The Women Gardeners of the First World War

Ahead of International Women's Day 2021 we came across an interesting image of women tending graves of First World War soldiers out in France. So former CWGF Intern and current Public Historian, Olivia Smith, wondered if they had a link with the Commission. Spoiler alert, they did!

John Lavery, 1919 © IWM ART 2884

This story begins with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), set up in 1917 and becoming Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) in April 1918.  The corps was formed following a War Office recommendation that women take up non-combatant roles in the British Army in France to allow men to be moved into jobs nearer the front or in combat. The first 14 WAACs arrived on the Western Front on 31 March 1917. Overall, more than 57,000 women served in QMAAC.

Here is where women army auxiliaries and the beginnings of the CWGC start to intertwine. Before the War Graves Commission was created by royal charter in May 1917, its future chief, Fabian Ware – then in command of the army’s Directorate of Grave Registration and Enquiries -- was already thinking about horticulture. Fabian met with Arthur Hill, assistant director of Kew Gardens, to discuss asking women to work on military cemeteries in France. Arthur was concerned the work would be too lonely for women but agreed he would discuss the matter further with Helen Gwynne-Vaughan in France the following week. Helen, a leading botanist herself, was in charge of the WAAC in France.

It was agreed that women with some horticultural experience could be used in British military cemeteries in France and, following meetings in July 1917, the War Office sent a request to the Department of National Service for 20 women gardeners. These women would enlist in the WAAC and be posted to France to maintain the graves of the fallen. They sowed grass, planted trees and roses, and laid wreaths sent by families. They were even tasked with digging graves.

Members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps tending the graves of fallen British soldiers in a cemetery at Abbeville, © IWM Q 8467

One of the women interviewed by Arthur Hill and the selection board was Nora Barker. Nora’s application was successful, and she worked at Abbeville and Wimereux Cemeteries. We are fortunate to have an account from Nora about her work:

At the Abbeville cemetery, we had runners come up every afternoon from the various hospitals in the area, with notes to say how many burials there would need to be the next morning... It was hard work - you have no idea. The soil there was only about 2 feet deep, but the rest was pure chalk. When it was frosty it was like walking on porridge...The graves that were already finished had to be two thirds grassed over, then the other part where the cross was we had to plant trees and shrubs.’

It’s important to note it wasn’t just soldier’s graves that needed tending. On 30 May 1918 nine QMAAC died following German bombing - the first QMAAC deaths on active service. The women were given full military funerals, with troops lining the road up to Abbeville Communal Cemetery. Marjory Peacock wrote of the event: ‘Graves in France were just long trenches so before Trixie was buried some of us went out into the woods and gathered daffodils, brought packets of hair pins from the canteen and went down into the grave and lined her part of it by pinning daffodils to the sides before she was buried.’

I think the role was very much perceived by contemporaries as a feminine one, and this can be seen in advertisements for it. The Fraserburgh Herald and Northern Counties’ Advertiser reported on a meeting to encourage women to join QMAAC, where Rev. Galbraith Taylor spoke, recalling his encounters with women army auxiliaries when in France. He enticed women who were interested in gardening, recalling how at one large cemetery there were six ‘lady gardeners’ keeping the place in order and suggesting it brought comfort to know that ‘the graves of their friends out there were being tended so well.’

Overall, there appeared to be public interest in the women gardeners. The Illustrated War News ran two photos, both captioned ‘Women’s Work For Our Dead: W.A.A.C’s Tending The Graves of Our Soldiers.’ I think the language used here is really interesting, suggesting readers be consoled and reassured by the idea that women were still being caregivers of men, dead or alive. The piece went on to say, ‘the sympathetic and womanly work of caring for the resting-place of our men’ and ‘one photograph shows something of the care taken.’

Similar rhetoric featured in The Illustrated London News, implying the nature of women’s wartime contribution was merely a different version of women’s traditional role as the caregiver of the family. Alas, with war being so harsh, and death inevitable, the antidote to those at home was comfort in knowing ‘our soldiers’ were being cared for by QMAAC.

The women gardeners remained a point of interest for the press after the Armistice. In March 1919 Olive Edis was sent by the Imperial War Museum to photograph British, French and American women attached to armed forces in post-war France. Olive captured women still tending the graves after the war. I think her work shows women in a position of responsibility and skill, unlike the images drawn for newspapers - we see the women in actual working conditions, rather than as idealised carers.

Members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps tending to graves in France, 1918, London Illustrated News

One of Olive Edis's photos of WAAC gardeners tending to the graves of the war dead at Etaples, © IWM Q 8027

As many of us know when the war stopped, the work of the War Graves Commission began in earnest. Women of QMAAC were as vital after the war as during. Women still tending the cemeteries after the war was a topic discussed in Commission meetings through 1920 and 1921. Around 30 QMAAC stayed on active service until September 1921 to aid with the clean-up operations of the battlefields until the Army was reduced to peacetime levels and handed over cemeteries to the War Graves Commission.

Women tending the graves in Wimereux Communal Cemetery, © CWGC

From Nora Barker’s account alone, I can’t imagine this job was as simple as ‘just’ gardening. I can only imagine the emotional and physical demands the work made, but these women got up every day, in any weather, and tended to the graves of the fallen, just as CWGC gardeners do today. Over a century later.

Tags IWD France First World War