Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘Helping Hands’

Female Auxiliaries in the First World War

During the First World War, there was an unprecedented mobilization of the civilian population ­– and, above all, of women. Their work to support the war effort was not confined to the home; ever more women went to the front as military auxiliaries.


Because of the considerable lack of soldiers who were fit to fight, from 1917, the imperial Ministry of War had to fall back upon female assistance. To relieve some of the pressure on the soldiers who were still fit to fight, what were known as ‘female auxiliaries’ were deployed from March of that year. They were answerable to the Chef des Ersatzwesens für die gesamte bewaffnete Macht [Chief of replacement services for the entire armed services] and were meant to take over certain duties that had previously performed by men so that the latter could join the fighting troops.

The Austro-Hungarian army had already begun to employ women auxiliaries for housekeeping and administrative duties long before 1917. The Rot-Kreuz-Schwestern [Red Cross nurses] had also been serving on the front since 1915. After 1917, however, the military had to significantly increase the number of women in its ranks. Between 1917 and 1918, between 36,000 and 50,000 women were working as auxiliaries on the front.

Female army service was, however, not a peculiarly Austrian phenomenon. The German, British, French and American militaries also deployed female auxiliaries from 1917 onwards. In Germany, they were known as ‘Etappenhelferinnen’. Their activities were often organized by women from the bourgeois women’s movement. They led the women’s departments that were established to mobilize the female workforce throughout Germany.

Like their German counterparts, the auxiliaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire worked as technical assistants, office staff, telephonists, stenographers, and as cooks, seamstresses and housekeepers. They worked far from home, sometimes side-by-side with the soldiers. Although the military emphasized that the female auxiliaries in the army had no uniform, sketches of their work clothes provide indications to the contrary.

Austro-Hungarian women signed up for military auxiliary service for very different reasons. Alongside patriotism and the opportunity to earn a good wage, the terrible supply shortages at home must have also played a significant role. Women often expected that they would gain better access to supplies if they worked for the army.

The women auxiliaries did not enjoy a good reputation: they were depicted as sexually and morally loose, immoral and adventurous. As the female auxiliaries and ‘Etappenhelferinnen’ – unlike the highly revered Rot-Kreuz-Schwestern [Red Cross nurses] – were not working in caring or nursing roles, they undermined the image of the motherly, loving and caring wartime woman that had previously prevailed. By working in the military, such women threatened the dichotomy of masculine front and feminine home, and with it, the gender system that the logic of war had given rise to.


Translation: Aimee Linekar


Healy, Maureen: Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire. Total War and Everyday Life in World War I, Cambridge 2004

Hois, Alexandra: „Weibliche Hilfskräfte“ in der österreichisch-ungarischen Armee im Ersten Weltkrieg (unveröffentlichte Diplomarbeit), Wien 2012

Schönberger, Bianca: Mütterliche Heldinnen und abenteuerlustige Mädchen. Rotkreuz-Schwestern und Etappenhelferinnen im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Hagemann, Karen/Schüler-Springorum, Stefanie (Hrsg.): Heimat – Front. Militär und Geschlechterverhältnisse im Zeitalter der Weltkriege, Frankfurt/New York 2002, 108-127

Stoehr, Irene/Aurand, Detel: Opfer oder Täter? Frauen im I. Weltkrieg (1), in: Courage (1982), 11, 43-50


Contents related to this chapter


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Mobilisation of the civilian population

    During the "Gold for Iron” campaign, gold rings or jewellery donated to finance the war were exchanged for iron rings. The civilian population was called upon to play an active role in welfare and aid associations and to offer its services for the fatherland. Women and children collected clothes and blankets for the army and hospitals, and materials like wastepaper and iron for recycling. They knitted and sewed, and these "Liebesgaben” or charitable gifts were sent to the front to provide emotional encouragement to the troops.



  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?

  • Development

    Gender roles: change/no change?

    It is a widely held view that the First World War revolutionised the traditional roles of men and women in society. Photos of tram conductresses, female coach drivers and postwomen would appear to confirm this, as does the assumption by women of the traditional male role as providers for the family. But did things change that much, and what was left of the supposed changes after 1918?