Women and the First World War
The First World War saw huge changes across society, including in women’s lives. Increasingly women played a key role on the Home Front, doing physically demanding labour from engineering to working the land. Our records demonstrate this cultural shift through personnel records and more.
Young girl working on an aircraft engine
Catalogue reference: View the record MUN 5/75 in the catalogue
In the First World War, women in both factories and various military services engaged in engineering work. Engineering cut across many of the fields of women’s work as it was so essential to delivering the many technological elements of war.
In the early years of the war government contracts increasingly gave employment to women, but most often in industries in which they had already traditionally been employed. As the war continued there was more pressure from the government to free male workers for the front line, and women moved into new professions.
Ultimately, women became involved in many different engineering roles. This image shows a girl, just 15 years old, turning ball ends for an aircraft engine.
Learn to Make Munitions poster
Catalogue reference: View the record EXT 1/315/17 in the catalogue
First founded in May 1915 under the leadership of David Lloyd George, the Ministry of Munitions issued a series of wartime posters urging women to take up various posts in the armaments industry.
This particular example shows a woman getting ready to start work at a munitions factory, accompanied by the caption: ‘These women are doing their bit. Learn to make munitions.’
The poster shows a patriotic looking woman who was eager to get involved in the war effort and embrace the new world of employment the war offered.
Wood cutting at Buxton Lime Firms
Catalogue reference: View the record MUN 4/671 in the catalogue
By 1916, steel companies were beginning to complain about the shortage of supplies of limestone being supplied to them by Buxton Lime Firms. The firm said that this shortage was due to the lack of workmen left at the company – by February 1916, more than 600 of their men had joined the Army.
Accordingly, like many firms in Britain during this period, Buxton Lime Firms employed women. We have a wonderful collection of photographs of women working there. Notes scribbled on the back of these suggest that women worked on tasks ranging from building walls and painting trucks to tending goats and rabbits.
Though most likely staged, the photos offer a real insight into the tasks and working conditions women encountered.
Service record for Josephine Carr
Catalogue reference: View the record ADM 336/27/980 in the catalogue
The Women’s Royal Naval Service, more commonly known as the Wrens, was formed to carry out shore-based duties and free up men to go to sea.
Initially the Wrens undertook domestic duties like cleaning and cooking. This later expanded to include roles such as wireless telegraphists and electricians. Most Wrens were based in the United Kingdom.
We hold the service records of over 5,000 women who served in the Wrens between 1917 and 1919. This is the record for Josephine Carr, from Cork. On 10 October 1918, 19-year-old Josephine became the first Wren to die on active service, when her ship, the RMS Leinster was torpedoed. On her record is noted DD: this stands for ‘discharged dead’.
Women’s Land Army armlet
Catalogue reference: View the record MAF 42/8 in the catalogue
The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was established to support the war effort from the home front. Although the WLA is often associated with the Second World War, it was first formed in 1917 by the Board of Agriculture.
These ‘Land Girls’, as they became known, were critical to increasing food production. At its peak, the Women’s Land Army had more than 80,000 women working on the land, from poultry farming to rodent catching.
Land Girls wore a uniform including practical breeches, green jumpers and felt hats. This item is a sample armlet issued to Land Girls, from the First World War.