How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton


I was on Brownsea Island this weekend, where Scouts and Guides were born, and I spied this book at the gift shop by the jetty. I’d been thinking about it only that morning on the way down to the ferry, defending Guides in my head against imaginary people protesting that “Guides is for goodie-goodies” on the basis that Guides was started by the rebels and the non-conformists who caused scandal in society and on the basis that they did a lot during the war. Seeing the book that very day, I had to buy it.

The answer to “what did the Guides do during the war?” is everything. On the small, simple end of the scale, you have the girls who kept up the meetings, providing stability and routine during difficult times. But Guides also provided ready-made friends and family for displaced girls, whether evacuees or refugees from abroad, whether they’d previously been Guides and joined their sisters or whether they were new to the Movement and found a place within it. There were Guide companies within concentration camps – openly, as in the Weihsien Internment Camp, when the Chefoo School, a school in China for the children of foreign missionaries and business folk, was interned there, and secretly, as in Ravensbrück in Germany.

Back then, Guide badges were equivalent to real training and qualification, involving as they did a huge amount of work and learning. A Guide in 1940 with a Cook badge had done more than make a pizza and a salad and a couple of posters. Badges were taken seriously, both within Guides and outside. A Polish Guide trying to help on the front line was immediately hired as a nurse on the strength of her First Aid badge.

This book covers a lot of Guides, from the British Guides collecting paper and cotton reels, putting out fires, saving lives, digging bomb shelters and everything else during the Blitz, to the Polish Guides secreting people out of the city during the Warsaw Uprising, to the Guernsey Guides trying to survive under occupation, with supplies running dangerously low incredibly quickly, to the Chefoo Guides. Even the fledgling German Guides get a mention at the end, when they come to London and are taken aback at how little damage there seems to be compared to Germany. And there are just as many stories about Brownies and Rangers because small as Brownies are, they can do a lot, and I’m just glad my beloved Rangers haven’t been forgotten.

The trouble with this book is that I look at wartime Guides and everything they did and I look at my own Guides, one of whom won’t understand that doing a cartwheel in the middle of a crowd and risking kicking someone in the face is a bad thing. Guides who are starting their Chocolate badge next week. These are not girls who could help win WWIII if it were to break out tomorrow. At a recent conservation day, clearing the woods of huge amounts of chopped wood, my Rangers thought they were working hard if they put ten handfuls of twigs on the fire over the course of the seven hours we were working. I had two separate adults comment, in polite words, that they were lazy.

But the last chapter is called Into the Twenty-First Century and it points out that however much Guides achieved during the war, they’ve gone in and out of decline, that it’s had phases where it just wasn’t of interest to girls of the time. I think Guides is currently in a healthy period, where CHQ is trying to make it and keep it relevant and interesting to girls today and if that means chocolate and makeovers, then so be it. I think a huge part of Guiding is about having adventures and that’s definitely still happening. And ultimately, what did Baden-Powell say?

I have had a most happy life and I want each and every one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life.

Actually, I’ve learnt a lot about B-P from this book. I’d pictured him as a man largely pretty unpleased with the existence of anything as un-ladylike as Guides, who handed them over to his sister and mostly pretended they didn’t exist. And evidently he wasn’t like that at all. I leave you with two last quotes as to B-P’s attitude towards Guides.

Girls must be partners and comrades rather than dolls

I have had greetings from many patrols of Girl Scouts, for which I am very grateful. They make me feel very guilty at not having yet found time to devise a scheme of Scouting better adapted to them; but I hope to get an early opportunity of starting upon it. In the meantime, they seem to get a good deal of fun and instruction out of Scouting for Boys

Do I want you to read this? Yes, I do. But I recognise that it might be quite a niche subject, being as it is partly a social history of WWII, partly a history of Guiding and the rest specifically about Guiding during WWII and I know that’s not for everyone. But if you’re a Guide, it might be good to have a look at what your sisters did more than sixty years ago.


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