THOUGH the Army Council Instruction No 1069 of 1917 which formally established the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps was not issued until July 7, that year, it was 100 years ago today on March 28, 1917, that the Corps’ first orders were issued and the WAAC’s first 6,000 members were told to prepare for mission in France.

It was a turning point for women’s involvement in the war and society in general, and with the later arrival of women’s corps for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (WRNS and WRAF, respectively), no one could say that women did not play a vital role in the war – a fact that was already evident in many workplaces across Britain.

The WAAC centenary gives us a reason to mark the life of one of the most extraordinary women in Scottish history, Doctor Alexandra Mary Chalmers Watson, the first chief controller of the WAAC.

Born in India in 1872, Mona, as she was universally known, was the daughter of Auckland Campbell Geddes and Christina Helen MacLeod Geddes, nee Anderson. Her father was a civil engineer and her mother was a redoubtable campaigner for several feminist causes such as the rights of women to study at university, particularly medicine. Mrs Geddes was also instrumental in helping found the Edinburgh School of Cookery and Domestic Economy, forerunner of the modern Queen Margaret University.

Through her mother’s brother, Mona was related to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England. Her cousin was thus Louisa Garrett Anderson, the suffragette once imprisoned in Holloway who became the chief surgeon of the Women’s Hospital Corps. Mona set her own sights on a career in teaching and studied at St Leonard’s School in St Andrews, then as now a pioneering educational institution, before going to Aberdeen, where her studies were interrupted by an illness to her mother. She then found her true vocation in medicine, enrolling at Edinburgh University Medical School in 1891.

It was a turbulent time for women at the University. It was not that long after the arrival of Sophia Jex-Blake and the famous Edinburgh Seven female medical students had provoked riots among the male students, and while Dr Elsie Inglis had won public approval for her attempts to educate women medical students, it was Mona Geddes who became the first woman to graduate MD from the University in Edinburgh. She married fellow doctor Douglas Chalmers Watson later the same day, so that she could proudly write her signature and add the words MD after it. In her early years, Mona Chalmers Watson practised in England before returning to Edinburgh to set up a practice with her husband, with whom she had two sons. She researched and published articles on the effects of food on bodies for the Encyclopaedia Medica and even investigated the health of animals.

From an early age, Mona Geddes was an active suffragette who believed that the cause of women would be advanced by showing that her gender was equally capable of performing as well as men in every field. She went out of her way to treat suffragettes after their imprisonment, and lobbied hard for female equality in all areas, not just voting.

The First World War gave her the opportunity to show what women could do. Elsie Inglis had famously gone to Serbia to set up a hospital in 1916, and perhaps inspired by her fellow Edinburgh doctor, Chalmers Watson began to lobby for women to play a more active role in the war effort.

It helped Mona that she was the sister of Sir Auckland Geddes and Sir Eric Geddes, both of whom held high office in the civil service working on the war. Both encouraged her efforts, and with Britain desperately needing more men on the Western Front and the oft-forgotten Mesopotomian Campaign, the Cabinet and the generals began to listen. In late 1916, the War Office concluded that women could be used in ancillary positions behind the front line. Women were already staffing factories and other workplaces across the UK and it seemed a logical extension of this process.

Towards the end of January 1917, Mona Chalmers Watson met Secretary of State for War Lord Derby – who coined the phrase "Pals' Battalions" – in London. Watson later said that Lord Derby had made it clear he did not want the full enlistment of women, but he was happy to talk about uniforms and pay.

Sir Neville Macready, adjutant general of the army, then intervened. He met Chalmers Watson and was so impressed he wanted her in charge of the new corps against Lord Derby’s wish for a female aristocrat.

The commander-in-chief of the British Army, Sir Douglas Haig, approved the new Corps. On March 11, 1917, he wrote to the War Office: “The principle of employing women in this country [France] is accepted and they will be made use of wherever conditions admit.”

Chalmers Watson was duly appointed Chief Controller of the WAAC, in which there were no military ranks for fear of upsetting male soldiers. The Corps was divided into "officials" and "members", with officials either being "controllers" or "administrators", while members were "subordinate officials", "forewomen" or "workers".

Chalmers Watson organised the Corps into four sections – Cookery, Mechanical, Clerical and Miscellaneous.

Astonishingly, within weeks of being given the go-ahead, Chalmers Watson had found 6,000 trained women ready to go to France under her co-chief controller Helen Gwynne Vaughan and they duly embarked in April. For women to be accepted into the Corps they had to provide two references and go before a selection board, and also have a medical examination.

