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Journal of War & Culture Studies

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The girl behind the man behind the gun: women

as carers in recruitment posters of the First World

Angela Smith

To cite this article: Angela Smith (2008) The girl behind the man behind the gun: women as carers
in recruitment posters of the First World War, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 1:3, 223-241, DOI:

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Journal of War and Culture Studies Volume 1 Number 3 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jwcs.1.3.223/1

‘The girl behind the man behind the gun’:

women as carers in recruitment posters
of the First World War
Angela Smith University of Sunderland

Abstract Keywords
The First World War saw a clash between the external, violent world of man- gender
made destruction and the part women would be called upon to play in this. For recruitment posters
the first time in Britain, women would be directly recruited by the state to play First World War
an active role in armed conflict. The dominant image of the female war worker of women carers
this conflict is that of the nurse, yet nursing was a role that was carried out by a social class
very small number of women when compared with those working in munitions
This article explores the thread of ‘care’ that runs through recruitment posters
of the First World War. It looks at the way in which the image of women was used
to recruit male service personnel early in the war, where women were used to rep-
resent the values of home and hearth that needed to be defended, whilst also repre-
senting an underlying heroism in their implied ability to safeguard these values in
the absence of the gallant heroes. Whilst ‘care’ is explicit in the role of the volun-
tary nurse in posters aimed directly at female recruitment, this article will also
look at posters recruiting women to the apparently conflicting role of munitions
manufacture, exploring how this thread of care is woven into images here, too.
Social class will be seen as an important factor in the construction of the
image of woman as carer in these posters, which, I will argue, carries echoes of
late nineteenth-century social reforms that placed increasing emphasis on women
as being responsible for the future well-being of the nation.

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw an increased academic
interest in the first quarter, with many studies looking in particular at the
changing role of women in British society in this period. Sue Bruley
(1999) and Susan Grayzel (2002), for example, have studied women’s
experiences in the context of the First World War, whilst the conflict’s
wider cultural circumstances have been explored by Sandra Gilbert (1983)
and Sharon Ouditt (1994). The more specific experiences of working-class
women, particularly munitions workers, have been explored by Angela
Woollacott (1994) and Deborah Thom (1998).
Despite the fact that the perhaps less glamorous munitions workers
made up the bulk of female input into the First World War, the most com-
monly found image on public memorials to represent women workers of
the First World War is that of the voluntary nurse. The only memorial

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devoted to an individual woman from this conflict is that of the nurse

Edith Cavell, which stands outside the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Other images of women war workers usually appear in the distinctive uni-
form of the nursing assistant, reinforcing the perception that caring was
the prime function of women during this conflict.
The Scottish National War Memorial, designed by Robert Lorimer with
bronze friezes by Morris Williams and Alice Meredith Williams, is unusual
as it offers more than a mere footnote to women’s war service. Devoting
one bay to women’s services, it gives equal prominence to voluntary and
other war workers. However, the crest of the Voluntary Aid Detachment
(VAD) is central to this memorial, with lesser prominence given to the
women’s armed services, whilst the crest of the munitions workers is
found at the bottom left-hand corner. The image of the woman-as-carer is
thus central to our remembrance of this conflict, and neatly conforms
to our long-standing cultural expectation of women as carers. However,
as Woollacott (1994) and others have shown, the number of women
employed in the factories dwarfed those in the voluntary sector (which
included nursing). For the majority of women war workers, good wages
could be earned in highly dangerous factory work, and such employment
was thus more appealing, if not indeed necessary, for working-class
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, women in
Britain were not able to vote in parliamentary elections, ‘respectable’ sin-
gle young women did not venture out of the parental home without a
chaperone and employment opportunities for women were restricted by
law and culture. It is at the juncture between the strict protocols for
female behaviour of the Victorian era, and the growing acceptance of
independence for women (financial and social) afforded by the circum-
stances of war, that this article is positioned. New employment opportuni-
ties also arose in the voluntary sector where middle-class women were
encouraged to ‘do their bit’ towards the war effort by volunteering to be
nurses or ambulance drivers and filling other charitable roles. Despite early
opposition, women were called upon to fill men’s jobs, although on a strictly
temporary basis – ‘for the duration’.
This article will explore how socially acceptable images of women were
created for public consumption through British wartime recruitment
posters. With reference to a selection from Britain and Ireland, it will
analyse the ways in which a thread of ‘care’ is built into these images to
avoid promoting the unpalatable notion that women were being encour-
aged by the state and society to engage in activities that fell outside the
usual frame of socially acceptable female behaviour, such as nursing.
These images reflect the ‘carnivalesque’ atmosphere that, as Gilbert
(1983) has noted, permeated wartime society: women were breaking free
from the patriarchal constraints of the pre-war years, yet the underlying
transience of carnival was never far from the surface as society prepared
itself for the eventual return of the fighting men and the reinstatement of
women to their more traditional roles.
This article analyses wartime propaganda posters aimed both at male
recruitment and at wartime roles for women. It seeks to show how the
state tried to reconcile apparently contradictory images of militarism and

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female nurturing in the First World War, and attempts to understand the
meanings these propaganda images held for their audience in the context
of the viewers’ lived experiences. The article will begin with a brief discus-
sion of the use of posters in military recruitment, it will then review the
ways in which, during the immediate pre-war years, women had come to
be increasingly framed in the public eye as carers and it will conclude with
a more detailed discussion of selected recruitment posters from the period
of the First World War.

Posters as an instrument of persuasion

There have been several studies that focus on military propaganda posters,
such as those by Maurice Rickards (1968) and Toby Clark (1997), and
more recently a major exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London
(see Aulich 2007). Cheap to produce and easily pasted to walls both inside
and outside buildings, by the turn of the twentieth century, posters had
become ubiquitous in the towns and cities of the western world, and, as
David Howarth notes, the state had come to recognize the poster as an
effective means of communication:

The government assembled lithographers and slogan writers, typographers

and printers under the command of the propaganda bureau and a bipartisan
Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Together the two agencies produced
hundreds of different posters, which were plastered by the millions across
(Howarth 1979: 64)

So, by 1914, the poster as a medium of mass persuasion was well estab-
lished in both the public mind and the eyes of the state. In his discussion of
posters from the First World War, Rickards identifies four different ways in
which posters are used and fit into the apparatus of persuasion (Rickards
1968: 10). These four categories were common across all belligerent
nations and, as we will see, can be adapted to carry the image of the
female carer:

• the call for men and money – the basic ingredients of war;
• the call for help for the fighting men – home comforts such as books,
tobacco, chocolate – and for the sacrifice of comfort on the home front;
• the call for help for the wounded, orphans and refugees. This category
was finely judged in its timing; it was withheld for long enough to
avoid premature despondency and yet appeared soon enough to convey
official recognition of sacrifice. It was generally exploited as an incen-
tive to more sacrifice, with wounded soldiers serving to jolt the civilian
• the call for women to be employed in the war effort, for increased
munitions production and for increased austerity all round.

In the detailed discussion of a selection of posters below, we shall see

how female carers were shoehorned into all of these categories. Clark
argues that the ‘official message’ strives to make the war seem familiar
and at the same time glamorous, and that part of the purpose of wartime

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1. Woollacott (1994: propaganda is to make people adjust to abnormal conditions by adapting

18–9) estimates
that there were
their priorities and moral standards to accommodate the needs of war
approximately 40,000 (Clark 1997: 103). However, as we will see, this familiarity with the
women employed as stereotype of female domesticity had to be compromised with images of
VADs by January
1918, 17,596 women
militarism that were undoubtedly glamorized, once women had to be
officially enrolled in recruited to more active war work.
the Women’s Land
Army during its
existence and some
Women as carers
80,000 women in the Beverley Skeggs has observed that ‘the moral condition of the nation was
various war service seen to derive from the moral standards of woman’ (Skeggs 1997: 42).
corps by the Armistice.
She further estimates
One of the cornerstones of classical liberalism was the institution of mar-
that the number of riage: the wife and mother was worshipped and exalted in Victorian liter-
women employed in ature; poets conferred upon her praise of the highest order. Indeed, the
munitions by 1918
was 1,000,000, with
so-called ‘angel in the house’ enjoyed an unrivalled degree of respect and
some contemporary adoration. This ‘angel in the house’ imagery reinforced an ideology in
reports estimating as which the woman was respectably confined indoors, creating a domestic
many as 1,302,000.
Whichever figure is
haven for her husband and a nurturing, Christian atmosphere in which
used, the number to supervise the bringing up of their children. Thus, at the outbreak of
employed in munitions war in August 1914, British women were positioned culturally and
greatly exceeds that
for women engaged
socially as carers with responsibility for the future well-being of the
in other war work. nation. This ideological positioning of women caused problems early in
the First World War when it was realized that women would need to be
drafted into the munitions factories to replace the men who had left to
join up. Although many working-class women were already in paid
employment before the war, these were largely jobs that were not
required for the war effort. Indeed, female unemployment increased in the
first few months of the war as workers in the cotton industry were laid off
and middle-class families elected to ‘do the patriotic thing’ and economize –
by laying off thousands of domestic servants. Although there were many
women who were ready to work for the war effort, the trades in which
they were skilled were not those required. As a result, as Thom points
out, ‘women were to volunteer as women, rather than on the basis of par-
ticular qualifications, whether of labour experience, age, marital status or
education’ (Thom 1998: 32).
After initial resistance, both state and voluntary sector proactively
sought women to take on traditionally male roles in industry. Whilst middle-
and upper-class women were more likely to be found in the voluntary sector
where the absence of wages would not be such a problem (although by
1916 a token payment equivalent to that of an army private was paid to
these war workers), it is estimated that by far the largest proportion of female
working-class war workers were to be found in munitions work.1
The link between munitions workers and the trusted British Tommy was
highlighted by the press at the time who also referred to them as ‘Tommy’s
sisters’. However, Hall Caine’s contemporary ‘tribute’ to Tommy’s sister
starts with an acknowledgement of the contradictory images of the nurtur-
ing female and the woman war worker. He writes: ‘every instinct in our
nature revolts against the thought that woman, with the infinitely delicate
organization which provides for her maternal functions, should under any
circumstances whatever take part’ in the manufacture of munitions
(Caine 1916: 19). Deeply troubled by the incongruity that the mothers and

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nurturers of the nation could also be producers of the armaments that

could destroy lives, he goes on to voice the concern that ‘there is a natural
antagonism between woman and war, and it is difficult to think of her as a
maker of weapons and death’ (Caine 1916: 66). He resolves the ‘natural
antagonism’ that was seen to exist between women and war as follows:

For every war that has yet been waged, women have supplied the first and
the greatest of all munitions – men […] Therefore, consciously or uncon-
sciously, the daughters of Britain may be answering some mysterious call of
their sex in working all day and all night in the munitions factories.
(Caine 1916: 34–5)

Such squeamishness is countered when he goes on to place the emphasis

on her caring, compassionate, emotional femininity:

Tommy’s sister in the munitions factories, like Tommy in the trenches, lives
in the last moment, now joking, teasing, laughing and wriggling, and then
fuming and flaming and weeping over her troubles as if the world were com-
ing to an end.
(Caine 1916: 70)

Recruitment posters
Rickards’s first category mirrors Caine’s declaration that the principal pro-
pagandist role of women is to supply the raw material for war, that is to
say, men. Early recruitment posters for the war effort show women urging
men to join up, implicitly to defend them (and metonymically the nation),
but also showing that they would stay behind to keep the homes fires
burning. Typical of such posters is one from 1915, carrying the text
‘Women of Britain say “Go!”’ (Figure 1).
The text directly attributes the command ‘Go!’ to the female population
of Britain, thus putting women in the active role of ordering (implicitly)
men to volunteer for armed service. In this way, there is a direct gender
division between the unanimous voice of the ‘women of Britain’ and the
unnamed object of the directive: the opposite masculine polarity. Gilbert
also offers a reading of this image to link it to the ‘little mother’ propa-
ganda in which women become ‘frighteningly judgmental about their
male contemporaries’ in urging men to act as ‘human ammunition’
(Gilbert 1983: 433). Interestingly, one of the rare times that a recruitment
poster is commented upon in oral history reveals that this poster also had
the effect of suggesting that women should assume a more physically
active role. In their recent collection of oral histories, Richard van Emden
and Steve Humphries cite one interviewee who reports that she was
inspired by this particular poster to become a VAD nurse (van Emden and
Humphries 2003: 118). She read the poster thus: that by encouraging the
men to go off and fight, women implied that they were willing and able to
look after the country whilst the men were away.
The picture on this poster shows what appear to be three generations,
two women and a young boy who are firmly placed within the domestic
sphere, their intertwined arms and upturned faces indicating a vulnerabil-
ity that emphasizes their need to be protected, implicitly by men. The

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Figure 1: ‘Women of Britain Say “Go!”’. E. V. Kealey (1915), Imperial War

Museum Archives. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

heroism of the women remaining is highlighted by the youngest figure on

the poster, the male child, who is towered over by the two women. In this
discourse of morality based on virtuous females,

It is the men who are seen as giving their lives so that the community is
protected – and women who are seen both as being protected and obliged to
await the return of men, whether as memory or as homecoming hero.

