History

Guiding The Empire: How Girl Guides helped to end the First World War

A new exhibition is shining a spotlight on the vital role the Girl Guides played during WWI

A new exhibition is shining a light on the little-known but vital contribution made by Girl Guides during the First World War which saw them being used as couriers for the Versailles Treaty and assisting MI5. 

When you think of wartime efforts by women during the Great War, you might not picture Girl Guides but this community of girls and young women have some amazing stories to share. 

The Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome in Essex – from where No 37 Squadron transitioned from the Royal Flying Corps to the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918 – has a new exhibition called 'Guiding The Empire' that aims to bring this vibrant and rich history to life.

Rainbows and Brownies and Guides preparing for their current interest badges CREDIT Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA
Rainbows and Brownies and Guides preparing for their current interest badges (Picture: Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA).

It explores and puts a spotlight on their crucial contribution which included life-saving action after bombing raids to changing the attitudes of what was 'acceptable' for young girls at the end of the Edwardian era. 

Ian Flint, Chief Executive of the museum, spoke to Joe Carden, a broadcaster for BFBS the Forces Station, about the extraordinary things these young girls and women achieved during WW1 and why it has taken so long to gain recognition. 

He said: "They don't shout about what they've done so for them to see this not only being shouted about but being presented in a period building, on a period aerodrome and it's something the public can see – it really is a matter of some personal pride." 

The Rangers Guides Brownies and Rainbows outside the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome museum CREDIT Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA
Guides, Rangers, Brownies and Rainbows stand outside the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome museum (Picture: Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA).

And they deserve to be proud of their history. 

Described by Julie Bentley, a former Chief Executive of the Girl Guides in the UK, as "the ultimate feminist organisation", the girls-only, now trans-inclusive, youth group, has been at the forefront of gender equality and empowerment since The Guide Association was established in 1909. 

After Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell set up the Boy Scouts in 1908, some intrepid girls decided they wanted their own version, so his sister Agnes Baden-Powell was tasked with setting up the Girl Guides. His wife, Lady Baden-Powell, eventually became Chief Guide for Britain in 1918. 

The Girl Guides is now a worldwide movement which played a crucial part in ending the First World War. Ian said: "We think of [the Girl Guides] now as a blue uniform and neckerchief wearing group of well-meaning young ladies that are looking to achieve and do well ... but actually, they're so much more and speaking as someone who's had no interaction with guiding, it really did open my eyes." 

Two Girl Guides enjoying the Guiding The Empire exhibition CREDIT Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA
Two Girl Guides enjoying the Guiding The Empire exhibition (Picture: Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA).

During The Great War, Girl Guides did not take on military roles but instead became hospital volunteers, first aiders, entertained wounded soldiers, worked on the land and even volunteered in soup kitchens. 

A War Service badge was created in 1914 and to receive it they had to do one of the following. 

Three hours of voluntary war service a day for 21 days, 100 hours of agricultural work or make 15 items of clothing including a pair of pyjamas, four pairs of socks and two shirts. 

Alleen Beck, Catherine Murry, Helen Green and Tracy Foster stand by the memorial dedicated to the officers of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron who made the ultimate sacrifice CREDIT Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA
Alleen Beck, Catherine Murry, Helen Green and Tracy Foster stand by the memorial dedicated to the officers of 37 Squadron RAF who made the ultimate sacrifice (Picture: Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA).

Girl Guides were also asked to collect the stones from fruits like apricots, cherries, plums and dates and nutshells because it was believed when burnt, the charcoal left could absorb poisonous gas, making them a great resource for gas masks. 

But what many people might not be aware of is the vital role Girl Guides played in getting the Treaty Of Versailles signed, officially ending the First World War as Ian explains: "If it hadn't been for Girl Guides ... there would be no end to the Great War because they were the couriers and special messengers for the Versailles Treaty that no-one knows about. 

"No-one realises that they were the ones securing and moving the secret messages around between all the countries negotiating the peace. 

"Especially in Essex, especially when we think about [The Marconi Wireless Telegraph] and the top-secret work that was done at Stow Maries. 

"It was Girl Guides who were confidential messengers and couriers for Marconi which led to the Admiralty which led to them being used by MI5." 

Alison Tompkinson, County Commissioner, Girlguiding Essex South East, with her colleagues looking at the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome museum exhibition (Picture: Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA).
Alison Tompkinson, County Commissioner, Girlguiding Essex South East, with her colleagues looking at the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome museum exhibition (Picture: Mr Dave Davies of SMGWA).

Jonathan Evans, a former Director-General of MI5, gave a speech at Bristol University in October 2009 in which he explained why Girl Guides were used instead of Boy Scouts, saying: "The initial plan had been to use Boy Scouts but they proved feckless and noisy and the Girl Guides were a more reliable alternative. 

"The Guides were required to be "between the ages of 14 and 16 ... of good standing, quick, cheerful and willing". 

Guides, Brownies, Rainbows and Rangers will get in for free if they wear their uniform. 

To visit the exhibition, which has been funded by the Fowler Smith And Jones Trust, go to Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome near Maldon in Essex.

The museum is usually open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 10am to 4pm. 

Cover image: Agnes Baden-Powell inspects the guard of honour of Girl Guides at Battersea Park on 1 June 1916 (Picture: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo).