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Women 100

Women have always worked with the military. Famously, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole trailblazing when working voluntarily in the Crimean War.

During WWI women undertook traditionally male-dominated work in ammunition factories; and the Board of Agriculture organised the “Land Army” in 1915, which by the end of 1917 saw around 260,000 women working as farm labourers, with 23,000 in the Land Army itself, with responsibilities such as milking cows and picking fruit.

But it was not until the creation of the WAAC on 7 July 1917 that women were formally able to be employed by the Army. Initial obstacles included such considerations as suitability of the uniforms; the question of pay; and the very real problem of diverting women away from the work they were already doing in support of the war effort.  Sir Douglas Haig wrote to the war office in support of the employment of women in the Army, but expressed concern about their physical strength to be effective, and of mixed genders working together in certain situations.

Once formally established, however, women were able to be employed in the WAAC as cooks, mechanics, clerks and other miscellaneous roles.  In recognition of its contribution, less than a year later, on 9 April 1918, it was announced the WAAC would be renamed “Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps” with her Majesty as Commander-in-Chief.  By the end of WWI the QMAAC employed over 40,000 women. Demobilisation started following Armistice, and the QMAAC ceased to exist in May 1920.

Woman in the Army

The next women’s branch was the ATS, or the Auxiliary Territorial Service, formed on 9 September 1938.  These women worked as cooks, clerks and storekeepers, and at the outbreak of WWII 300 were sent to France.  And although they were barred from combat roles ATS telephonists were among the last British personnel to leave the country in the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in May 1940.

In 1941 the National Service Act was passed, calling up unmarried women to join one of the auxiliary services, the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Women’s Land Army. The size of the ATS increased, and roles expanded to include orderlies, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and drivers.  Women were excluded from serving in battle but took over an increasing number of tasks, crewing anti-aircraft guns and as military police with numbers reaching 65000.
It is perhaps absurd today that a secret trial was undertaken, to test whether women were capable of operating heavy equipment and working in isolated areas.  But this enabled the further replacement of men, and in July 1942 the first mixed regiment, the 26th London Electrical Engineers Searchlight Regiment, RA came into being. 

By VE Day, there were over 190,000 members of the women’s ATS.

Female Medics

The ATS existed until 1949 when it was merged into the Women’s Royal Army Corps, also formed in 1949. Its members continued to perform administrative and support tasks, until it was disbanded in April 1992. Those clerical and support roles then transferred to what is known today as the Adjutant General’s Corps.

Of course today the roles are much wider for women in the Army, and by 2019 all 70 roles in the Army will be open to women.  Today there are women serving in every rank in the British Army, and everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality is treated equally. 

Women have been serving with distinction in the British Army for one hundred years, and we salute them all.