Great women at war

Friday, 16 September 2011

Ann Pilcher Dayton profiles two strong-willed women who challenged the social mores of the day in order to help others during World War I and honour the principles of Freemasonry

At the outbreak of World War I, the upper-class women of Britain were experts in supervising households and managing their husbands’ estates – invaluable in the provision of welfare to the troops. Several of these women were also Freemasons.

The Honourable Evelina Haverfield, daughter of the Third Baron Abinger, came from a family dedicated to public and military service. An energetic person, she had tremendous physical stamina, and was a keen and capable horsewoman. She was a member of Lodge Golden Rule, No. 21, of the Co-Masons (Le Droit Humain), founded in 1905 by Annie Besant. And its name reflects its aspirations: ‘do unto others as you would be done by’.

Haverfield already possessed the liberated lifestyle to which many women aspired in their struggle for the vote – she kept by deed poll the surname of her late husband on her remarriage. She was also a prominent suffragette and took part in many demonstrations, was arrested and subsequently imprisoned. She even used her equine experience to make police horses break ranks to cause the maximum disruption during protests. When war broke out, Haverfield was 47.

Together with Decima Moore, formerly a singer and actress with the D’Oyly Carte Company, as well as members of the Actresses’ Franchise League, she formed the Women’s Emergency Corps – the first of the women’s uniformed organisations. Their response to the crisis was to organise a role for women. Many upper- and middle-class women joined the Corps. These members became involved in several ventures, including a uniformed group called the Lady Instructors Signals Company, who trained Aldershot army recruits in signalling. They were the first to feed the Belgian refugees in England, collecting London’s surplus food from Smithfield and Covent Garden. Interpreters were also provided with lists of hotels, lodgings and free rooms, met the continental trains in London, and taught elementary French and German to training soldiers.


Haverfield’s next venture was forming the Women’s Volunteer Reserve (WVR) in August 1914. She became Honorary Colonel of the WVR, with battalions, officers and non-commissioned officers and other ranks. Members wore khaki uniforms, aligning the group with men in defending British values and as a model for women’s services. The aim was to train a body of fit and disciplined women who could undertake a range of tasks, including signalling, first aid, crowd control, driving and delivering messages. One particular responsibility was to ensure the removal to safety of the elderly and unfit in the event of a sudden attack.

In 1915, Haverfield joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit as an administrator. Two fully equipped field hospitals staffed entirely by women and led by Edinburgh surgeon Dr Elsie Inglis were sent out to Serbia to support the soldiers. Haverfield spent two years in Serbia and Romania as commander of the Motor Transport Section, which consisted of eighteen American Ford ambulances, British-built lorries and kitchen cars, all serviced and driven by women. Vehicles had to be hand-cranked to start them and in these war-torn rural areas of Eastern Europe all spares had to be carried on route. Finding petrol and digging the vehicles out of the mud while under shellfire was nightmarish as they shuttled the wounded to field hospitals.

In 1917, Haverfield was back in England where she set up relief organisations – the Serbian Soldiers Comforts Fund and the Fund for Disabled Serbian Soldiers. Following the Armistice in 1918, she returned to Serbia to supervise the distribution of food, clothing and medical supplies for the Red Cross. While the rural economy of Serbia would in time recover, many of the children were orphaned by the war, and so in 1919, she and a group of former colleagues returned to set up an orphanage on the Bosnian/Serbian border. She died there from pneumonia in 1920 aged fifty-two and was hailed by the Serbs as a national heroine.


Haverfield’s passion for helping others was also evident in Major General Dame Florence Burleigh Leach. Initiated into the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Masonry in 1910, she was described by one of her wartime contemporaries as ‘beautiful, elegant and charming’. She was also renowned for her organisational ability and her independence of spirit.

Being an army wife, Leach saw it as her duty to assist in the war effort as the dangers of an inadequately fed army were recognised. In April 1915, Leach was one of the founders of the Women’s Legion, whose objectives were to release men for active service, improve cooking and prevent waste.

In February 1917, Leach was appointed Controller of Cooks, and later brought all 7,000 Women’s Legion cooks and waitresses into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The role of women in the army expanded at home and on active service in France, replacing men in many traditionally male roles including clerks, tailors, librarians, storemen, photographers, drivers, grooms and policewomen.

In February 1918, Leach became Chief Controller of the WAAC, and five months later was promoted to Controller-in-Chief, becoming the senior officer of 57,000 women serving at home and overseas. Although members wore uniforms, the Corps was organised on civilian lines – no one was given military titles or held commissions. Honoured by Queen Mary, the name changed to Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and Leach became President.

Leach was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1919, and put forward her best officers for initiation into the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons so it ‘might offer a valuable link to cement comradeship’. Blanche Ireland, MBE, was Grand Treasurer, Dorothy Taylor was Deputy Grand Master for twenty years, and Florence Leveridge served as Grand Secretary for fifteen years.

Haverfield and Leach were exceptional women but it can be no coincidence that, at various times in their lives, they espoused the tenets of Freemasonry. Love, relief and truth had no greater expression than through the work of these ‘strong-willed women’.

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