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ejwalshe

Captain Margaret A. Campbell Gibson M.M. - "The Right to Khaki"

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ejwalshe
Posted (edited)

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The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), known as Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) from 9 April 1918, was the women's corps of the British Army during and immediately after the Great War. Their presence in the armed forces from 1917 was of special significance in that women, for the first time, found themselves working for and with rigorously all-male national institutions possessed of a complex system of rituals and symbols legible both inside and outside the forces. Equality for the members of the women’s forces, therefore, implied the right to share the symbols of rank, uniform and medals used by male soldiers. The career of Captain Margaret Campbell Gibson, the first W.A.A.C. Administrator to be awarded a Military Medal throws considerable light on the nature and importance of the struggle for the full “right to khaki”.

 

The fight for the “right to khaki” as an extension of the “right to serve” was, therefore, of great significance in the sense that to allow women access to military symbols was to blur one of the clearest dividing lines between the sexes.

 

An unspoken additional objection to women in khaki was that uniform and insignia-wearing were intimately associated with masculine sexual attractiveness! The official recruiters of the 19th century predecessors were well aware of a uniform’s appeal and much energy was devoted to the designing of attractive plumage! Tommy’s Great War khaki was less romantic but nonetheless a powerful sexual symbol.

 

Uniform then, suggested desirability. And it was the case that the women who finally managed to “[get their] khaki on” in 1917 were perceived as being, if not necessarily desirable, certainly sexually available. The consequence was dubious jokes (“What would you prefer, a whack in the face or a W.A.A.C. on your knee?”) and, more seriously, a great deal of slanderous comment. An investigation by a W.A.A.C. official, Miss Tennyson Jesse, concluded in 1918, showed that the incidence of unwanted pregnancies and general “misbehaviour” in the Corps was significantly lower than that in the typical English village! The point here is not the admirable result of the investigation but the fact that it had to be mooted at all. Public opinion in the first months of the existence of the women’s auxiliary forces did deal in sexual caricature, and policing the behaviour of its members was one of the organisation’s major concerns!

W.A.A.C. organization was that of a factory rather than of an army unit. With “Workers”, “Forewomen” and two grades of “Officials” or “Administrators” replacing private soldiers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Officers. The women wore uniform, khaki and designed for modesty, otherwise the military associations of the Corps were left deliberately vague. W.A.A.C. “members” enrolled rather than enlisted and so were not subject to military discipline but to the Corps’ own system of policing and chaperoning.7 Saluting was neither authorized nor forbidden but W.A.A.C. officials were usually saluted in army areas and were addressed by all personnel as “Ma’am”.

Margaret Campbell Gibson, an Administrator in France writes of a daily routine that is less that of an army auxiliary than of Victorian housewife, a college bursar and a public school prefect.  Letter from Margaret Campbell Gibson to her sister, May, September 16th/17th 1917:

 

"You wanted a programme of my day. Called at 7 and rise almost immediately—roll call is at 8 and the girls do about 10 minutes drill after that, I don’t take that and then Miss Suche and I have our breakfast. The girls are called (by a gong struck on an empty shell case) at 6.30 and breakfast at 7.30, they do out their own huts and leave everything tidy, blankets all folded up, and they go off to their different offices at 8.30 or thereabouts. There are always some letters to be seen to and given to the girls to take into town, and at 9 I go to the kitchen and interview the Cook. We’ve got the rations for tomorrow in already today and tomorrow’s menu is made out up to supper. Breakfast (tomorrow), boiled bacon, tea, marmalade, butter; dinner, beef stew with a few vegetables, and boiled rice and jam for pudding. […] tea, 4.30, bread and butter and jam; and supper either cheese and biscuit or soup and biscuit; sometimes sardines, sometimes toasted cheese, they don’t fare at all badly, but it is rather monotonous and it’s difficult to get fresh vegetables. Miss Suche and I have what the girls have for breakfast and lunch, and the Cook makes us up something for our evening meal at 8 o'clock, she’s very good about that and takes an interest in making something nice. She makes quite good omelettes—Next, the office—there’s always something to do there. Sometimes I go into town on an errand and lunch is at 1 o’c. After that I rest on my bed, generally not for long, somebody comes along or some message and you have to get up.

