On 7 July 1917 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the first all-women unit in the British Army, was officially instituted. Between 1917 and 1921 over forty thousand women served, of whom around seventeen thousand served overseas (although not all at the same time).
The WAAC owes its creation to two Scottish women who were both scientists and suffragists: Alexandra “Mona” Chalmers Watson and Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. Mona became the WAACs first Chief Controller and senior officer (in February 1917) and she chose Helen to be her deputy and Overseas Controller. Mona and Helen had met in February 1917, through the suffragette movement, and became fast friends despite their different personalities and upbringing, Helen describing their meeting as “the realisation of a dream”.
On its establishment Mona said of the WAAC “It is an advance of the women’s movement and a national advance. Women have a direct share in the task of our armies.”
The WAACs (who were renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1918) served in a variety of positions including drivers, clerks, signallers, cooks, bakers, orderlies, waitresses, codebreakers, printers, gardeners, domestics, typists and phone operators.
Although they were disbanded in 1921 the existence of the Corps paved the way for the for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in which one hundred and ninety thousand women served during the Second World War.
Dr Alexandra “Mona” Mary Chalmers Watson CBE, MD (nee Geddes):
Born in India on 31 May 1872, her father a civil engineer and her mother a leading supporter of women’s education (particularly medical education), Mona became the first woman at Edinburgh University to qualify as a doctor. She delayed her wedding to Dr Douglas Chalmers Watson until the afternoon she was awarded her MD to ensure she would be able to use the letters on her marriage certificate. Together with her husband she set up a private practice in Edinburgh at 11 Walker St, which they shared until 1914. She and Douglas also edited the Encyclopaedia Medica, a fifteen volume work, the first edition of which appeared in 1900, and Mona worked as a staff physician and later senior physician at the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children at the same time as she ran their private practice.
In 1916 Mona began advocating for the creation of a corps of women to undertake additional ancillary non-combatant duties. Her brother, Brigadier-General Sir Auckland Geddes (who happened to be the director of recruiting at the War Office) arrange for her to meet with Sir Neil Macready the adjutant-general, to pitch the idea. A year later the WAAC was a reality.
In the recruiting pamphlet Mona wrote: “this is the great opportunity for every strong, healthy and active woman not already employed on work of national importance to offer her sevices to her country”.
After stepping down from the WAAC at the start of 1918 (her son fell ill after an appendectomy) she went on to help found the Elsie Inglis Hospital for Women and, amongst many other noted works (including pioneering TB-free diary herds using methods which were then adopted across Europe), she became the first president of the Edinburgh Women’s Citizen Association. She was awarded her CBE in 1917 in recognition of her word organising the WAAC. When she died, on 7 August 1936, she was president of the Medical Women’s Foundation, having been elected in May 1935.
Dame Helen Charlotte Isabella Gwynne-Vaughn GBE (nee Fraser):
Born in London 21 January 1879, her father a Scots Guards captain, she was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and King’s College London and became a prominent botanist and mycologist.
In 1909 she was named head of the botany department at Birkbeck College in London and then in 1911 she married David Thomas Gwynne-Vaughan (who had been head of Birkbeck’s botany department from 1907 to 1909) but sadly he died in 1915, making her a widow at the age of thirty six.
She served as Overseas Controller of the WAAC until September 1918 and then, reluctantly she took up the role of Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) until December 1919. Her role in the WAAC lead to her becoming the first woman to receive a military DBE, which she received just before her resignation in 1919.
In 1921, she became a professor at Birkbeck College and continued her studies on fungi genetics as well as becoming involved in politics (standing as the Conservative candidate for Camberwell North in 1923). In 1929 she was appointed GBE for public and scientific services.
She was also active in Girl Guides and was honoured with the Silver Fish (the highest adult award in Girl Guiding, for outstanding service to British and World Girl Guiding). In 1930 she chaired the Guides’ Sixth World Conference, when the constitution of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts was agreed and Olave Baden-Powell was unanimously voted World Chief Guide.
Stepping back into military life at the outbreak of WWII, she became the first Chief Controller of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1939. After her resignation in 1941 (having been accused of being out of touch) she returned to Birkbeck college and remained there as Professor Emeritus until her retirement in 1944.
Once retired Dame Helen remained active, working full time as honorary secretary of the London branch of the Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Air Force Association until 1962, as well as serving on committees of the old comrades associations of the army and air force.
She spent her last three years at an RAF Convalescent Home in Sussex, where she died on 26 August 1967 aged 88. Following cremation her ashes were sent to Scotland for deposit in the Fraser family vault