Gabrielle West was a rural vicar's daughter who volunteered to serve with the Red Cross at the outbreak of the First World War, and then moved on to paid work, first in the canteens of various munitions works, and then as a Woman Police Officer, again in the arms industry. Her diaries cover the period immediately before the outbreak of war, the start of the conflict and all of her work experience until 1917. Thankfully this end date is only because the later diaries have been lost. West survived the war, and lived to be 100 (and was interviewed on tape later in her life).
The decision to include the pre-war period is a great success, as we get to see the transition from the routines of rural life, with its round of family news and a visit to London, to the stresses of wartime. West was determined to do something, and volunteered as a Red Cross cook at a hospital. After a spell in this roll she needed to seek paid work, and ended up working in the canteens of munitions works. This was followed by a period in charge of setting up new canteens, which ended with her resignation. After a brief gap she became a Women Police Officer, part of a force recruited to serve in the new munitions industry.
One of the most interesting aspects of these diaries is the view they give us of the changing nature of the British war effort. At the start West was working in rather amateurish sounding kitchens set up in over-worked hospitals. As time goes on she moved into the armaments industry, first on the catering side and later as a police officer. Some of these factories were vast, spreading over several miles, and many of them were entirely built in wartime. Once she was working as a police officer West got an unusual inside view of life in these factories, covering incidents that might have ended in disaster as well as a clash between English and Irish munitions workers that ended with the Irish workers being sent away.
Away from the factories there are also accounts of Zeppelin raids, and of the destruction of a number of Zeppelins, a reminder that the war began to come home to the British public.
This is a charming diary that gives us a rather unusual view of the Home Front during the First World War, seen from the point of view of someone who was living and working away from home, and seeing the massive expansion of the British arms industry at first hand.
Author: Gabrielle West
Editor: Avalon Weston
Publisher: Pen & Sword History