On this day in 1917, British Army Council Instruction Number 1069 formally establishes the British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), authorizing female volunteers to serve alongside their male counterparts in France during World War I.
By 1917, large numbers of women were already working in munitions factories throughout Britain, serving the crucial function of supplying sufficient shells and other munitions for the Allied war effort. The harsh conditions in the factories were undeniable, with long hours spent working with noxious chemicals such as the explosive TNT; a total of 61 female munitions workers died of poisoning, while 81 others died in accidents at work. An explosion at a munitions factory in Silvertown, East London, when an accidental fire ignited 50 tons of TNT, killed 69 more women and severely injured 72 more.
In early 1917, a campaign began to allow women to more directly support the war effort by enlisting in the army to perform labors such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks that would otherwise be done by men who could better serve their country in the trenches. By March 11, 1917, even Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, had come around to the idea, writing to the British War Office that “the principle of employing women in this country [France] is accepted and they will be made use of wherever conditions admit.”
The establishment of the WAAC in the summer of 1917 meant that, for the first time, women were to be put in uniform and sent to France to serve as clerks, telephone operators, waitresses and in other positions on the war front. Women were paid less than their male counterparts: 24 shillings per week for unskilled labor and up to twice that for more skilled labor, such as shorthand typing. As the stated purpose behind the WAAC was to release British soldiers doing menial work in Britain and France for active service at the front, the War Office set the restriction that for every woman given a job through the WAAC, a man had to be released for frontline duties. None of the female volunteers could become officers–according to traditions in the British army–but those who rose in the ranks were given the status of “controllers” or “administrators.” By the end of World War I, approximately 80,000 women had served in the three British women’s forces–the WAAC, the Women’s Relief Defense Corps and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry–as non-combatants, but full-fledged contributors to the Allied war effort.