Programme cont. Back at the office soon after 3 o’c. today; worked there until 4.30—Tea—office again after tea and just left it now 6:30 P.M. Have been round the huts and inspected in the course of the morning, and this evening at Roll Call I shall read out: 'that, Hut no. 11 Ablution room, Basin dirty; Bed no. 4 Blankets badly folded—Hut 12 Basin in Ablution room not cleaned, Hut otherwise in very good order (the only one). Hut 16 same charges against Basin in Ablution room, Blanket badly folded—Cigarette found between blankets' etc. etc. etc. Poor things have absolutely no place to keep their belongings except their suit-cases"

 

Manifestly Margaret Gibson was popular with her “girls”. In a letter of 30 June 1918, written on Gibson’s transfer to Le Tréport in Normandy, thirteen Camp Members express their “appreciation of your régime at Camp”. Relations with the army and especially with her own hierarchy were not necessarily so pleasant:

 

"The really vexing and trying thing here are our Governors. I hadn’t met it or run up against it at the other place. There is (as you know) a Chief Controller, and each area has an Area Controller; there wasn’t one at D.G.T; it was a Unit on its own practically, though directly under the C.C.15 to whom you referred. It made things simpler and life happier. Here you may do nothing without referring to, or through, the A.C., you’re just to be a medium for carrying out orders unquestioningly; and if you question them, if they seem to you as an intelligent and reasonable-thinking person unreasonable, you are very disagreeably brought to task. Not being accustomed to the treatment I do not take to it kindly. It will come to this that one will carry out orders blindly and won’t care. I’ve got to carry out the orders unquestioningly, but, at the same time, if they appear to the girls […] to be unreasonable, I am expected to make them palatable. It’s damned disagreeable, I tell you."

Gibson’s account of W.A.A.C. life indicates that popular fantasies at home about promiscuity and adventure had very little foundation. The only women in uniform exposed to near front-line activity were not army auxiliaries but rather the staff of field hospitals and F.A.N.Y ambulance drivers. However, dangers were added to the irritations and routine of Camp life in spring 1918 with air attacks on Etaples and Abbeville. These were Allied bases providing important communications and administrative centres as well as major hospital facilities and, as such, were an obvious target for German bombers. A series of raids on the Somme bases began on 21 March. The women at work in the area were not removed, Helen Gwynne Vaughan observing to the press that since they were replacing soldiers they must expect to be shot at! During the night of 29-30 May a bomb fell into a protection trench at Abbeville killing eight Workers, all attached to No. 2 Army Supply Depot, immediately. Another died of wounds later. For the women of the Camp, these, the first W.A.A.C. deaths on active service “confirmed their right to khaki” and made them “one in sympathy and sacrifice with the fighting forces”. The men in Abbeville shared the women’s sentiments. The nine victims were given a military funeral with Royal Flying Corps pilots flying overhead, troops lining the route to Abbeville Communal Cemetery and the coffins taken to the cemetery on gun limbers and covered with the Union Jack.

 

The Abbeville bombing of 29-30 May was significant in that the nine W.A.A.C. deaths caused the men of the base to redraw the line separating combatants and non-combatants and, by extension, to redefine the rights of women who now possessed de facto, combatant status. That the men did this was crucial in the sense that access to what Bourdieu calls “symbolic capital”—military ceremonial, for example—is defined by the dominant society that values it. In this sense, the W.A.A.C.s could not demand that their dead Workers be treated as soldiers. The decision to bring them into the military group with access to its symbols and rituals could only be made by existing members of that group. The gift of military funerals, a rite of passage for soldiers, brought women into the system of reward and recognition for courage on the battlefield and thus altered the way in which they would henceforth be seen by the rest of the world.

London followed the example of Abbeville in July 1918 when, for the first time six women were awarded the Military Medal. Five were members of F.A.N.Y including Sarah Bonnell, the first female M.M. (for alphabetical reasons) who received the award for “gallant conspicuous devotion to duty” while picking up wounded from an ammunition dump explosion. Unit Administrator Mrs Margaret Annabella Campbell Gibson received the first W.A.A.C. (now Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps) Military Medal:

 

The London Gazette, Third Supplement to the issue of Friday 5th July, 1918, issue number 30784:

 

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy air-raid when in charge of a Q.M.A.A.C. camp which was completely demolished by enemy bombs, one of which fell within a few feet of the trench in which the women were sheltering. During the raid, Unit Administrator Gibson showed a splendid example. Her courage and energy sustained the women under most trying circumstances and undoubtedly prevented serious loss of life."

 

The usual award for a male officer displaying gallantry in the face of the enemy would have been the Military Cross. The lesser Military Medal was normally for other ranks, the justification for the award here being, presumably that the action did not take place quite in the front line and that Margaret Gibson was an “official” and not a commissioned officer.

Just as women were ejected from their civilian jobs in favour of the returning men, so the women’s auxiliary forces were to disappear in a short time. The Women’s Royal Naval Service, created in November 1917 was the first to be disbanded in 1919. The Women’s Royal Air Force lasted from April 1918 to 1920. Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps continued to serve in France until 1920, playing an important part in the management of war cemeteries. All three women’s services were revived in 1938-1939, the A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service) the first to come into being under the direction of Helen Gwynne Vaughan. There were no debates this time about the right of women to wear uniform, give orders and win medals. On a more personal level, however, the hard-won recognition of the work of one woman was apparently never confirmed:

 

"The M.M. awarded to my sister the late Mrs M.A.C. Gibson, Unit Administrator in Q.M.A.A.C. has never yet been received by her family. I feel sure the matter has been overlooked, and am asking if you will kindly tell me how to draw the attention of the authorities to this omission.

