The Wartime Experience of British Female Ambulance Drivers in Belgium and France

Hannah Grace Groch-Begley, ’12

In May 2011, I traveled to England in order to conduct research for my Senior Thesis on the First World War. I am examining the wartime experience of British female ambulance drivers at the front in Belgium and France. The contributions of these women to the war effort were immense, but they receive very little recognition in histories and memorials. In examining the physical and emotional hardships these women endured while serving, and the perceptions of them during and after the war, I seek to understand their complicated place in the highly gendered understandings of war work and women’s place in the war effort, and to examine why historians of the First World War have largely ignored their contributions.

The vast majority of my research was conducted at the Imperial War Museum in London, in their extensive archives. Working with the kind, encouraging librarians, I identified twelve women who served as ambulance drivers and nurses during the war, and whose personal papers are housed in the museum’s archives. These papers included letters, diaries, postcards, photo albums, newspaper clippings, poems, and drafts of memoirs that were never published. For a week I carefully examined every scrap of paper, learning as much as I could about these incredible women. Some chose to record their daily lives in great detail (and to them I am eternally grateful) while others hid information from their parents and loved ones by writing very little. Both sets provided me with invaluable information for understanding the sacrifices these women made, and gave me the source-base required to do their work justice as I write my thesis.

Deciphering water-stained cursive handwriting in pencil from a century ago is not easy on the eyes, however, so I took breaks to drink tea in the Great Hall and explore the Museum and its many exhibits on both World Wars. There were several exhibits relevant to my topic on display, allowing me to learn a great deal more than expected. The Museum also has a number of interactive exhibits for children, so I particularly enjoyed listening to toddlers beg their parents to “please let us experience the Blitz!!!”

When I did make it out of the Museum, I traveled to several memorials throughout the city of London, including the Cenotaph, the central British memorial for the First World War and the site of every Armistice Day ceremony, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Viewing these memorials allowed me to better understand the importance of physical representations of grieving in forming our memories of the war, and the nuanced role of historians in contributing to the commemoration of war. I also was lucky enough to get a ticket to see War Horse, an award-winning play on the West End about the war, which was a phenomenal show and helped me to consider pop culture’s influence in shaping the memory of the war. As a result, I broadened the scope of my thesis to include an analysis of the commemoration of the war through history and how that process has forgotten, or silenced, female ambulance drivers.

The Evalyn Clark Memorial Fellowship allowed me to conduct extensive primary source research that was absolutely necessary to my thesis, while also giving me invaluable insight into the realities of archival research and a set of experiences that fundamentally altered the scope and depth of my thesis. I am grateful for this opportunity, and hope many more history students continue to have access to this resource.