First World War – And Wars Before: Tracing Your Service Women Ancestors

This week I’m busy packing up books and ephemera to take on Friday to the Women’s History Network Conference – held this year at the University of Worcester. In this First World War centennial year Home Fronts: Gender, War and Conflict  is the Conference theme – see here for details.

I usually have a small  selection of ‘Women and the First World War’ material in my catalogues  (latest is  Number 185 – see here)  – and often when cataloguing spend time poring over photographs trying to identify the uniforms worn by young women of that period as they pose in studios or are photographed in camps or hospital wards – checking them against a variety of ad hoc sources.



This rather pleasurable occupation will now become much easier – by consulting a fascinating book that comprehensively covers all the branches of the Services open to women.

In Tracing Your Service Women Ancestors Mary Ingham takes as her starting point the early 19th century – for it was then that the Army began to employ schoolmistresses to educate the children of the soldiers stationed in garrisons across the Empire . For this one service she cites holdings at The National Archives, National Army Museum, Adjutant General’s Corps Museum, British Library, Westminster College Archives and gives details of several printed sources.


She then covers in considerable detail all the nursing and medical services attached to the various branches of the armed services – from the Crimean War onwards. I must say I’m rather taken with the work in the First World War of the Almeric Paget Massage Corps, the honorary secretary of which was a niece of Charlotte Despard. And I know that I if I’d been a VAD I’d have been completely stymied by the instructions on how to pin on my nursing cap. However I’m sure many a period drama wardrobe mistress has welcomed such a diagram as is reproduced in the book. Flowing – and so fetching – that cap must have enticed many a young woman to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment. If we are looking now for details of the service of any one such woman Mary Ingham directs us to  a variety of archival sources.

Members of the WRNS and WRAF at Warsash Air Station 1918 (courtesy of RAF Museum website)

Members of the WRNS and WRAF at Warsash Air Station 1918 (courtesy of RAF Museum website)

The book then details the work of the Women’s Auxiliary services – and the WRNS, the WRAF, the Women’s Forage Corps and the Women’s Land Army.

Mary Ingham gives full and most helpful information on how to access the relevant records for all the services and, most usefully, lets us know when records are not available – or do not include as much information as we might expect. This kind of knowledge – doubtless accrued painfully  – is so useful in managing expectations. We don’t waste our time on wild goose chases – Mary has done the chasing for us.

I am sure that academic researchers and family historians alike will find Tracing Your Service Women Ancestors  both interesting and useful. And it’s packed with illustrations. More information may be found at Mary Ingham’s website.


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.


  1. #1 by artandarchitecturemainly on September 6, 2014 - 2:09 am

    The work of women in war has tended to be overlooked, but not because the images and records are not available. After all, Mary Ingham has shown there is a ton of material available (bless her heart). It seems there has long been an a political, religious or perhaps nationalist view that women had no role to play and that if they played a role anyhow, it was probably minor.

    ANZAC Girls, a fine tv programme based on true stories of nurses in 1915 war zones, didn’t come out until this year!!!! What a long time to wait.

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