It was a vital but largely ignored part of the efforts to help Britain in the Great War.

Millions of men were drafted into the armed forces, leaving behind gaping holes in the industrial factories and mills.

And as those men joined up, they needed uniforms - and it was down to the women to provide them.

Now a Huddersfield researcher Gail Ledgard has uncovered fascinating stories about the women who stepped into the breach; some 5,000 she estimates in Huddersfield alone.

Half of the workforce in the textile mills was already female, so when the remaining men left the solution was to recruit extra women from outside the traditional textile areas, and they rapidly changed the face of the industry as it strove to provide uniforms and other materials for the rapidly expanding armed forces.

Gail, of the University of Huddersfield, said: “It is well known that that during World War One, when men went away to fight, women stepped forward to take their place at work. But people tend to think that this just involved munitions. In areas such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, however, large numbers of women were already working in textiles, so when the men went, there was nobody locally available to take their place.

Women in industry researcher Gail Ledgard

“The solution was to bring in women from different areas of the country. There were huge numbers involved in this temporary migration. I estimated that in Huddersfield and district alone, more than 5,000 female workers were needed to replace men who joined the forces. The problem became acute when conscription was introduced in 1916.

“The women were recruited from areas where they traditionally did little industrial work – such as coal mining districts – or from regions where war had curtailed economic activity.

Gail is also visiting archives to research the organisational aspects of this massive recruitment campaign. Huddersfield had a Women’s War Employment Committee, which was one of 36 around the country, administered by the Home Office and the Board of Trade. These were voluntary organisations and in Huddersfield the membership included middle class ladies such as the wives of mill owners and the Lady Mayoress. Trades unions were also represented and a key role for the committees was to find accommodation for the thousands of incoming women.

Gail, of Mirfield, obtained a history BA at the University of Huddersfield and after a civil service career she returned to study for a Master’s degree and then to move on to her doctoral project, supervised by Senior Lecturer Dr Rebecca Gill.

“When the commemorations for World War One began, I found myself thinking what I would have done? I would almost certainly have been working in the mill and if my husband had gone to war, who was going to replace him?

“Women who were already working in textiles – producing the uniform cloth that was needed –couldn’t just drop everything and go and work in munitions.”

She can be contacted at

Take a look at our gallery of archive shots of mill workers who spent their days in local mills.