In a recruiting pamphlet Chalmers Watson wrote that “this is the great opportunity for every strong, healthy and active woman not already employed on work of national importance to offer her services to her country.”

Incredibly, given the male chauvinism of the age and the outright opposition to women serving in France, many thousands more women applied to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps than had been anticipated.

They were poorly paid, however, compared to men. In the lower ranks of the WAAC, unskilled work was paid at the rate of 24 shillings a week. Shorthand typists could get 45 shillings a week. Twelve shillings and six pence was deducted per week for food but accommodation and uniforms were free. The latter was strictly controlled, with skirts tailored to the regulated inch and very much below the knee.

Chalmers Watson tried her best to combat the relentless chauvinism which even saw WAACs portrayed as women of ill repute.

She wrote to Gwynne Vaughan about unfounded rumours, saying: “Ninety women from Rouen sent back for misconduct … a maternity home, around which the asserter said he himself had done sentry duty. A maternity home, 800 beds, every encouragement to procreate, £50 bonus to each woman, state adoption.

“Lady Betty Balfour has asked whether it is the case that the recruiting centres are promising a £5 bonus to the first case of mother and child. Another old and aristocratic bird asserts that the War Office is sending out professional prostitutes dressed in our uniforms.”

YET despite this discrimination the WAAC more than did its bit. The women members were largely employed on communications – women had been running telephone exchanges since before the war – and cooking and catering, and they did indeed free up men for the Front.

Eventually even royalty showed its appreciation of the Corps’ services – on April 9, 1918, the WAAC was re-named Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC), with Her Majesty as Commander-in-Chief of the Corps. Most people still called it the WAAC, however, By the end of the war more than 57,000 women had served with the WAAC and QMAAC. Following the Armistice in November 1918, the Corps was demobilised and ceased to exist by 1920.

Mona Chalmers Watson had herself stepped down in early 1918, apparently fed up with the treatment from her male superior officers, though she also had to care for her sick son.

She later said the WAAC was “an advance of the women’s movement” as the Corps had “a direct and officially recognised share in the task of our armies both at home and overseas.”

For Chalmers Watson, honoured with a CBE for her war work, it was back to Edinburgh and plenty other causes. She resumed her medical practice and began to campaign on numerous issues, one of which was the call for tuberculin testing of cows’ milk which she innovated at the family farm at Fenton Barns in East Lothian.

There is also an account extant of her address, “which was very much appreciated,” to the Scottish Matrons Association on the work of the National Council for Combating Venereal Disease.

Chalmers Watson spoke of the “special points emphasised by the Royal Commission on the disease; of the progress made in discovery and treatment during the last 12 years; and of the most hopeful lines along which improvement might be looked for in preventing the heavy toll taken on the efficiency of the nation by venereal disease.”

At one time or another she would be joint honorary-secretary of the Scottish Central Council of the Queen’s Institute for District Nursing, founding president of the Edinburgh Women Citizens’ Association, and first president of the Scottish Women’s Hockey Association, and in later years she was president of the Women’s United Services Club and a manager of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

All that and by all accounts she was a charming hostess who could talk easily to generals, ministers, soldiers, farmers, and her WAAC colleagues alike.

Shortly before she died in 1936, she became President of the Medical Women’s Federation which is still thriving today.

Mona Chalmers Watson’s greatest achievement? Advancing the cause of women, of that there is no doubt.

It was largely down to the fact that women performed so capably during the war both as replacements for men in the national workforce and in organisations like the WAAC that "votes for women" became not just a rallying cry but an inevitability and, of course, we all know that women’s emancipation became a partial reality in 1918, when the Representation of the People Act gave women over 30 the vote. In 1928, women of all ages finally got equal voting rights with men.

There was still a long way to go towards full equality in every area of life, and some would argue that there still is, but thanks to Watson and women like her, and all those millions who served their country in factories and battle fronts, in 1918 no man could deny equality to women.

Mona Chalmers Watson was both a suffragette and a pioneer of women’s rights in medicine and in wider society. It is therefore an absolute disgrace and a blot on Edinburgh’s escutcheon that there is no statue nor major memorial to her, apart from two plaques at the gates on the site of the former Elsie Inglis hospital.The National:

She has been largely omitted from Scotland’s history and that is something that should be put right as soon as possible and our children educated about this wonderful woman and others like her. Over to you, First Minister.