As the First World War dragged on and casualty figures steadily rose, more and more opportunities arose for women to enter the workplace. The Munitions factories paved the way but soon, women were working on the railways, public transport and even doing men's work on the land. A contemporary North Devon newspaper published an avalanche of complaining letters from male readers who had glimpsed, from a railway carriage, a woman ploughing fields, showing that not everyone was happy with this development, even in war time.
In 1916, losses at the front climbed even higher and military authorities began to look for ways to release men from certain duties here in England so they could be sent for service at the front. Rather grudgingly, it was agreed that women would be able to perform many backroom tasks; it was further agreed that these women should not have military status even if they were to be sent across to France.
And so the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps came into being*. Every woman who joined had to be a volunteer, enrolling for one of four categories of work - Cookery, Mechanical, Clerical or Miscellaneous. There were Controllers and Administrators ( = officers), Forewomen (= Sergeants), Assistant Forewomen (Corporals) and Workers (= Privates).
At least 57,000 women served in the WAAC from January 1917 to the end of the war in 1918. The majority of their records were lost in an air raid on London in 1940. The 9000 or so which survived, and which contain a surprising amount of detail including employer's references, are now available for purchase on-line at this web address:
Records are available for those who enrolled in the (fairly urban) Devon places listed below. Women played a vital role in the economy of Devon's rural areas during the First World War and very few of them could be spared for the WAAC - their task was to work on the farms to keep the nation's food supplies coming.
Although many served on the Home Front, others who enrolled were called upon to show great bravery when they came under fire on the battlefields and in April 1918, nine were killed at Etaples. After this event, their Chief Controller said that as they had been sent to France as replacements for soldiers, the enemy was quite entitled to try to kill them. Out of all the women who served, only two were to receive war medals - a corporal and a Deputy Administrator.