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Needless to say, the waiting women are assumed to be waiting in a state of 2. Interestingly, the
virtue, otherwise the sacrifice will be sullied and de-sacralized. images found in
posters produced by
(Davies 1993: 121). the US military tend
towards a more sexu-
But this is not the only discourse in the poster. There is a very strong sense alized female figure.
of national identity that links the text (it is women of Britain) with the
image of England’s mythical rolling green hills. The text of the patriotic
hymn Jerusalem is much quoted for the phrase ‘England’s green and pleas-
ant land’, and is one of the most commonly evoked images in relation to a
particularly English national identity. Interestingly, the setting to Charles
Parry’s score of William Blake’s exploration of the sublime (see de Luca
1995) in his poem ‘Milton’ was originally prepared for use by the suf-
fragette movement in the early twentieth century, where its aspirational
and uplifting message was read as the female quest to build a ‘New
Jerusalem’ (Hartman 2003). The use of this hymn by the suffragette
movement was quickly extended to encompass the whole nation, both
genders, and the dominant patriotic discourses of the time, where it has
remained ever since. Here, it powerfully evokes an idea of national identity
and adds to the message that women will protect the homeland while men
go away to fight.
Therefore we could say that this recruitment poster is interdiscursive in
that it is drawing on two different discourses – morality and national identity –
as well as intertextually drawing on other texts, such as popular songs, to
support and endorse its message. The representation of the virtuous
female who is indebted to the valorous servicemen in this poster is, as we
have seen, open to different interpretations. The readings of it in different
contexts, such as that of van Emden and Humphries’ interviewee, show
how different social conditions can lead to different processes of interpre-
tation. However, in both readings, the women are represented as being in
need of protection whilst also worthy of trust in caring for the home (and
homeland) in the absence of the fighting men.
Many other early recruitment posters show women in this dual role
within the first category Rickards suggests, whilst beginning to edge them
into the more active role of carers themselves, as in Rickards’ fourth cate-
gory. This is found in posters produced by all the belligerent nations.2 A
similar image to E. V. Kealey’s (above) comes from the anonymous poster
that explicitly recognizes Irish national identity with its headline slogan
‘For the Glory of Ireland’ (Figure 2).
This slogan appears at the top of an image of a young woman shown
to be working class by her checked Ωkerchief, with her sleeves and skirt
tucked up in readiness for physical labour. Unlike the women in
Kealey’s poster, this young woman appears out of doors, her long hair
blowing loose in the wind, as she stands against a backdrop of destruc-
tion that evokes wartime images of smouldering, bomb-damaged build-
ings (helpfully labelled ‘Belgium’ in the poster). A small family group in
the middle distance indicates refugees, drawing on other media images
of the ‘rape of Belgium’ that were part of the shock tactics used to incite
anger at the acts of a barbarous enemy. The tragedy is here emphasized
by the refugee woman’s face buried in a handkerchief to mask (or
enhance?) her grief. Linked to the headline slogan, this also suggests

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3. The highlighting of
Irish identity was an
important aim of
the British state as
internal conflict was
close to the surface in
the early years of the
twentieth century,
culminating in the
Easter Rising of 1916.
Whilst Ireland
remained part of
Britain, it was subject
to the same
expectations as the

Figure 2: ‘For the Glory of Ireland’, Unknown artist, circa 1914. Imperial War
Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

that a similar fate might befall Ireland should no action be taken to pre-
vent it, whilst the ‘glory of Ireland’ is assumed to be an Irish undertak-
ing to avenge such attacks.3 By a miracle of artistic licence, the two
main figures appear to be standing close to the shore of what we
assume to be Ireland, but from where we/they are able to see the
destruction on the shores of Belgium. This serves to reduce the geo-
graphical distance between the two countries, and so heightens the

