“Les Tommettes”- Army Women of the First World War

In 1917, women in uniform were not necessarily a radical, new idea. In 1907 the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) were formed. By 1915 women were taking over more ‘men’s work’. However, the idea of women in the Army-other than as nurses or cooks from the Women’s Legion- were not seriously considered until 1916. The casualties of the Somme campaign depleted the numbers of the men on the Western Front and there was a concern about recruiting replacements. 

In December 1916, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Lawson was sent to France to investigate the numbers and physical categories of men carrying out non-combatant duties in France. He estimated that 12,000 fit men did much of the work on the Lines of Communications. Chiefly clerical work, cooking and cleaning, this was seen as work that could be performed by women with certain precautions put in place. The women would be civilian volunteers, not recruited in the Army. In France, they would be subject to the Army Act as camp followers, however as they were civilians taking over jobs from enlisted soldiers, they were not covered by the Geneva Convention. The corps was to be called the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).

Dr Mona Chalmers-Watson took command as Chief Controller. She did not wish to go overseas so Helen Gwynne-Vaughn was appointed as Deputy Chief Controller. The preparations for enlistment included a tour of the main area of operation in the Lines of Communication in France, as well as creating the uniforms and the ranks of what would become the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. 

The ranks of the WAAC were in four categories: Officials, Junior Women, Subordinate Officials and Workers. To put it in perspective the Chief Controller held a rank equal to a Lieutenant Colonel. Junior Women were equal in rank to Junior Officers, Subordinate Officials were the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), and Workers were the same rank as a private. The officers’ badges of rank were combinations of roses and fleur-de-lis, and their uniforms were a feminized version of an officer’s service dress. Subordinate Officials and Workers wore a coatfrock of khaki gaberdine; the Subordinate Officials with a white collar, the Workers with a brown one. The various roles performed by the WAAC were represented on their uniforms by coloured shoulder straps.

The main areas of employment for the members of the WAAC included domestic work, cookery, mechanical and clerical work and tending war graves. The women who were recruited had to have had regular employment, and only those over the age of twenty could go abroad. Initially, Employment Exchanges acted as recruiting offices. The women were then sent to the headquarters, bringing two references and to stand before an all-female medical board. The first draft of WAACs, 14 cooks and waitresses, arrived in Abbeville on 31st March 1917.

The camps in France were constructed of Nissen huts or large wooden huts with the provision of recreational facilities, and there was no rationing. Soon, their places of work became known as ‘waacsworks’, and the French referred to the women as ‘Les Tommettes’ or ‘Les Soldates’. Off duty, women were allowed to associate with soldiers, but only those of a comparable rank; however, there were ways around that.

In the summer of 1917, a new depot was established at Folkestone for the despatch of drafts overseas, which also served roughly 22,000 meals a day for soldiers en-route to France.

Scandal hit the Corps towards the end of 1917. Through a variety of sources, rumours circulated that the women were recruited for Army brothels and the number of women sent home from France pregnant. Various important figures defended the WAAC, and a Commission of Inquiry fully vindicated the Corps in March 1918. Shortly after this, the German Spring Offensive began. An air raid on Abbeville hit Camp 1, which killed eight women outright, one to die later of wounds, and wounded six. Three women were awarded Military Medals for their help in rescue operations.

For the work done by the Corps during the Spring Offensive, as well as the work done at home, the Corps was renamed the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) on 9th April 1918.

Demobilisation began in 1919, starting the with disbandment of units in France except for the Graves Registration unit which stayed until 27th September 1921, the last QMAAC unit to disband. Women were retained by the Army to allow the demobilisation of some men. By the end of the war, an estimated 57, 000 women served in the fifty-four units of Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, providing support for the Army at home and in France.

Visit the AGC Museum to see items related to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.