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WAAC RECORDS

Your Family History - - News - By Michelle Higgs Michelle Higgs is a free­lance writer and au­thor spe­cial­is­ing in so­cial his­tory and fam­ily his­tory.

We’re all fa­mil­iar with women serv­ing in Vol­un­tary Aid De­tach­ments and as Red Cross Nurses dur­ing World War 1. Per­haps less well-known is the story of the thou­sands who vol­un­teered in a non­med­i­cal ca­pac­ity as part of the Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps (WAAC). This unit had its ori­gins in an earlier women’s group with sim­i­lar aims.

The Women’s Le­gion was es­tab­lished by Lady Lon­don­derry in 1915 to pro­vide cooks, wait­resses and gar­den­ers for the army; from 1916, it also re­cruited mo­tor trans­port driv­ers. It was never an of­fi­cial part of the army, but its mem­bers pro­duced well- cooked, eco­nom­i­cal meals with­out waste – some­thing that sol­diers who lacked cook­ery skills could not do.

An army marches on its stom­ach, and the Women’s Le­gion’s suc­cess did not go un­no­ticed. An of­fi­cial re­port pro­posed sub­sti­tut­ing women for men in aux­il­iary roles to free up those sol­diers to serve in the trenches. In March 1917, the WAAC was es­tab­lished as part of the army. It was re-named Queen Mary’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps (QMAAC) in April 1918 but re­cruits af­fec­tion­ately called them­selves WAACs, long af­ter the name change.

Re­cruit­ment posters sought ‘Cooks Clerks Wait­resses Driver-Me­chan­ics, All Kinds of Do­mes­tic Work­ers’ with the prom­ise of ‘Good Wages, Uni­form, Quar­ters, [and] Ra­tions’. Other posters re­in­forced the idea that ‘ev­ery fit woman can re­lease a fit man’. Ap­peal­ing specif­i­cally to women work­ing as cooks and do­mes­tic ser­vants meant the QMAAC was open to all so­cial classes; there were also roles for clerks, tele­phon­ists, store­keep­ers and ve­hi­cle me­chan­ics.

In all, ap­prox­i­mately 57,000 women served with the QMAAC, with around 7,000 trans­fer­ring to the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) when it was formed in April 1918. In Septem­ber 1921, the QMAAC was dis­banded.

TRAC­ING YOUR QMA AC ANCES­TOR

You may al­ready know your fore­bear was a mem­ber of the WAAC from a fam­ily story, or be­cause there’s a pho­to­graph, letter or badge in the fam­ily ar­chive. Nat­u­rally, you’ll want to find records re­lat­ing to her ser­vice. The bad news is that the QMAAC ser­vice records were hit by the same Ger­man air raid that de­stroyed the men’s army ser­vice records (the so- called ‘burnt

You may al­ready know your fore­bear was a mem­ber of the WAAC from a fam­ily story

doc­u­ments’). Sadly, only 7000 QMAAC records have sur­vived but it’s still worth check­ing to see if your ances­tor is in­cluded.

The orig­i­nal records cov­er­ing 1917–1920 are held at The Na­tional Archives ( www.na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk), cat­a­logued un­der WO 398. They can be searched for free on­line and down­loaded for £3.50 per in­di­vid­ual. Al­ter­na­tively, the records have been digi­tised on Find­my­past ( www.find­my­past.co.uk) and can be viewed on a sub­scrip­tion ba­sis.

If your ances­tor is listed, her records can be a ge­nealog­i­cal gold­mine. Each woman’s file con­sists of nu­mer­ous doc­u­ments with per­sonal de­tails about the ap­pli­cant. The Form of En­rol­ment in­cludes full name, age, and ad­dress; mar­i­tal sta­tus; de­tails of any de­pen­dants; and whether serv­ing at home in the UK or abroad was re­quested.

Women ap­ply­ing to join the QMAAC had to pro­vide the names of at least two ref­er­ees, and the let­ters from these peo­ple are of­ten in the file. They may be from pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ers, friends or neigh­bours. Be­fore en­rol­ment, ap­pli­cants had to pass an in­ter­view and a thor­ough med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. The re­sults of the med­i­cal can re­veal whether your ances­tor had any se­ri­ous child­hood ill­nesses and her gen­eral state of health. There may also be an iden­tity cer­tifi­cate list­ing height, com­plex­ion, hair and eye colour, to­gether with next of kin, date of birth and mar­i­tal sta­tus.

