Though women’s branches of the army and navy were not formed in Britain until the Great War was in its third year, throughout the conflict, women and girls made a significant contribution both on the home front and abroad.
Many took on vital war work in munitions factories or trained as nurses to care for the sick and injured. Large numbers were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight whilst others left their hometowns, journeying to the frontline to entertain servicemen with music and song. And, from 1917, some tens of thousands joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
The role played by some of Wakefield’s women has been the focus for a project group in the West Yorkshire city. Here, it was their efforts that helped to raise funds for bereaved families, find homes for child refugees, and treat soldiers, wounded and sick.
“When we started researching our women we had no idea of the impact their actions had on the home front,” says Sarah Cobham. “We have realised however just how hard they fought.”
She, and her social enterprise company Dream Time Creative, is behind the Forgotten Women of Wakefield project, which has been shedding light on the lives on influential females from the city’s past by sharing their stories. Through their research, group members have uncovered the First World War contributions of several remarkable women.
Among them is Gertrude McCroben, the then headteacher at Wakefield Girls High School (WGHS). “WGHS families were encouraged and enabled by Miss McCroben to take in child war refugees from Belgium and fundraising also took place for Wakefield families left bereaved by the war,” the Forgotten Women research says.
“The school acted as a war hospital for war casualties and Miss McCroben helped to supervise and train the girls in the basics of nursing. Under her care Belgian refugee children joined the Foundation’s schools and relief programmes for refugees were supported.” Money was also raised by to pay for an ambulance for the Belgian Army.
The school’s fundraising was not the only drive to take place in the city. Florence Beaumont, an influential suffrage leader, spent the war years campaigning relentlessly to raise funds and goods for families left bereft, as well as supporting Wakefield sons held as prisoners of war. And contralto musician Phyllis Lett performed extensively to raise money for various war funds, before visiting France to sing and play to servicemen.
Pianist and violinist Isobel Purdon, appointed to teach music at WGHS in 1914, also performed in wartime concerts on the Western Front; entertainment like this is said to have helped to boost morale and provide a welcome relief from the tensions of military life.
Meanwhile, back at home, Wakefield philanthropist Edith Mackie played a vital role in tending to sick and injured soldiers. Having set up a training school for nurses based at the city’s Clayton Hospital in the late 1890s, she continued her legacy of care, visiting and looking after the wounded.
“Whilst [these women] were not faced with bullets and guns they did fight, in as noble a way as any man at the front,” Sarah says. “They fought poverty, loss, despair, they fought against the fear of not knowing if they would see their men folk, and in some cases, women folk again, and they fought against prejudice and fear when their loved ones came back, often unrecognisable both physically and mentally. By honouring our women, we are honouring our men and recognising that each played their part in a terrible time.”