The Great War was a pivotal time in history that changed the lives of many forever, not least the roles that women performed in society. The War catapulted women into the workplace to take on jobs in the public, commercial and industrial areas of life that were traditionally closed to them. Although women were ill prepared to take on these roles, they responded to the challenge and by doing so laid the foundations for the undreamt of freedoms of post war existence.
The women’s organisations that came into being were many and various, from nursing to army auxiliary to agricultural and land army. Here, we are focusing on the Women’s Volunteer Reserve.The Women’s Volunteer Reserve was started soon after War was declared in August 1914 by Hon Evelina Haverfield, a committed and influential suffragette. Originally formed as the Women’s Emergency Corps, the opportunity was taken to forge a role for women in the crisis of war. The image here is taken from a small collection of Women’s Volunteer Reserve, Midland Battalion leaflets, 1915-1916 (ref 530975) and features the rules of the organisation.
The expectations of the organisation were for women to undertake the jobs that the men performed to release more manpower for the war effort. The women were training to be signallers, despatch riders, telegraphists, motorists, as well as engaging in the more traditional roles of first aid and nursing.
The recruits were organised on military lines and expected to practice Swedish drill, fencing, study Morse code and semaphore and, if they were that way inclined, to practice on the rifle range.
The organisation tended to attract women from the higher classes and initially there was a heady mix of feminists and women who were not accustomed to associating with such types. The uniform of Norfolk coat, skirt, shirt, brown shoes and felt hat had to be purchased and at a price of £2 12s 6d for privates and £5 for officers, the organisation was expensive to join and beyond the means of the lower classes.
Ultimately, the work the women provided was mostly of a domestic and fund raising nature, although a sub group was formed, The Lady Instructors Signals Company, which trained army recruits in signalling to the end of the War in 1918.
Judy Dennison, November 2014