The files of­ten in­clude a list of cloth­ing is­sued to the ap­pli­cant. Although women in the QMAAC wore khaki mil­i­tary uni­forms, it was im­por­tant that the or­gan­i­sa­tion wasn’t seen as com­bat­ant, so mil­i­tary ranks were not al­lowed. There were Con­trollers

It was im­por­tant that the or­gan­i­sa­tion wasn’t seen as com­bat­ant, so mil­i­tary ranks were not al­lowed

and Ad­min­is­tra­tors, not Com­mis­sioned Of­fi­cers, and Fore­women and Work­ers in­stead of NCOs and Pri­vates. Your ances­tor’s rank will be recorded on the ‘State­ment of the Ser­vices’ form. This will also in­clude ser­vice num­ber, next of kin, pro­mo­tions and where your ances­tor was posted, and when. There might also be forms de­tail­ing ex­ten­sion of ser­vice, and a dis­per­sal cer­tifi­cate is­sued when leav­ing the QMAAC.

New re­cruits serv­ing at home were usu­ally sent first to the Con­naught Club in London, the QMAAC head­quar­ters and main hos­tel. From here, they were as­signed to var­i­ous cen­tres for train­ing, and then posted to camps, de­pots or of­fices around the UK. Bostall Heath in Abbey Wood, London, was one of the main train­ing camps from 1918, ac­com­mo­dat­ing 1000 re­cruits.

For many women, the prospect of serv­ing over­seas was an ex­cit­ing one. Those who were go­ing to France went first to the Ho­tel Metropole in Folke­stone, the QMAAC train­ing base. They stayed for be­tween three and four weeks for train­ing, in­oc­u­la­tion and vac­ci­na­tion, be­fore be­ing sent to a camp or de­pot serv­ing the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force in the Calais, Boulogne, Rouen, Éta­ples and Dieppe ar­eas. In France, the WAACs faced sim­i­lar dan­gers to the sol­diers be­cause the camps were tar­gets for air raids. At Abbeville in May 1918, nine women died and six were wounded.

Where there is ex­tra cor­re­spon­dence in the file, this can of­fer a sur­pris­ing level of de­tail. For ex­am­ple, Winifred Edith Chapman’s record re­veals in­for­ma­tion about her abu­sive hus­band, as chron­i­cled on the Lives of the First World War web­site ( https:// livesoft­he­first­world­war.org/ lifestory/7164034).

Olive Ellen Salter served as a clerk at the Abbeville Camp in France. Her mother wrote to the Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer re­quest­ing her dis­charge as she needed her at home; the file records a lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer vis­ited Olive’s mother to ver­ify the sit­u­a­tion, and rec­om­mended Olive be dis­charged.

US­ING OTHER SOURCES

If you can’t find your ances­tor’s QMAAC ser­vice doc­u­ments, check the Women’s Royal Air

Force records (WRAF) to see if your fore­bear trans­ferred to it; these doc­u­ments are avail­able to down­load on The Na­tional Archives web­site. How­ever, of­fi­cers are not in­cluded and the records are not as de­tailed.

For WAACs who served over­seas be­fore the Armistice, search the WW1 cam­paign medal in­dex and medal roll, digi­tised on An­ces­try ( www. an­ces­try.co.uk). If your ances­tor was a QMAAC of­fi­cial, try the London Gazette for her ap­point­ment ( www.thegazette.co.uk). Also, check the of­fi­cial pub­lished Army List; se­lected years are digi­tised on The Ge­neal­o­gist ( www.the­ge­neal­o­gist.co.uk). The vol­umes are of­ten avail­able in large ref­er­ence li­braries.

The war di­aries of the QMAAC Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force con­troller-in- chief and area con­trollers can pro­vide de­tails about in­di­vid­ual ser­vice­women. They have been digi­tised on The Na­tional Archives web­site (WO 95/84 and WO 95/85) and can be down­loaded for a small fee.

Fi­nally, the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum holds copies of the QMAAC Old Com­rades As­so­ci­a­tion Gazette, which men­tion some in­di­vid­u­als by name. Lo­cal news­pa­pers can also re­veal de­tails of WAACs, es­pe­cially if they served abroad; search the Bri­tish News­pa­per Ar­chive ( www. british­news­pa­per­ar­chive.co.uk).

A WAAC vol­un­teer in uni­form

WAAC pro­pa­ganda posters

WAACs march­ing in London af­ter the end of WW1 in 1918

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