Women and War: The Women's Royal Naval Service during the First World War

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Archive Learning Officer Tracey Weller shines a light on the Women's Royal Naval Service Collection in the Caird Library.

When I first joined the National Maritime Museum I was instantly drawn to the Women’s Royal Naval Service Collection.

Although the collection is particularly rich in material dating from the Second World War onwards, I have focused my attention on the papers relating to the short 19-month life of the WRNS during the First World War, including a modest and well-thumbed pamphlet titled ‘The Wrens: Being the Story of their Beginnings & Doings in Various Parts’.

It was published on ‘Peace Day’, 19 July 1919, and was designed to celebrate the vital contribution of the WRNS to the War effort. Only 47 pages in length, the pamphlet manages to include contributions from Wrens stationed at bases throughout the British Isles in the form of articles, poetry, photographs and comic illustrations.

The pamphlet opens with an article by Dame Katherine Furse, the first Director of the WRNS, on ‘War Work & Its Lessons’ in which she writes of her earlier work in the Red Cross with the Voluntary Aid Detachments. Furse takes the reader on a quick march through a list of the VAD’s work at home and in hospitals on the western front where they supported the professional nursing staff.

She states with confidence, “The VADs never failed”, though her later statement that the ‘responsibility became more than we could face conscientiously’ hints at the problematic relationship with the nursing authorities which led Furse and many of her VAD colleagues to leave and become the driving force of the WRNS administration in 1917.

With Furse providing a few column inches on the WRNS and their work, it is left to her officers to champion the services achievements in stations from Plymouth to Inverness, Dublin to Hull. The WRNS diverse roles included coding and decoding work, secretaries, wireless telegraphists, drivers, cooks, cleaners, maids, mechanics and porters - to name just a few of the jobs which helped ‘free a man for the fleet’. 

Each writer documents their war-time work with alacrity. If there is any discontent hinted at in the articles, the perspective of the publication is to reflect the service’s tenets, and problems are swiftly resolved with the winsome attitude of the Wrens and their dedication to duty shining through. Edith A. May who served with the WRNS in Scotland describes how senior naval officers were resistant to the service, with one stating:

“Well, I am going to fight against you; but if I lose, the Women’s Royal Naval Service will be treated right royally at this station."

only to recount later that eventually the Wrens were “taken to the navy’s heart."

Despite best efforts to include Wrens from around the British Isles, the voice of the publication is unmistakeably that of the officers rather than the ratings. Few officers were drawn from the ranks of the working classes, and the article provided by Mildred Isemonger, who served in the Humber Division, describes how the mine-net workers were of the ‘rougher type’ and despite their valuable work were unsuitable to be incorporated into the WRNS as

“they hailed for the most part, from the fish docks of Grimsby, and their customs and mode of life – those of the quay-side – unfitted them for the terms of enrolment.”

The pamphlet’s editor, Vera Laughton (later Laughton-Matthews) was a junior officer in the WRNS during the First World War. Laughton went on to lead the service as its Director throughout the course of the Second World War. Prior to joining the WRNS, Laughton had been an editor and journalist on the newspaper The Suffragette and had been an active proponent of the votes for women campaign.

In her editorial, Laughton breaks from the efficient documentary style of her colleagues and passionately encapsulates why the Wrens needed to celebrate their wartime service in this publication,

“to give a souvenir to women of those happy days when they served the Navy so proudly; ...to leave a record for the men and women of to-morrow to show that the women of to-day did not fail them."

‘The Wrens: Being the Story of their Beginnings & Doings in Various Parts’ is available to view in the Caird Library and can be located on the library catalogue. The extensive manuscript collection can be accessed via the archive catalogue and under the collection reference DAU. There are also WRNS artefacts on display in our ‘Voyagers’ gallery in the Sammy Ofer Wing of the museum.

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