Women of Devon in the World Wars


While the two World Wars wrought unprecedented destruction on many lands and lives, those times of great conflict also allowed women the opportunity to take on roles in politics and industry which had never been available to them before. 

One of Exeter's own, Elsie Knocker is remembered as not only a distinguished Devonian, but also as a key figure in the Great War. She and Mairi Chisholm grew to fame during the war—although that was likely something which happened as a result of their extraordinary actions rather than as an achievement they sought—for their efforts on the battlefront in Belgium. These women, known as "The Angels of Pervyse," provided first aid to troops very near to German trenches. The two met because of their mutual love for motorcycles and a similar drive to break free of the expectations of women at the time. Elsie was divorced and one of the few women of the time interested in motorcycles in the early 20th century, and this boldness translated into her influential career in war relief.

Women of the Southwest continued to be vitally important during the Second World War. One such woman was Eleanor "Lena" Doidge. Originally from Plymouth, Doidge enlisted in the Women’s Land Army in 1942. Established in World War I and re-founded shortly before the Second World War’s outbreak, the WLA was designed to assuage government fears of food shortages. She worked on farms around Stoke village, helping provide more agricultural labour. Doidge herself cared for land owned by former Stoke Climsland vicar Cannon Andrews. For Doidge, it was a time of community and unity in the face of war.

She remembered how she and her fellow women shared a hostel behind a church. Occasionally, the government would even use their lorries to transport German POWs. Though they didn’t have a TV, they had a wireless radio, and they would sing songs. In many ways, it seemed almost peaceful.

Although Plymouth suffered from the Blitz, it wasn’t until 1943, when Doidge went to visit relatives in Coventry, that she saw the true horrors of the bombings. She described it, saying “the doodlebugs were horrifying, and flying bombs were exploding everywhere.” Her account was hardly hyperbolic; Coventry needed to be rebuilt after the war.

After the war, Doidge believed the Women’s Land Army had been undervalued by the British government. Unlike the Women’s Royal Navy and the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Land Army didn’t receive a gratuity for their efforts. Instead, they received a certificate and, later, when Churchill designed to recognize their work, they received a second one. Although Doidge and her colleagues did not always receive the appreciation they deserved, their work during the War was immensely impactful.

Another one of the many women who fought for Britain during World War II was Christine Harlock. While women have had active roles in the British Army since 1902 (and in the navy long before that), they primarily worked in non-combat or auxiliary services. In 1941, women were conscripted and given a few options for serving their country. However, this does not make their service any less valuable.



Text © Ben Koses and Brianna Levesque




Eleanor ‘Lena’ Doidge, 89. Copyright The Plymouth Herald. Used with permission.


Harlock was caught in Rangoon during the Japanese bombings of 1941, but she managed to escape to India, where she learned both typing and shorthand before joining the Women’s Royal Army Corps. After her father arrived from Burma, the family returned to England. Harlock’s father suggested she apply for the Intelligence Corps and, at the age of 17, she made it in.

In the Intelligence Corps, Harlock analysed Nazi wireless communications in Derbyshire and on the Yorkshire Moors. Near the end of the war, she worked at Bletchley Park, cracking top-secret Nazi ciphers. She analysed coded messages and other transmissions containing troop and division movements and communications between generals. It is possible that she may have even looked at messages sent by Hitler himself.

Not even her late husband, Commander (William) Mark Harlock RN, knew how she worked on decoding messages from German high command. And, at the time, neither did Harlock. Along with all her co-workers, she worked at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), and their records were kept secret from the public for approximately 70 years. It’s only now that Bletchley Park and GC&CS records have been publicized that Harlock has received recognition for her service, even obtaining a medal and a certificate signed by Prime Minister David Cameron. 

These four women are just a sampling of the many whose lives were changed by the First and Second World Wars, who changed lives themselves. Although the opportunities allowed them during the wars were only offered out of necessity at first, their daring, resiliency and heroism showed the world that women should've been trusted with greater responsibility all along.