The First World War for most women in South Lakeland meant staying at home waiting for news from the Front, desperately scanning casualty lists and struggling to bring up children and look after families single handed. Food was in short supply, especially in bigger towns like Barrow, where it was common to see children going barefoot to school, even in the snow, while their mothers worked long shifts in the munitions factory.
Few women were free to volunteer, and it was extremely rare for them to be on active service abroad; but two remarkable ladies, both now in their mid-nineties left this area to serve as untrained volunteers in France, to help wherever they were most needed, often in camp hospitals, the cookhouse or the office:
"After the beginning of the War, for a year or two I knitted socks, and then I decided, surely, there's something more than that I can do, and the boy that I was knitting the socks for was killed, and I decided that I would like to join the Army. I didn't ask anybody, I was in France before my mother even knew.
"I felt that as I was single and hadn't any ties I might as well do something. I knew what the War was like; I went out as a clerk and storekeeper but I ended up as a cook and storekeeper. You never knew what you were going to do once they got you in the Army. And this was why perhaps we were WACs in those days, then Queen Mary decided to have us as Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps so we got a bit of respectability after that! But I think perhaps we didn't have a good name at first because we tipped out men who had cushy jobs at the base, and they had to go up the line, and the girls did the work down below in the offices and cookhouses. This is why the men didn't like us, a lot of them."
Bad news from the Front not only inspired that Ambleside lady to leave home for France; a young 23-year-old girl from Hawkshead also packed her bags, bought her own khaki uniform and sailed for France where she was moved continually from place to place until Whit Sunday 1917, when three nights of bombing at Etaples left 1,000 casualties:
"We had 1,000 casualties in that camp and next day I was told 500 were to be buried and the other 500 were hospital cases."
Relatives from England often asked her to look up casualties:
"I found the Matron and I said, 'Ward so-and-so, I'm looking for somebody called ...', whatever his name was. and she said, 'Oh, we've got them all outside, isn't it lovely?'For the first time it was very warm, it was May, and she said, 'You'll find a row of beds, we've moved the whole lot out of the Ward.' And of course they were loving it, first time they'd been outside, and I talked to this man, one of I suppose eight or ten beds, and the next day I thought I ought to go up to that hospital, but you couldn't find a spare minute: you see our orderlies had to go - 500 to be buried, they wanted every able bodied man for the cemetery. But somehow late in the afternoon I slipped up to the hospital and I found the Sister and she said, 'Oh, I know which man you mean - the whole lot, all that row of beds that you saw went in one swoop - killed outright with the blast.'"
Women volunteers who were not trained nurses did much to help in convalescent camps, where it was important to keep morale high so that soldiers could be sent as soon as possible back to the Front. The decision as to whether a wounded man should be sent back home or kept in France to convalesce was made at the dressing station:
"That's where the trouble began, because the moment they were hit, even in one finger, Blighty came into their minds, you see, and you were up against the disappointment, and I thought that was what we were meant to cover... I felt we could do so much to help those men, and the more we put into it the happier they were."
There were concert parties and whist drives to help pass the long evenings, and when the sound of the shelling got too close, there were always the shell-shocked to comfort. Women who would never have gone anywhere unaccompanied at home went about their lives unescorted because they had a job to do, and got on with it. They were loyally protected by the British soldiers especially in the face of any male impudence from the French.
Conditions in the cookhouse were basic and one local woman working there caught typhoid and was sent home, the only female on a troop ship, huddled up in a blanket with her particulars in an envelope safety-pinned to her coat:
"We came from Le Havre to Southampton and nobody knew that I was a girl, everybody thought I was a man until unfortunately I put my hand out of the blanket and then Sister took hold of my hand, looked at me and said, 'What the hell are you doing there?' I said, Shh! She said, 'You shush! Don't let anybody know!' I said, 'He knows', pointing at the boy opposite. It was very embarrassing for him, poor lad."