Mary McCallum, WAAC

Mary McCallum, WAAC

During the First World War, the military were slow in accepting that women could play a useful role in the armed forces. Women’s uniformed services were not established until late in the war. Even then, of course, women were not allowed to fight, to be armed, or serve on the frontline. Their role was seen as supplementary – to take up the clerical, domestic and catering duties in order to release men for the frontline. As a poster for the WAAC stated: ‘Every fit woman can release a fit man’. Some 80,000 women served as non-combatants in the three women’s forces: the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (from April 1918, the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps), founded December 1916), the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF, founded April 1918), and the Women’s Royal Naval Service  (WRNS or Wrens, founded November 1917).

Mary McCallum of Long Row, East Benhar was the youngest of five children of Hugh and Annie McCallum. Her father and three brothers were all coal miners. In 1918, Mary was 20 and was employed in domestic service at 48 Moray Place, Edinburgh. Perhaps she saw one of these posters or the recruiting adverts in the newspapers in 1917 and 1918. At any rate, she applied for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and went through the rigorous selection process: a medical examination, two references, and an interview.   

The form that was filled in at her medical examination recorded that she was fit, 5 feet and half an inch tall, 36 inch chest, with a scar below her right shoulder blade; that she was of medium build with dark brown hair, and odd eyes – ‘left brown and right blue’. Her two referees were her former employer, Mrs Graham, and her former schoolteacher at East Benhar school, Mr McDonald. Both gave her a good reference: Mrs Graham had employed her for over two years as a general servant and found her ‘steady and reliable, industrious and thoroughly trustworthy’. Mr McDonald reported that ‘she has acted as house tablemaid in various positions of domestic service and was ‘quite trustworthy and may be depended on’. The interviewer noted that Mary was a ‘good domestic type’ and a ‘Clean fresh girl’. 

Mary was formally enlisted in the WAAC on 17 June 1918, and issued with the uniform: 1 coat frock, 3 collars, 1 pair of gaiters, a greatcoat, a felt hat with badge, 2 caps, 4 overalls, 1 pair of shoes and 2 pairs of stockings.

On 1 July 1918 she was posted as an assistant waitress to a Queen Mary Auxiliary Army Corps unit at the 10th Officer Cadet Battalion at the training camp at Gailes at Irvine in Ayrshire. At this camp, some 1,200 officer cadets at a time were trained for service in the Scottish regiments, and here Mary McCallum served for nine months until her discharge from the Corps on 21 March 1919. The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was disbanded in September 1921.

After the war, she married a Fauldhouse miner, John Brown; both were aged 21. She lived on in Fauldhouse until her death in 1984. 

We gratefully acknowledge the information and photographs kindly provided by her great-grandson, Daniel McLaughlin.

More info: 

East Benhar School c 1905, with head teacher Robert McDonald, who was one of Mary's referees when she joined the WAACs. The pupils almost certainly include Mary McCallum.
The girl in the centre may be Mary McCallum, pictured with two friends or sisters and her two brothers, Dougald and Henry, who served in the war.
WAACs at Gailes officer training camp. The group may include Mary McCallum.
Recruiting poster
Recruiting poster like this appealed to young women's patriotism and love of adventure. ©IWM – Art.IWM PST 4881