Worcestershire VTC The WW1 Home Guard
© Copyright Malcolm Atkin 2015. Contents not to be copied or otherwise reproduced without permission.
The First World War saw the creation of a range of new women's organisations, often influenced by the earlier suffragette movement and initially under the umbrella of the Women's Emergency Corps, founded by the Hon. Evelina Haverfield.
In September 1914 Haverfield began to plan the Women's Volunteer Reserve (formally launched in London in December 1914). This was intended to break away from the traditional areas of domestic suppport and was a uniformed, militaristic, body trained in weapons handling. By January 1916 it claimed 6,000 members in 40 branches, with a stong base in the Midlands.
Members wore khaki uniforms (at a time when khaki was banned in use by the VTC) and branches were organised as battalions with military ranks. Somewhat ironically, given the contemporary debate over the need for uniforms in the VTC, the Worcestershire Recruiting Officer, Captain L.H. Green commented at one WVR recruitment meeting: ‘The uniform was like a ceremonial. It was the outward and visible sign of a frame of mind. The uniform of the WVR was the sign of an attitude of mind that meant to be efficient, fit to do everything for the cause of the heart.' (Worcester Daily Times, 29 April 1915)
The avowed aim was to train a body of fit and disciplined women, aged 18 - 50, who would not panic during air raids or invasion, but were trained in first aid, signalling, driving and crowd control. They were also taught to shoot rifles. Although theoretically open to all, the high subscription and cost of uniform meant that, in practice, this became a middle and upper class organisation.
Worcestershire had one of the strongest bases of the WVR in the country, with the November founding meeting in Worcester pre-dating the national launch. Branches included those at Worcester, Pershore, Malvern, Bromsgrove and Stourbridge. Influential initial support came from the Countess of Coventry and Lady Hindlip. By April 1915 the Countess was the President of the county association.
In practice the WVR performed similar functions to the other women's organisations such as the Women's Land Army or Forage Corps - fruit picking, hay making, collecting salvage, fund-raising, etc, but they maintained their distinct military discipline. This 'un-ladylike' behaviour caused disquiet both within the government and with other women's organisations. One early leader, the Marchioness of Londonderry, left to create the Women's Legion, describing her former comrades as 'she-men who wished to be armed to the teeth'.
There were strong ties to the VTC. In Worcestershire, recruiting meetings for the WVR were hosted by VTC luminaries and the WVR tended to be led by wives or daughters of VTC officers. VTC instructors also trained the WVR in drill and marksmanship. The fact that the first CO of Pershore WVR (Gweneth Hudson) was the daughter of the CO of the Pershore VTC and the Worcestershire Volunteer Regiment must have helped! In London, members of the WVR served alongside men as drivers in the National Motor Volunteers.
The WVR presented to many contemporaries (both men and women) an uncomfortable vision of women's role in war. As such, they have been almost completely written out of histories of the war, today overshadowed by histories of the more genteel Women's Land Army and Women's Institute. Nonetheless they had an importance in their own right and were also a key inspiration both for the creation of the official Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1917 and also for Dame Edith Summerskill's Womens Home Defence Corps of the Second World War.