Women from all walks of life made a contribution to the First World War, even the daughter of the man who would later become Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Beatrice Enid Bell was born in Wellington in 1888, to the distinguished parents Sir Francis Bell and Lady Caroline Bell. She is believed to have been the first New Zealander to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the First World War. Sources vary as to where Enid was on the outbreak of war, some state she was already in Britain, whilst others state Lady Caroline decided to take her daughters (Enid and Violet) to Britain to help out after war was declared. Regardless, in 1914 Enid found herself here, volunteering with the New Zealand War Contingent Association. The association would seek out New Zealand soldiers in hospitals to offer what help they could. The girls moved with the association as they opened a hospital specifically for New Zealanders at Walton on Thames. Enid assisted in sewing, cooking, cleaning, washing up and setting tables. In 1916 when the New Zealand Division arrived in France, the New Zealand military took over the hospital, bringing with them trained Army Nursing Staff.
It was then that things changed for both Violet and Enid. Enid began her training as an ambulance driver and mechanic and between February and April 1917 was the Assistant Instructress at British Red Cross Service Motor school, before setting off for France with the British Red Cross in April 1917. Enid’s first posting was at Etaples and Trouville, before returning to the Motor School until January 1918. In July 1917 her sister Violet, was asked by senior New Zealand military officers to go to Rouen to be in charge of a section of Voluntary Aid Detachment women in the NZ Expeditionary Force Records section. Violet held the rank of Forewoman in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. On January 21st 1918 Enid was tasked with forming the first unit of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS). Beginning as Motor Driver (and Mechanic, her rank was soon Chief Section Leader in charge of the Admiralty Garage in London. One of her tasks was to drive some senior officers and a cabinet minister from London to Harwich, where they were to board a cruiser to receive the surrender of the German submarine fleet. On arrival in Harwich it was insisted that Enid accompany the senior officers on board. This made Enid the only woman present at sea to receive the surrender of the U-Boats!
Enid was discharged from the WRNS in February 1919. She was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1919 and returned to New Zealand to become Deputy Chief Commissioner for the Girl Guides Association. Enid found herself in London for the outbreak of the Second World War, where she enrolled as an ambulance driver; driving on night duty during the blitz.
After the war, she finally settled in Heretaunga, New Zealand where she became an accomplished artist. She died 1977, just 5 years before her sister Violet who passed away in 1983.