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sense of danger to which the vulnerable young woman is willing to

expose herself.
The young woman is indicating this scene to a man who stands with
his back to the viewer, his civilian dress, and hands impotently stuffed into
his pockets, indicating his inaction. A gentleman’s walking stick is tucked
idly under his arm, which contrasts with the rifle held by the young
woman. Interestingly, this rifle is held in the same way as a broom would
be, grasped by the barrel rather than the butt, evoking images of domes-
ticity alongside those of militarism. The stance employed by the woman is
often found in images of males, denoting both strength and movement.
Here, coupled with her underlying domesticity, this carries the double
message that she is prepared to fight, but is ill-equipped by her femininity
to do so. The slogan at the foot of the poster (implicitly from the woman)
demands: ‘Will you go or must I?’ The categorical modality of must carries
an obligation of urgency that is emphasized by her figure being drawn
towards the destruction, both in her wind-blown hair and half-turned
stance. The young woman therefore symbolizes the need to be rescued
(from the already-ravished nations), whilst also embodying a heroic Irish
spirit that sees conventional femininity may need to be abandoned for the
sake of defending the homeland (a readiness for physical action that is also
more in keeping with her social class). It is also noticeable that this
woman is smaller than the man, emphasizing her vulnerability whilst also
demonstrating that the more appropriate masculine physique is being
underemployed in its inaction. By shaming the faceless male in this image
into joining up, this poster evokes the judgemental quality mentioned by
Gilbert (1983). Nonetheless, this young woman embodies a need to be
cared for, which creates a tension with her own (unrealistic) stated aim of
wishing to join the armed services, connoting as it does the notion of pro-
tecting and caring for the homeland.
Religious allegories were also commonly employed by several nations,
usually depicting the sacrifice of the nation in the form of a martyred
female figure, along the lines of a series of ‘Remember Belgium’ posters
showing ravaged women and children. One much-critiqued poster from
the US Red Cross (Figure 3) goes so far as to show the female figure of a
giant Pietà, the pose very similar to Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks.
Produced in the immediate aftermath of the end of the war (in
December 1918), the image fits with Rickards’ third category of propa-
ganda in that it is urging support for the care of injured servicemen.
Here, the Virgin Mary/nurse cradles a miniature injured soldier who lies
on a stretcher with a judiciously bound head indicating his wounds,
while his clasped-hand pose recalls a heroic stone carving on the tomb of
some brave warrior. The religious significance of the woman also serves
to highlight the pseudo-religious underpinnings of the VAD nursing ser-
vice, where the uniform was traditionally designed around the carefully
veiled figure of the nun (indeed, the religious origins of the nursing ser-
vice in civil life is closely linked to the religious virtue of the cloisters
through the use of titles such as ‘sister’). Any suggestion of sexual
imagery is contradicted by the caption that names the female as the
‘World’s Greatest Mother’, sexually unavailable and therefore safe. Thus
the poster here is dually reinforcing the caring role of women in wartime,

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Figure 3: ‘The World’s Greatest Mother’, A. Foringer, 1918. Imperial War

Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

as both the mothers of the men fighting to protect them, and also the car-
ing nurses who will tend to the injured heroes.
The potentially conflictual nature of this role has been outlined by
Outditt in relation to images of the British VAD. For many women, there
was a conflict between the feminine and domestic figures for whom the
men were fighting, and the masculinized opportunities the war afforded
them in the expansion of their own horizons. As Gilbert (1983) and Ouditt
(1994) have pointed out, these women were confronted with seemingly

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irreconcilable roles and forms of identification. They could, on the one

