Never much one for writing, his last letter just a postcard, ‘Right is Might’ embroidered on the front
Creating the Centena
I remember the stories my grandmother Laura told me about her time in France. My grandfathers had served in the First World War too. The one grandfather I knew never wanted to talk about it. My grandmother was the one with the stories.
What I had to go on was this: Laura’s older brother Arthur was killed in 1916, and in 1917 Laura joined the newly-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She went to France, became a cook, was made a ‘sergeant’, befriended a local French girl who worked in the kitchens, visited the girl’s family on days off, learnt some French, worked hard and had the time of her life.
My grandmother was a great story-teller so I couldn’t be sure how much was true. There were a couple of photos of Laura in uniform, one appearing to show some sort of insignia on her sleeve, but very faded. There were sepia postcards from Rouen and Amiens and elaborately lacy cartes postales with ‘From your brother Arthur’ written on the back. The beauty of the handwriting was striking. These were kids who had left school at 12.
The IWM Women at Work collection was a good starting point for further research and pointed me to a history of the WAAC written by Samantha Philo-Gill. The Corps was established to release men from non-fighting duties, but nonetheless it initially battled for acceptance, with some hostility from the military hierarchy. The women were enrolled, not enlisted, and they were given grades not ranks (so Laura certainly wasn’t a sergeant – the WAAC equivalent was forewoman). The WAAC was embroiled in rumours (officially refuted) about both the morality and the femininity of its recruits. Blatant – and to 21st century minds, shocking – snobbery arose through young women from very different backgrounds being thrown together. In many ways it was ahead of its time. But it was also of its time.
Getting personal information about Laura was less easy. I found her medals record in the National Archives at Kew. But she was listed as ‘worker’ (equivalent to private). So much for the forewoman/sergeant, although the faded insignia still puzzled me. Could they have made a mistake? I will never know. There was nothing else. Many records were lost during Second World War bombing.
I contacted the Leicestershire County Council Archive and the Leicestershire Century of Stories project commemorating the Armistice and found a record of Arthur’s service in the Loughborough Carillon Record of Honour. He had volunteered at the outbreak of war, had been injured on the Somme in July 1916, patched up and sent back, but then injured again. He died in hospital on September 29th. In memoriam notices in the Loughborough Echo in 1918 referred to two other brothers serving – and to his sister in France.
A post-script. For all my grandparents and great-uncles, 1914-18 was the only time in their lives they went abroad, even for those who lived to old age. I suspect that was true for many of that generation.
Lives of the First World War
You can find out more about Laura Leavesley here at Lives of the First World War