Munitions manufacture

By 1917, munitions factories primarily employing women produced 80% of weapons and shells used by the British army.

By the time the armistice arrived, there were 950,000 women working in British munitions factories and a further 700,000 employed in similar work in Germany.

Women were known as ‘canaries’ in the factories as they had to handle the TNT used as the explosive agent in munitions, which caused their skin to turn yellow.

There was little protective equipment or safety gear available, and there were also several large factory explosions during the war. Around 400 women died in munitions production during the war.

It is difficult to find an accurate estimate of the exact numbers of women employed in industry due to the different legal statuses of women who were married and those who were not married.

Female munition workers crying at the funeral of a colleague killed by an accident at work in Swansea in August 1917. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

Women’s employments rates clearly did explode during the war, increasing from 23.6% of the working age population in 1914, to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918.

Domestic workers were excluded from these figures, rendering an exact estimate difficult. Married women became much more frequently employed, and constituted over 40% of the female workforce by 1918.

Service in the armed forces

Women’s role in the armed forces Following a War Office investigation, which showed that many of the jobs that men were doing on the frontline could be done by women as well, women began to be drafted into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC).

Branches of the navy and RAF, the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the Women’s Royal Air Force, were set up in November 1917 and April 1918 respectively. Over 100,000 women joined Britain’s army during World War One.

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A few women abroad served in a more direct military capacity.

In the Ottoman Empire there were a limited number of female snipers and the Russian Provisional Government of 1917 established fighting women’s units, though their deployment was limited as Russia withdrew from the war.

One significant development in women’s role in the war was in nursing. Although it had long been an occupation associated with women, the sheer scale of World War One allowed a greater number of women to get away from their peacetime domesticity.

Furthermore, nursing was in the process of emerging as a true profession as opposed to simply voluntary aid. In 1887, Ethel Gordon Fenwick had established the British Nurses’ Association:

“to unite all British nurses in membership of a recognised profession and to provide… evidence of their having received systematic training.”

This gave a higher status to military nurses than was the case in previous wars.

The WSPU completely halted all campaigning for women’s suffrage during the war. They wanted to support the war effort, but were also willing to use that support to benefit their campaign.

80,000 British women volunteered in the various nursing services which operated during the war. They worked alongside nurses from Britain’s colonies and dominions, including around 3,000 Australians and 3,141 Canadians.

In 1917, they were joined by a further 21,500 from the U.S. Army, who at the time recruited female nurses exclusively.

Edith Cavell was probably the most celebrated nurse of the war. She helped 200 Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium and was executed by the Germans as a result — an act which caused outrage around the world.

The women’s movement was split over whether to support the war. During the war, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst led the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had previously used militant campaigning to try and get women the vote, in supporting the war effort.

Sylvia Pankhurst remained opposed to the war and broke away from the WSPU in 1914.

A suffragette meeting in Caxton Hall, Manchester, England circa 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst stand in the center of the platform. Credit: New York Times / Commons.

The WSPU completely halted all campaigning for women’s suffrage during the war. They wanted to support the war effort, but were also willing to use that support to benefit their campaign.

This tactic appeared to work, as in February 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over 21 years of age and to all women over 30.

It would be another ten years before all women over 21 received the vote. In December 1919, Lady Astor became the first woman to take up a seat in Parliament.

The issue of wages

Women were paid less than men, despite performing largely the same labour. A report in 1917 found that there should be equal pay granted for equal work, but presumed that women would output less than men due to their ‘lesser strength and special health problems’.

Average pay early in the war was 26 shillings a week for men, and 11 shillings a week for women. On a visit to chainmaking factory Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, the trade union agitator Mary MacArthur described the women’s working conditions as akin to medieval torture chambers.

Domestic chainmakers in the factory earned between 5 and 6 shillings for a 54-hour week.

The logistics involved in supplying and cooking for such a vast number of men spread out over a distance was a complex task. It would have been slightly easier for those who were encamped behind the lines and so could be served by a canteen such as this. Credit: National Library of Scotland / Commons.

After a national campaign against low pay by one woman’s group, the government legislated in favour of these women and set a minimum wage of 11s 3d a week.

The employers at Cradley Heath refused to pay the new wage rate. In response, around 800 women went on strike, until they forced concessions.

After the war

The lower wages paid to women provoked anxiety among men that employers would simply continue to employ women after the war finished, but this largely did not occur.

Employers were more than happy to lay off women in order to employ returning soldiers, although this prompted resistance and widespread striking from women after the war was over.

There was also an issue due to the sheer loss of male life in the battlefields of western Europe, which saw some women unable to find husbands.

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Over 750,000 British soldiers had died, which amounted to roughly 9% of the population, which became known as the ‘lost generation’ of British soldiers.

Many newspapers frequently discussed ‘surplus’ women who were doomed to remain unmarried. Normally, this was a fate imposed by a woman’s social standing.

Some women also chose to remain single or were forced to by financial necessity, and professions like teaching and medicine were slowly opening roles for women provided that they remained unmarried.