hand, experience ‘the profound satisfaction of independence found in paid
employment’, and yet be plagued by stereotypes that led to ‘the guilt of
being required to enact the role of the protected, for whom the protectors
lost their lives’ (Ouditt 1994: 2).
This tallies with Rickards’ first category, where recruitment posters
were aimed at encouraging men to join up but also used women as a sym-
bol of something to fight for and to care for; where women symbolized
both domesticity and nationality. Rickards’ fourth category of propaganda,
which posits a more active involvement on the part of women, manifested
itself initially in calls for women to join in traditionally feminine roles that
were explicitly linked to caring, particularly nursing. At the start of the
war, pioneering (mostly upper-class) women had volunteered their ser-
vices. They had occupations implying care through assistance, such as
ambulance drivers and nurses, often working within just a few hundred
yards of the front line. Some regiments employed women to act as clerks
and administrators, giving them military-style uniforms but keeping them
safely behind the lines and out of direct danger. This is not to say that
women serving in the armed forces did not themselves become casualties.
The rolls of honour in several communities give the names of many
women who died whilst serving in the war. In particular, nurses working
on hospital ships or in transit appear to have been at great risk of death
and injury. The Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh has several
memorial books that detail these women’s names and service. However,
whilst offering women new employment opportunities in the allied armed
services, the British state went to great lengths to protect its female service
personnel from immediate harm. The jobs open to women were largely in
subordinate roles such as drivers, clerks and nurses, jobs that all carried
with them some suggestion of caring, either directly, in the case of nurses,
or indirectly, in the subsidiary ‘support’ roles.
Recruitment posters, such as the one by Joyce Dennys (Figure 4), show
an official and explicit acceptance of a woman’s role as carer. This poster,
recruiting for the members of the VAD, shows how these women were
expected to fulfil roles as carers not just in a nursing capacity but in
domestic service. Aimed at upper middle-class women, the lure of foreign
travel in the upper section of the poster sits rather uncomfortably with the
menial tasks implied by the roles listed below. Initially, most nursing agen-
cies such as the VAD were just that – voluntary, paying only living
expenses – so they recruited mainly middle-class women from more afflu-
ent families who would not need to rely on them as an additional source of
income. Later in the war, wages that were roughly equivalent to those of
an army private were paid to VAD workers, but again this assumed that
there would be additional financial support for these women, not that they
would be acting as main wage earners in a family. As a result, most of
the memoirs written by women war workers come from the more literate,
middle-class women who, as a consequence of their class, were largely
employed in explicitly caring roles such as the ones on this poster. Here,
three young women stand elegantly dressed in their neat, clean uniforms,
staring upwards and outwards, as if dreaming of doing some greater good –
or perhaps dreaming of the global travel such volunteering could offer.

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Figure 4: VAD recruitment poster, Joyce Dennys, circa 1916. Imperial War
Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Another poster by an unnamed artist is aimed at recruiting women

to the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) and shows a
cheerful, ruddy-cheeked young woman beckoning to the reader to join
her in the military-style camp vaguely sketched behind her (Figure 5).
Like the windswept Irish woman in the poster discussed above, this
young woman stands outdoors, but here the background is not one of
destruction and violence. We do not see the work QMAAC recruits

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4. Set up two years

after the Boy Scout
association, the
subsidiary nature of
the movement is
indicated in its title,
where ‘guide’ carries
connotations of
assistance rather
than the more
proactive, adventurous
of ‘scouting’.

Figure 5: ‘Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps’, Unknown artist, circa 1916.
Imperial War Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

would in fact do, but instead gain a sense of a female community that is
not too different from the Girl Guide movement that had been instigated
in Britain in 1909, with its outdoor lifestyle and tented camps.4 The
cheerful young woman here addresses the reader directly, through her
gaze and welcoming stance, encouraging the reader to join the massed
ranks of uniformed young women sketched in the background. That this
should be part of some great adventure is emphasized by the young

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Figure 6: ‘Learn to make munitions’, Septimus Scott, 1916. Imperial War

Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

woman’s casual stance, and is far removed from the serious business of
war, as with the Dennys poster discussed above. The title of the corps
locates it firmly within the female arena, with the monarch’s consort’s
name prominent, whilst the distance from actual fighting is indicated
through the explicit use of ‘auxiliary’. The slogan attached to this image,
‘The GIRL behind the man behind the gun’, has an ordering in which

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the female linguistically and ideologically supports the male combatant,

