How the Girl Guides Won the War

In honour of Girl Guiding, I would like to discuss the non fiction history book detailing their war efforts. Girl Guiding, is a 111 year old movement that began in 1910, thanks to a group of girls who disguised themselves and snuck into a Scouts rally at Crystal Palace to ask Scout founder, Robert Baden-Powell for ‘something for the girls’. He took this thought on board and enlisted the help of his sister Agnes and wife Olave to help form and build the ‘Girl Guides’ and the rest as they say, is history.

This meant that the Girl Guiding movement was still in its infancy during both World Wars. By this point, three of the four main groups in Girl Guiding, which were the Guides, Brownies and Rangers, had been formed and were growing their ranks for a few years. This was during a time which was still increasingly difficult for girls and women all over the country. 

In Janie Hampton’s historical biography of the movement, ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’, she discusses the remarks made by Olave Baden Powell, who went on to become the Chief Guiding President. She once said “Guiding opened up new and appealing vistas to young females, a vision of a life where women could face the world on equal terms with men, where they would be trained and equipped to cope with whatever emergencies arise.” The Girl Guides only began because a group of girls saw the injustice and unfairness in that a movement like the Scouts was only for boys. This group of girls made a successful plan to ask for what they wanted and eventually gained a similar movement for girls. 

Janie Hampton comments how “the first world war provided girls with an opportunity to show that they could be as good, if not better than boys.” A prime example of this was when the military intelligence organisation, MI5, initially overlooked the girls (which was very common at the time) and enlisted the Boy Scouts to assist them during the First World War. However, those working at MI5 thought the scouts to be “troublesome”, and that the inactivity between tasks led them to mischief. The Guides were viewed similarly but MI5 saw their mischief as causing far less distress and their work ethics were found to be more amenable than the Scouts.

On 19th September 1915, one year into the First World War, Girl Guides who were aged between fourteen and sixteen were asked to help MI5. This involved the Guides carrying and delivering “secret counter espionage memoranda and reports”, along with learning to clean and repair their typewriters.

The first step for a Girl Guide to begin assisting the intelligence organisation, was that they needed to sign a contract saying she had permission from her parents and from the Guide Captain who recommended her for the job in the first place. Girl Guides were required to pledge “with her honour not to read the papers she carried”. In return for their service to MI5, Guides were paid ten shillings a week and received short lunch breaks during their working hours. 

Two years later in January 1917, the Girl Guides who had been working with MI5, had now formed into a special guide company for MI5. The company had its own captain, and each guide patrol in the company was assigned to a specific and separate floor of the Military Intelligence’s Headquarters. Guides also paraded across the roof of Waterloo House, every Monday afternoon for inspection.

Miss M.S Aslin who worked for the MI5 registry, is reported by Hampton in her book, to have spoken about one of the Girl Guides they employed. Aslin said one particular guide “speeds from floor to floor, bearing messages of good will. And no obstacle is too great for her to fall over in her devotion to the task.”

After the First World War had ended in 1918, the War Office had recognised Guides as so valuable for their work, and skill sets, that a contingent of Guides was taken to attend and run errands at the Palace of Versailles for the Paris Peace conference in June 1919 and travelled to France with the British delegation. In addition, sixteen of the older Ranger Guides received invitations to attend and witness the Treaty of Versailles itself being signed. 

By the time the Second World War had begun, Guides and Rangers were already learning and practising how-to put-on gas masks and what to do to prepare for and during air raids at their meetings. Many Guides and Rangers also offered their services to the ARP (Air Raid Precautions). One particular company of Rangers (the North Berkshire Rangers) who joined the ARP, had “their canvas latrine cubicles commandeered as decontamination cubicles in case of gas attacks. The Rangers Decontamination Squad had to be prepared to erect them in two minutes. ‘At the practice sessions’, wrote one ranger, ‘we each put on a huge overall, rubber gloves, wellington boots and a gas mask. They had to stand inside the cubicles armed with a bucket of whitewash and a massive decorating brush’. Rangers were told to get the men who had to be decontaminated after air raids, to remove their clothing (but not to be nude), for their contaminated clothing had to be bagged and burnt (only after real not practise air raids). 

In September 1938, in London, Girl Guides who had been working on Buckingham Palace Road at the Guiding headquarters, were asked to help start digging bomb shelters in parks such as St James and Green Park. They would have to have one hour taken out of their lunch break, so they could assist in digging bomb shelters for two hours a day.

Meanwhile, in the villages where children had been evacuated to during the Blitz, local Guides proved their usefulness and resourcefulness “by helping to bathe and feed evacuated babies, playing with toddlers and organising games for older children.” The girls who had been evacuated would join local Guiding groups, which dramatically increased in size as a result. 

This goes to show how the Girl Guiding movement played a significant and influential role in aiding in Britain’s war efforts, twice. It proves how resilient, hard working and determined Girl Guides are as part of the guiding movement and as individuals. Finally it demonstrates how there is nothing we as Girl Guides, and all girls and women, cannot do if we put our hearts and minds to it.

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