Feature

The Hush WAACs - The secret ladies of St Omer

Last Updated: 25 Sep 2017
The story of the women who worked as codebreakers with the British army in France during 1917 and 1918.

It has long been known that the British army employed members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps as codebreakers in France during the First World War - but beyond the fact that they were known as HushWAACs, a reference to the secrecy of their work, details of their service have been sketchy.    

Dr Jim Beach of the University of Northampton has pieced together the handful of sources that are available. This gives us a better understanding of the work of these pioneering women and allows us to publish a full list of their names in acknowledgement of their service.

So, 100 years to the day after the first six reported for duty at St. Omer, this is the story of the HushWAACs.

 

WAAC1.jpg

Hush WAACs poster
©IWM
On the afternoon of 29 September 1917 six women arrived at Saint Omer in northern France.  Wearing the uniform of Britain's recently-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), they had crossed the Channel from England the previous day.  

Like other women who had joined the WAAC, their presence in France was due to the army's manpower shortage.  It was envisaged that women would work in the rear areas, thereby releasing men for duty at the front.  

After spending a first night in a hutted camp, they reported next morning to an office in the centre of town.  They had been recruited because of their German language skills, but had not been told what they would do in France.  Now, confronted by a large table laden with papers, they learned they were going to be codebreakers. 

One of them, Mabel Peel, remembered that "never having seen a code message in our lives before, you can imagine the despair that filled our hearts.  We were left with these awful sheets of paper for about half-an-hour ... During that half-hour we exchanged impressions, and depression could not possibly reach a lower level than it reached us just then".  

Soon afterwards the six were divided up to work with the teams of men who were already attacking multiple German codes.  Despite their initial fears, as Mabel later recalled, they soon began to find the work "intensely interesting", with it eventually "monopolising all our thoughts both waking and sleeping".  

From 1916 the German army on the Western Front had relied increasingly upon wireless for their battlefield communications.  These messages could be intercepted relatively easily and were therefore encrypted.

The British army sought to decrypt these German messages at a codebreaking bureau in Saint Omer called I(e)C.  In London women were already working in the two cryptographic organisations, the navy's Room 40 and the army's MI1(b), but such employment in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was unprecedented.  Once deployed, they were affiliated to the army's Intelligence Corps.

The six originals were joined a month later by three more.  This initial reinforcement was not a success.  Dubbed "The Three Mutineers" by their colleagues, in England they seem to have been misinformed about the nature of the work and the quality of the accommodation.  

One was disappointed to learn that she would not be rubbing shoulders with generals, while another had expected to stay in a centrally-heated house rather than a hut.  They were returned swiftly to England and replaced by more stoical individuals. 

Although there were later fluctuations due to transfers, illnesses, and promotions, the number of women working in I(e)C stabilised at twelve in the spring of 1918.  Within the WAAC they were graded as Assistant Administrators, the equivalent of male junior officers.  

Overall, seventeen women would serve with I(e)C during the war.  They were educated, middle or upper-class, and their ages ranged from early 20s to mid 50s.  Four were married and their pre-war employment included pianist and languages teacher.

Because of the requirement never to discuss their work beyond the office, the small group became known as the Hush WAACS.  

According to one of their number, Gwendoline Watkins, they "wore purple shoulder straps, a fact which enhanced the atmosphere of mystery which surrounded us, but which in fact only denoted Miscellaneous Section.  Occasionally other WAACs would take us for gardeners".

Oddly, one of their employing officers revealed their existence in December 1917; telling a newspaper correspondent that he had a group of "Hush WAACs" doing "very confidential work".  

Toiling alongside their male colleagues, the women put in long hours.  Every day, including Sunday, began at half nine in the morning and ran through to midnight, albeit with fairly lengthy lunch and dinner breaks to allow them time to walk back and forth to their women-only Mess.  The only break in the routine was a four o'clock finish once a week.

German air raids were an additional inconvenience.  On their second night in Saint Omer the Hush WAACs were unsettled by bombs landing nearby, but they soon got used to the night time attacks.

Unsurprisingly, in their memoirs Mabel and Gwendoline did not say much about the codebreaking process.  It seems they worked initially as assistants to an eccentric collection of male officers and clerks.  Gwendoline remembered that the various German codes were referred to by "absurd names such as Adolph, Gretchen [and] Brünhilde".

Mabel tells us that by Christmas 1917 she and a colleague were independently making content suggestions for messages sent in an established code.  And Gwendoline stressed the importance of code books captured by frontline troops in helping them to break into German traffic.

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WAACs with their tinned rations in German steel helmets at Etaples, 26 April 1918
©IWM Q 8742
Their work intensified considerably in the spring of 1918.  Before their big offensive in March, the Germans changed their codes and, along with their French and American counterparts, I(e)C raced to break into them.

The subsequent success of the German attacks also triggered a re-location of I(e)C.  In April the British were driven back and Saint Omer was no longer considered a safe area.

To ensure the continuity of their codebreaking work, the office was moved in stages to Paris Plage on the coast.  Here the Hush WAACs were pleased to find themselves accommodated in a house rather than huts.

This new location was a more benign environment.  Although their codebreaking work continued, the women had more opportunity for leisure activities, such as sightseeing and swimming.

The sudden ending of the war in November 1918 led to I(e)C being dissolved.  The Hush WAACs were dispersed mainly to administrative jobs before their return to civilian life.

The army was sceptical about whether their employment had been a success.  In the summer of 1918 their superiors had considered replacing them with medically downgraded male officers because only two were "performing sufficiently to justify retention". 

That said, when the Armistice came, those two were sufficiently valued to be brought back to London to work on diplomatic codes at MI1(b) and one, Florence Hannam, went on to serve in the Government Code and Cypher School ('Lady Translator') in the first few months of its existence

To put the Hush WAACs in perspective, a family coincidence is worth highlighting.  In 1920 John Tiltman began his lengthy and incredibly successful career in British signals intelligence.  His contribution to cryptanalysis has been much celebrated.

But he was not the first member of his family to break codes for the British government.  His older sister Mary had been a Hush WAAC in 1918.  

Their cryptographic work might not have been as challenging or strategically significant as that done by later British female codebreakers, but Mary and her comrades were the first to do it in uniform and behind a battle front.  


Written by Jim Beach (University of Northampton) with research assistance from James Bruce (Researcher, GCHQ Authorised History), and Joyce Hutton (Military Intelligence Museum).


Sources

The Waacs at War, New York Tribune, 9 December 1917

Intelligence Corps (France) War Establishment, April 1918, WO24/919, National Archives

WAAC Area Controller St Omer war diary, WO95/85/8, National Archives

Re-organisation of Intelligence Branch GHQ, WO158/961, National Archives

Intelligence Corps Organisation & Establishment, WO158/962, National Archives

MD Peel, The Story of the Hush-Waacs (1921), Documents.16722, Imperial War Museum

GEG Watkins, Memories of a Hushwaac in France, 1998-01-110-1, National Army Museum


Further Reading

Jim Beach, Haig's Intelligence: GHQ and the German Army, 1916-1918 (2013)

Samantha Philo-Gill, The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in France, 1917-1921 (2017)

Tammy Proctor, Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War (2003)

 

All images ©IWM
ART 3520 - Nissen Huts, St Omer
Q 68242 - Ministry of Labour poster for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
Q 8742 - WAACs with their tinned rations in German steel helmets at Etaples, 26 April 1918