The courage and selfless contribution made by one and three quarter million women during WW1 needs to be recognized. Whilst there may not be records of Modbury women within that number, they undoubtedly ‘pulled their weight’. Much is often written about ‘the plight of the war widows’ or ‘ the women who waited at home’ , and whilst these stories are tragic, there is another side to the role women played without which the country would have been unlikely to survive.
Most women had, up until that time, lived constrained lives. They were denied the right to vote, often denied higher education, and were raised with an expectation of a domestic rather than a public life. With the onset of war they were expected to take on jobs which had either been traditionally male (farming, engineering, industry) or hitherto not required vast numbers of unqualified and only barely trained nurses)
The role of women in WW1 would not have been as wide reaching and influential as it was without the campaign for women’s suffrage which had been building in momentum in the preceding years. Women were not only campaigning for the vote, but for recognition and an acceptance that they could and should have a greater role to play in public life. The outbreak of war certainly provided women with a chance to show their capabilities right across the board.
Politically minded or otherwise, many women recognised that here was an opportunity to serve their country. Emmeline Pankhurst supported Prime Minister Asquith’s plea that every man and every woman should do his or her share, but pointed out that, although women’s role in the alleviation of suffering had long been acknowledged, ‘what is comparatively new is the general recognition that war makes a call upon women…for service’.
She claimed that by an instinctive good sense, the women of Britain recognised that their first duty was, ‘to strengthen the resources of the country in the gigantic struggle in which she was engaged. It was a time for resolute effort and self-sacrifice’.
So, it came about that women took on roles which, despite the rising support for the suffrage movement, they had never anticipated.
Rurally resident women, familiar with farming or otherwise, were obliged to undertake the agricultural jobs traditionally assigned to the men. Not only did they work on their own farms but also those of neighbouring farmers, which had been left without sufficient manpower. One woman’s diary (completed in 1919) shows the profile of chores undertaken regularly.
It is fair to say that whilst full time members of the Women’s Land Army may only have made a small contribution to the labour force in Devon, all women recruited through the registrar (training) scheme performed a valuable role in replacing the pool of men on whom farmers had in peacetime been able to call from their rural trades at times such as harvest.
The Western Times, reporting on The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in January 1919 noted that in addition to agricultural work, there were 4,300 women employed in part time work in Devon by the end of the war.
Then there were the nursing staff;
Nurses, trained and untrained, were urgently needed and numbers had to be rapidly increased. The majority of increase in numbers came from women joining the V.A.D.s(Voluntary Aid Detachment). The closest V.A.D. hospital to Modbury would appear to be Yealmpton V.A. Hospital, at Puslinch (also sometimes referred to as Newton Ferrers).
There are no records which identify women who were Modbury residents as serving in the area, but it was common for nurses and V.A.D.s to lodge close by, therefore the home addresses can’t be relied upon to show their original place of residence.
Here are the names of some of the most local V.A.D.s:
- Hilda Vaugham Holberton (Newton Ferrers)
- Petromel Jane Bastard (Kitley, Yealmpton)
- Isobel May Bastard (Kitley, Yealmpton)
- Wilfreda Anne Bastard ( Kitley, Yealmpton)
- Rose Brooking (Yealmbury)
Message to V.A.D.s embarking on active service:
This paper is to be considered by each V.A.D. member as confidential and to be kept in her Pocket Book.
You are being sent to work for the Red Cross. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience, your humility, your determination to overcome all difficulties. Remember that the honour of the V.A.D. organisation depends on your individual conduct. It will be your duty not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness of character, but also to maintain the most courteous relations with those whom you are helping in this great struggle.
Be invariable courteous, unselfish and kind. Remember whatever duty you undertake, you must carry it out faithfully, loyally, and to the best of your ability
The V.A.D.s were expected to undertake the entire domestic task required as well as bandaging, washing, dressing and undressing the injured soldiers. Given that married women were not, initially, accepted into the nursing ranks it was probably the first time these women had even been unchaperoned in the presence of men. They may have been rigidly governed at home, but once they embarked on active service the regulations were even more daunting.
And the prayer which left the V.A.D.’s in no doubt as to the expectations laid before them.
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame.
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of working, and each in his separate star,
Shall draw the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are.
Red Cross and military hospitals, caring solely for injured military personnel, were staffed by 15,000 V.A.Ds. In summary, between 70,00 and 100,00 women served as V.A.D.s at some time during the war. There were between 22,000 and 24,000 trained nurses who served in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service, its Reserve and the Territorial Force.
These figures need to be added to the 1,000,000 women who worked in the engineering and munitions industry, bringing the total female serving workforce to around 1.75 million.
It goes without saying that as all the women who stayed behind were without their men, they would have sorely missed the companionship and sense of security upon which their earlier lives would have relied. And overriding all was the ever-present fear for the safety of the men. Meanwhile they were working in a range of environments which were mainly arduous, often without the necessary skills or equipment and still they ‘kept the home fires burning’.
Money, food, skills and healthcare were all in short supply. By the end of the war nearly 13,000Medical Doctors had signed up (50% of the total number in practice), which undoubtedly added to the women’s burden of keeping their community healthy.
Formally, the names of those men who died in active combat are, rightly, remembered, but here we should acknowledge that there were hundreds of thousands of courageous women who also gave their lives and their dedication should also be remembered.
This is not an academic work so references have been removed, but the title of this page ‘ They women have done Well’ is reported to have been said by local farmers of the women at Great Bidlake Farm ( in 1918) and the sentiment feels appropriate.