 

We are all very proud of the fact that my sister was the first W.A.A.C. to be awarded the M.M. for her courage and coolness when her camp was bombed at Abbeville in (illegible) 1918 and are naturally desirous of possessing this memento of honour conferred on her.

 

It is over a year since my sister’s death at Le Tréport on 17 September 1918, and we have never received the M.M. earned by her, or heard anything from the authorities with regard to the matter."

 

- Claire Bowen, https://journals.openedition.org/miranda/1102

Edited by ejwalshe

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Jim Strawbridge

Calling her  "Captain" in the heading is not correct. Such a rank in the Q.M.A.A.C. did not exist.

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royalredcross

Her actual rank was Unit Administrator.  She died of dysentery in No. 16 American Hospital at Le Treport on 17 September 1918.   I have her medals. 

 

Norman 

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Marilyne
Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, Jim Strawbridge said:

Calling her  "Captain" in the heading is not correct. Such a rank in the Q.M.A.A.C. did not exist.

 

Actually Jim, the rank is mentionned in correspondance from the WO !!

This is an excerpt of her War Records…

 

924105586_Annotation2020-07-06151133.png.84a8ac539960396e61ed4954c8d18881.png

 

So yes, probably a lapsus lingua, but still…. she was "captain Mrs Gibson" … an exception!

 

An impressive woman!

 

M.

Edited by Marilyne

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royalredcross

The Staff Captain was probably unaware of the rank structure in the QMAAC.  Regardless of his form of address, there were no Captains in that service. 

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ejwalshe

@Marilyne  Nice catch.   Some get it.  Not surprised first to weigh-in do not understand the post.

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Jim Strawbridge
14 hours ago, royalredcross said:

Her actual rank was Unit Administrator.  She died of dysentery in No. 16 American Hospital at Le Treport on 17 September 1918.   I have her medals. 

 

Norman 

Her sister wrote to the Chief Controller of the QMAAC on the 23rd November 1919 to say that the Military Medal which Margaret had been awarded had never been received. She also gained the St. John Ambulance Brigade Certificate so I can see your interest. But as to the MM I assume that it did eventually turn up and hopefully is with the rest of the medals with you.

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Marilyne
16 hours ago, royalredcross said:

.  Regardless of his form of address, there were no Captains in that service. 

 

Agreed … but when addressing a class in the matters of gender (UNSCR 1325 and all that), it makes for a nice story to introduce the subject with.

It's one of many WWI-Women-empowerment stories in my repertoire actually… :D

 

M.

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royalredcross

Yes, Jim, it it eventually turn up.  I bought the group from a dealer many years ago.  MM, British War and Victory.  They came with a photocopy of the letter above. What I do not have is her death plaque.  Still looking. 

Norman 

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Marilyne

"Le hasard fait bien les choses…"

just now reading through some documentation hinted at by @frev in another thread, about the training of the WAACs and this pops up:

in January 1919 The Mercury printed an article about the WAACs in Woolwich, and in this case citing the work of Australian WAAC Nora Dickson.

In the article it said that Nora "went up to England as a masseuse, intending to go into one of the Hospital. But she took up war wrok and is now a Lieutenant in Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary corps, commanding a company at the Woolwich Training Camp"

the rank of Lt is used another three times in the article for Miss Dickson.

Now was that purely Australian?

Was the use of rank just for impression and sensationalism??

 

fact is that it was used, and so I gather that "Captain Gibson" was not a unicum.

The question of women and rank just got a whole other dimension…

 

the whole article is here: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/12381336 

 

M.

 

 

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Andrew Upton
Posted (edited)

I presume the story as regards rank titles for women serving was similar to that for chaplains, the following ACI being published in 1920 to clarify matters:

 

1920 Army CHaplain rank.JPG

 

Edited by Andrew Upton

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Jim Strawbridge

I am concerned at the number of people trying to justify Captain and Lieutenant with regards to senior women in the Q.M.A.A.C./W.A.A.C. These ranks did not exist for them. I imagine that at the time those in the regular army were made aware that senior women in the unit were of officer rank and been told the equivalent. But this was only as a gauge. Nothing more. Officers in the regular army needed to know that they might have dealings with a female who had sway and rank so as not to be dismissive. Privates needed to know if they should salute or not. The references given above are purely statements on paper from people who were ignorant (in the nicest possible way) of the female ranking system. I challenge anyone to find an official reference to these ranks in official paperwork. Come on, folks. Please don't perpetuate this bunkum. 

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Marilyne

Jim, 

 

we know that the ranks are not real... and nobody claims they are. 

It's just that the use, in single documents or occasions, of ranks for these ladies, and moreover officer ranks, makes them kind of unique. These are unique situations that of course stand out. And that makes the question so interesting, especially for the female officer that I am... 

 

M.

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