and is also one step removed from the weapon and the destruction it will
wreak. Thus the female recruit is here placed two steps away from the
act of killing, underlining the ‘auxiliary’ in the corps’ title. In addition,
the diminutive label of ‘girl’ is applied to the female recruit, contrasting
with the ‘man’ whom she is supporting. The immaturity implied by this
label also positions her ideologically as being in need of protection.
As the war went on, however, and casualties increased, conscription
was introduced to boost the supply of men joining up. The initial optimism
of the early years of the war waned, and the military was forced to see the
advantages of allowing women a more active role. Recruiting posters
changed to focus on women. The passive wife of the earlier posters was
replaced by images that encouraged women to take an active role in the
‘war effort’ by working on the land and in the newly converted factories
making munitions.
Posters encouraging women into factory work, particularly making
munitions, may also be read as women being recruited as carers, but here
in a very different capacity. One poster by Septimus Scott (Figure 6)
shows a young woman entering the factory to ‘learn to make munitions’.
She is pulling on her overall, showing that she is getting ready to start
the job. That this is a ‘new’ job is also indicated by the use of ‘learn’,
which presupposes an unknown skill that needs to be taught. Other
posters show women in similar stages of getting dressed that can be read
as women taking over factory roles from men on a temporary basis, will-
ing to pull off their overalls and shake their hair free from protective hats
once the men return from the war. In Figure 6, the woman’s raised arm
also echoes the salute of the departing man, their poses mirrored to
emphasize the link between them. Whilst there is an underlying assump-
tion that these women are there to ‘look after’ men’s jobs whilst they are
away fighting, other attempts are made to counter the troublesome con-
tradiction between ‘women as carers’ and the newer notion of ‘women as
manufacturers of weapons’.
This discomfort is epitomized in another poster whose slogan reads:
‘On her their lives depend’. It shows a female factory worker (tucking her
hair up into her uniform hat) standing in front of a gunner (Figure 7). The
placement of the indirect object before the subject in the prepositional
phrase ‘on her’ serves to foreground the dependence on competent female
munitions workers that ‘they’ have. This is emphasized by the larger type
of this prepositional phrase, placed directly above the smaller type reading
their lives depend. We are meant to read the single gunner as representative
of the massed ranks of the army, his life symbolic of theirs. The female
munitions worker, diminutively and euphemistically called munitionette by
the popular press (and thus implicitly in need of masculine protection), is
placed in the role of carer. The problem posed by a woman making arma-
ments is glossed over by the emphasis on a woman as carer, one who will
provide the munitions to keep the brave Tommy alive – even if these goods
are destructive weaponry. In this poster, the gunner himself is ‘caring’ for
his equipment, the product of a munitions worker’s labours; he is thus pre-
sented as someone who takes pride in his work and therefore as a role
model for the new female recruits to imitate.

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JWCS_1.3_02_art_Smith 12/11/08 2:42 PM Page 238

Figure 7: ‘On her their lives depend’, Unknown artist, circa 1917. Imperial War
Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

As Gilbert has previously noted, and as we can see in the images

reproduced in this article, the clothing of these women signifies feminin-
ity and vulnerability when recruiting men to fight, but becomes more
practical and even liberating when women are being recruited themselves
(Gilbert 1983: 429). The clothing for female workers that was developed
during the war served two purposes: to be practical, in terms of its suit-
ability for the jobs women had to do, and to render the wearer virtually
sexless. Unlike the seductive clothing depicted on the bodies of the women
found in Rickards’ categories 1, 2 and 3 of recruitment posters, the out-
fits worn by women munitions workers, as well as VAD members, were in
reality very un-seductive. Vera Brittain complained in her diaries, and in
Testament of Youth ([1933] 1978), about the constricting seven-piece uni-
form for nursing assistants, designed to cover as much of the wearer as
possible. Dennys’ drawings of such women also show them wearing
impractical, elegant shoes and boots. These serve to preserve the image of
the vulnerable, elegant female in the public imagination. On the other
hand, unstaged photographs and sketches of this period (including those
by Dennys herself) show VADs wearing practical boots that are far from
elegant. Less glamorous munitions workers, and other women who had
taken over men’s civilian jobs such as chimney sweeping and coal delivery,
are shown in public relations photos as being dressed in men’s clothing,
with dirty faces but cheerful grins beneath their tucked-up hair. Thus

238 Angela Smith

JWCS_1.3_02_art_Smith 12/11/08 2:42 PM Page 239

they too are represented as retaining their vulnerable femininity, their 5. IWM.EMP 80,
15 March 1919,
long hair a reminder of the temporary nature of their work, which they p. 24.
were ready to leave in order to return to their usual occupations, ostensibly
better suited to their femininity.

