As a follow-up to our Women’s History Month post The Women of World War I in Photographs, we wanted to highlight moving images that feature women serving.
While working on a project aimed at digitizing a series of films from World War I held at the National Archives, I came across a two-reel set focusing on “patriotic activities” undertaken stateside during the war. Among the scenes that included Victory gardens and Free Milk for France parades was a section (beginning at about 9:46) that showed women at a military-style training camp. The footage shows women drilling in uniform, climbing out of trenches, bandaging wounds, and using signal flags.
I was fascinated, but unsure as to what exactly I was watching. Unfortunately, our production file has no details on the organization or the location of the camp depicted in the film. An Internet search brought up a 1916 article about the National Service School, an organization that prepared women to serve in case the United States entered the war. The uniforms pictured in the article seem to match those shown in the film exactly, and the activities described are similar. While we cannot be certain, it is possible that these scenes show the very first women arriving at the camp in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in 1916. According to the article, the women learned marching formations, flag signaling, and how to treat and serve the wounded.
Stills from Patriotic Activities show women arriving at the training camp, learning semaphore code, practicing first aid, and performing various military-style drills.
The camp shown in this film trained women in these tasks, and often ran like a military facility (thus the drilling, uniforms, and trenches). The section begins with women coming into the camp, with a sign in the background proclaiming the area as the “Woman’s National Service Training Camp.” These volunteers filled out paperwork at tables, and then the scene switches to women in uniforms in squads, with some instruction in semaphore code shown. The trenches (for which I still have no explanation of their use in this endeavor) are the most interesting part, as squads are seen climbing out and heading to an unknown destination, some being assisted out by a soldier standing nearby. There is also footage of women applying bandages to wounded soldiers (one thinks of Clara Barton in a situation such as this, though not nearly as harrowing as the front lines of the Civil War). This footage serves as further evidence of the roles women have had during wartime in the United States, and proves at the same time how much society has changed in the 100 years since World War I, as women have gone from only serving stateside as private citizens to being active members of the U.S. military.
This film was digitized as part of a broader project to make available films and photographs of World War I and World War II. Check the National Archives Catalog for the films and photographs that have been digitized. For more examples of women’s World War I work on film, see Manufacture of Military Aeroplanes.