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Diaries of women's 'army Hitler forgot' go online for free

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The hidden histories of a million wartime women are being revealed with the online launch of thousands of pages of diaries by the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) Archive and Heritage Collection.

 

A million ordinary women who volunteered for the charity, previously known as the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS), played a vital role on the Home Front and worked tirelessly to help win the war. As well as sewing, cooking, knitting and helping their communities recover after raids, they learned new skills such as extinguishing incendiary bombs, driving in the black-out and garnishing tens of thousands of camouflage nets; helping transform the way in which women were viewed by society. To many, WVS members were the ‘women in green’ or ‘the army Hitler forgot’.

 

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Thanks to a fundraising campaign on the Kickstarter website, which raised more than £28,000 for the digitisation project, the RVS is now publishing 31,401 pages of diaries from 1938-1942 online, detailing wartime experiences in more than 1,300 cities, towns and villages. Written when one in 10 women in Britain was a member of the WVS, the diaries tell the extraordinary stories of ordinary women – and they are all available to view for free.

 

Inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register in 2010 as one of the most important historical documents in the UK, the diaries had remained beyond researchers’ reach until now. They describe how the largest volunteer organisation in British history supported civil defence, giving a fascinating insight into the ups and downs of daily life during the war. In Ventnor on the Isle of Wight in 1942, for example, the Housewives Section of the WVS assisted the victims of a raid.

 

One member whose house was damaged turned her stirrup pump on a nearby building and fought the fire caused by incendiary bullets. Meanwhile, other members attended to casualties in the road, staunching blood until medical help arrived. Elderly people were taken to safety and provided with hot drinks. The diaries reveal the WVS was on duty for three days, aiding the homeless and the rescue and salvage teams.

 

RVS archivist Matthew McMurray said: ‘For the past year, we have been photographing tens of thousands of fragile pieces paper to enable us to share these remarkable stories online for everyone to enjoy... Our initial plan was to cover the period from 1938-1941, but we’ve managed to include reports from 1942 as well.’

 

The launch coincides with the unveiling of an English Heritage Blue Plaque for the charity’s founder, Stella Reading, on 4 July at 41 Tothill Street, which was WVS HQ during WW2. She founded the WVS in May 1938 and toured the country throughout 1938 and 1939, inspiring female audiences to volunteer. By the end of August 1939 more than 300,000 women had joined and over 1,200 WVS centres had been set up across the country.

View the diaries here

 

Images © Royal Voluntary Service.

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