Given the social context of women in British society at the time, it is per-
haps unsurprising that women were represented as carers in propaganda
aimed at male recruitment during the First World War. As we have seen,
they symbolize a duality in embodying a vulnerable femininity and by
extension a vulnerable nation, both of which are in need of protection by
the male populace. They are also, however, shown to preserve this domes-
ticity and homeland whilst the men are away fighting in foreign fields.
This traditional image of femininity recurs in early recruitment posters
aimed at encouraging women to join various auxiliary agencies, particu-
larly those that deal with established female roles such as nursing and
domestic service. However, recruitment posters aimed at attracting
women into jobs that had previously been almost exclusively male, such as
munitions manufacture, also show women being presented as carers. As
we have seen, they carry the dual role of caring for their menfolk by keep-
ing them supplied with quality products (despite the fact that these prod-
ucts are weapons of destruction), whilst also being shown caring for their
jobs on a strictly temporary basis, tending to them until the men can
The ‘carnival’ of female emancipation in the war due to the absence of
males and the liberation of female employment in new areas, was always
going to be temporary. In the final months of the war, thousands of female
munitions workers were laid off when it became clear that an Allied vic-
tory was close at hand. The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act (1918)
ensured that the temporary nature of much women’s war work was
rendered legally so. Thom reports that by June 1919 the Ministry of
Munitions had discharged 90 per cent of its female war workers (Thom
1998: 190). The reconstruction of a (mythical?) domestic idyll was put
forward by campaigners for reform of the urban slums. As Thom points
out, ‘the fit occupation for women, in the context of demobilization, was
being presented as housekeeping both in their own homes and in society
at large’ (Thom 1998: 178). Retraining schemes set up by the Ministry of
Labour sought to place women back in traditional roles. This is clearly
highlighted in one committee report from March 1919:

Industrial training will for the present be confined to normal women’s

trades, for example clothing manufacture, in the processes known as
women’s processes before the war in which recent enquiry has shown there
is a need for skilled workers and a good prospect of employment.5

Thus the ‘restoration of pre-war practices’ not only returned men to their
traditional employment, but also returned women to the pre-war status of
carers and subservient employees. This is implied, in a proleptic fashion,
by the recruitment posters discussed above, for they not only drew upon
the early twentieth-century social and cultural constructions of women as

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carers, but could also be said to anticipate the post-war era, when women
would be expected to return to their former roles.
The newspapers that had previously feted women war workers, rapidly
reversed their editorial policy to fall in line with pre-war ideology, which
placed women firmly back in the domestic sphere. There were frequent
stories of former munitions workers queuing for unemployment benefit
wearing the smart clothes their wartime wages had enabled them to buy.
The Daily Chronicle ran an article under the headline ‘Unemployed in Fur
Coats’ (6th December 1918), contrasting these well-clad ‘girls’ with the
demobilized heroes also queuing for the dole. The government quickly
responded to this negative reporting by matching the middle-class ‘problem’
of servant shortages with female unemployment. Any woman who refused
work would have her state benefit stopped. Domestic service, with its long
hours, low pay and often deplorable working conditions was probably one
of the most hated types of employment for women, and in their thousands
they refused to go back.
The best-known female war writer is probably Brittain, whose memoir,
Testament of Youth, and published diaries recount her time working as a
nursing assistant. Indeed, if we accept Martin Stephen’s (1996) point that
our overall view of the war as being one of mass slaughter is actually a
myth propounded by the proliferation of memoirs written by middle-class
officers, then I would further argue that it is as a result of similar middle-
class bias that our perception of the female war worker is largely synony-
mous with that of the nurse. I would, therefore, suggest that our
remembered image of female care work in the form of highly visible nurs-
ing assistants was promoted in the inter-war years through such cultural
representations as war memorials and memoirs, and that such images
subsumed the less obviously caring, but paid, war work more familiar to
working-class women. Thus we perpetuate the hegemonic acceptance of
women’s primary role being that of carers, a role represented in innumer-
able images of women in wartime recruitment posters for both servicemen
and female war workers.

Images are reproduced by generous permission of the trustees of the Imperial War
Museum. I am also very grateful for the helpful comments and advice on earlier
drafts of this article from the anonymous reviewers, and from Dr Sarah Gamble
and Dr Niall Richardson.

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Suggested citation
Smith, A. (2008), ‘‘The girl behind the man behind the gun’: women as carers in
recruitment posters of the First World War’, Journal of War and Culture Studies
1: 3, pp. 223–241, doi: 10.1386/jwcs.1.3.223/1

Contributor Details
Dr Angela Smith is Senior Lecturer in Language and Culture at the University of
Sunderland. Her research interests include sociolinguistics; language and gender;
children’s literacy; and media discourses.
Contact: Faculty of Education and Society, University of Sunderland, Media Centre,
St PeterΩs Campus, Sunderland SR6 0DD.

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