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
WAACs marching in London after the end of WW1 in 1918