The First WACS

December 4, 2014 by Legion Magazine

WWI-The-First-WACS

The First WACS

By Ernest Rivers-Macpherson

June, 1953

How well I remember the excitement that spread over the old British Expeditionary Force in France in 1917 when it was known that ladies, duly enlisted in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, would be shortly arriving to take over certain duties at the bases and so release men for front line service.

In due course the Amazon Army landed at Boulogne and I joined a large band of sightseers (mostly men) to view this unique event. The gallant ladies, clad in their coats-frock, wearing a sort of modified RCMP hat, marched up the road from the Gare Maritime with a swagger and élan that astonished us.

Soon all formations at the bases received their quota of “Wacs,” and they were functioning in no time at their widely divergent tasks. Their aptitude for quickly assimilating technical work quite alien to their civilian occupations was most impressive. For example, a certain “Worker” (as they were officially termed) was put in charge of a gun section in a base depot and, in less than two months, she had mastered all the intricacies of medium and heavy gun spares. In civil life she had been employed by a dry-cleaning firm! It was the same wherever they were placed: they got on with their job.

At first their officers were only given limited authority to administer their respective hostels. All misdemeanours had to be dealt with by the Officer Commanding the formation to which they were attached. This led to a great deal of embarrassment on the part of the unfortunate Commanding Officers, and Orderly Room became a nightmare. The wording on the charge sheets was decidedly quaint, as “having a glad neck” (turning down the collar of the coats-frock instead of buttoning it up as per orders). The most frequent delinquency was “Wearing silk stockings contrary to Standing Orders”. Here I did sympathise with them, as the ration stockings (wool) were reminiscent of the alms houses and vastly different from the regulation issues today.

Our powers of punishment were limited to fines and to depriving them of so many days privileges, but up to this day I never discovered what these privileges were! One had to be most careful, too, in phrasing one’s admonitions, as I discovered one day. A certain Worker had repeatedly appeared in front of me for the same offence. I concluded my remarks, somewhat heatedly, using a hackneyed military phrase. “Worker Smith”, I said, “if this sort of behaviour goes on, I will certainly take steps to have you confined”. The wretched girl, throwing discipline to the winds, gave me one look and fled the room!

On another occasion my sergeant-major, a great stickler for correctness, shook me to the core when he produced a charge sheet worded as follows: “Worker Brown, flirting without permission in the Ledger Office.” I never discovered what could be done with permission, and the S.M. never enlightened me.

That was the lighter side, but I would be lacking in chivalry if I did not place on record not only the Wacs’ devotion to duty, but their bravery as well. How proud we all were when one of our Workers was awarded the Military Medal for bravery during a rather severe air raid in which several of the girls were killed. By her example, she guided her frightened charges to their dugouts, with bombs falling all around, and thus saved many lives. Yes, Gallant Ladies of the Commonwealth, Pioneer Amazons of the First Great War, I salute your cherished memories!

 

 

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