On this day in 1914, with World War I approaching the end of its first month, the Women’s Defense Relief Corps is formed in Britain.
Though women’s rights organizations in Britain had initially opposed the country’s entrance into the First World War, they reversed their position soon enough, recognizing the potential of the war effort to gain advancement for British women on the home front. As early as August 6, 1914, just one day after Britain declared war on Germany, an article published in the women’s suffrage newspaper Common Cause stated that: “In the midst of this time of terrible anxiety and grief, it is some little comfort to think that our large organization, which has been completely built up during past years to promote women’s suffrage, can be used to help our country through the period of strain and sorrow.”
In addition to the two nursing organizations that existed in 1914—the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)—several new women’s organizations sprung into being over the course of the war. Created with the support of the British secretary of state for war, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the Women’s Defense Relief Corps came into being in late August 1914. The corps was made up of two divisions: a civil section, the goal of which was to substitute women for men in factories and other places of employment in order to free those men for military service; and a “semi-military” or “good citizen” section, where women were actively recruited for the armed forces. This latter group was trained in drilling, marching and the use of arms; its members were exhorted to protect not only themselves but their loved ones on the home front in case of possible invasion by the enemy.
Another organization founded during World War I was the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), created in July 1917. Members of the WAAC supported the war effort more directly, enlisting in the army to perform labors such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks. For the first time, British women were sent to the battlefields of the Western Front to serve their country, thus freeing more male soldiers to do battle in the trenches against the German enemy. By the end of the war, some 80,000 women had served Britain as non-combatants, both on the home front and on the front lines in France and Belgium.