The role of the Girl Guides in the First World War

The Girl Guides help inspire a community spirit amongst young women and girls. From Rainbows starting at age 5 to Brownies at age 7 onto Guides at age 10, and all the way through to The Senior Section up-to age 25, it’s a fun and engaging way to learn and create friendships with peers, as well as getting the chance to experience some exciting activities such as: zorbing, abseiling, jet skiing, segwaying, scuba diving, quad biking, parachuting and many more.

The creation of the Girl Guides

The Girl Guides Association was founded in 1910, following the enormous success of the Boy Scouts movement that had been formed two years previously. Agnes Baden-Powell, Robert’s sister, took charge of the new Girl Guides Association and each company was divided in to groups of approximately six girls aged 11-18. The badges which the girls worked towards were similar to those of the boys, with certain additional ones such as ‘Nursing Sister’. In 1914, a new group was formed for under-elevens called the Rosebuds, which was renamed the Brownies a year later.

The beginning of the First World War

In 1914 when war was declared, the Guide Headquarters was besieged by guides volunteering for war work and the Headquarters’ Committee convened to discuss what the guides could do to support the war effort. They decided to provide the Association with universal guidelines to ensure that the work was appropriate and didn’t interfere with that of other organisations. All guides’ voluntary work had to be for an official society or public organization and each girl had to have written permission from their captain identifying them and outlining their exact role.

Girl Guides with a stretcher in preparation for post-air raid emergency help 
© IWM (Q 27922)

Secret work for MI5

A government document titled “Duties of H Branch” reveals that between 1914 and 1918 the Girl Guides provided messengers for MI5. At the start of the war, MI5 had employed boy scouts, but after finding them too talkative and excitable to be completely trusted with carrying confidential material, they replaced them with the comparatively calmer guides.

Britain’s national intelligence service employed a total of ninety guides aged 14 - 16 years old and paid them 10 shillings (50 pence) a week. The guides were based at Waterloo House and at two other government buildings in London.

The guides employed by MI5 were messengers, carrying top secret documents and were also charged with collecting confidential waste. On occasion, the most trusted guides were asked to memorise and pass on information verbally. The workload varied from day to day, and the guides could find themselves with hours to wait in between jobs.

The girls were recommended by the officers in their company and interviewed by their Captain. Before starting work, each girl had to sign a contract which was countersigned by their legal guardian and their company Captain. If the girl was discharged from service, this was carried out by her Captain under government orders.

The messengers worked 9-hour days, from 9am - 6pm or 10am - 7pm, with breaks for lunch and tea. They worked throughout the week with every other Sunday off and one half-day leave a week. Holiday was given at Christmas and Easter with one week’s leave in the summer.

Other duties during the war

Girl Guides pull a cart full of materials to be delivered to Red Cross workers at their homes © IWM (Q 27902)

The guides were not permitted to take on any military duties at all, instead their work was focused on their local communities and auxiliary medical support. Guide Headquarters encouraged the girls to support the medical services, such as the Red Cross Society, the St. John’s Association, local hospitals and relief centres. They recommended cooking and cleaning for hospitals as well as taking in needlework, and another suggestion was caring for children to allow mothers to go to work. For many of the girls, the Guides was an extra-curricular activity and they had to balance their voluntary work with paid employment.

Over time, the Guides war work became more varied. Many supported the local VADs helping to transport hospital equipment in carts or to set-up new temporary hospitals. Some companies took in sewing, darned socks for territorial soldiers and made bandages. In preparation for invasion, guides trained local agricultural workers in basic first aid and how to carry stretchers. Other Guide groups took on gardening and agricultural work, collected reading material for patients, or made sandbags.

Robert Baden-Powell recommended that the Guides convert their meeting rooms into hospitals or safe houses for the public to congregate during air raids. Yet rather than take shelter, the guides themselves were encouraged to patrol outside during raids, searching for any wounded and administering first aid.

New badges for voluntary work and fundraising initiatives

In May 1915 the Guides Association introduced a War Service Badge. Initially all war work was considered, but the Association then revised the terms of the badge so that only voluntary work was eligible.

The guides were also keen fundraisers and in 1916 they were challenged to raise £500 to sponsor a canteen hut in France but managed instead to raise just over £2,300. In addition to the canteen, they used the difference to pay for an ambulance which was dispatched to the Western Front and served for over one and a half years.