The ban on women serving in close combat units in the British Army was lifted in 2016. The decision marked a major step towards equal opportunities. The continued exclusion of women before that point came down to two issues – soldiers’ cohesion and physical effectiveness.
Women make up about 9 per cent of the army – a little more if you’re an officer and a little less if you are any other rank. The opening up of close combat roles means that women are now eligible to deploy on foot over difficult terrain, carrying substantial weight, and engage in close quarter fighting. This, on repeat, over an extended period of time is an essential function of the army and takes an amount of intense, visceral and very real endurance. Some voices still object to the presence of women in this environment.
It isn’t the first time that roles for women in the army have caused debate. In fact, women have always performed roles in the army’s operations. No eighteenth or nineteenth century army could have survived without the presence of women as carers, launderers, cooks, sutlers and rudimentary nurses. Women helped care for the sick and wounded on the battlefield when nursing had neither the resources nor respectability it gained by later professionalisation. Sutlers sold general necessities like beer and tobacco within regiments, from which there was additional demand for prostitutes to follow the camp. In this period we can find examples of women disguising themselves as men in order to enlist in other roles such as military surgeons.
Women served in their own right from just after the Boer War as part of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Volunteers paid to join the FANY and had to cover their own expenses for uniforms, first aid kits, riding school fees and horse care, so needed to be wealthy. Not strictly speaking part of ‘the armed forces of the Crown’, they were nonetheless able to get to France quickly when the First World War broke out, offering their services to the British authorities. Despite positive recommendations, the army concluded that they weren’t needed. Consequently, the FANY was to provide nurses and ambulances for the Belgian Army, and soon afterwards for the French. The first FANYs crossed the Channel in October 1914. It was the first British women’s voluntary organisation to go out to the war.
The women of the FANY had to deal not only with the horror of the war, but also with prejudice from the military authorities. It was not until January 1916 that the British finally recognised the value of their support, and they became the first women to drive motor vehicles for the British Army. Alongside other women’s organisations, like the Voluntary Aid Detachments, their contribution helped convince the War Office of the value of women in the armed services, and was a factor in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps being founded in 1917.
Beyond nursing, the Government, faced with shortages of men in key industries, had no choice but to mobilise the whole population for other work. By November 1918 over a million women had been added to the British workforce. Women were initially recruited as bus conductors and train guards, and then as munitions workers. In August 1915, Lady Londonderry helped establish the Women’s Legion to cook for the army. Based in Dartford, it provided cooks, waitresses and gardeners and, from 1916, motor transport drivers. The latter chiefly served with the Royal Flying Corps. It too was not formally part of the army, but, in keeping with the spirit of the times, adopted a military-style organisation and uniform.
Despite the introduction of conscription in 1916, the heavy losses at the front meant the army’s manpower shortage got worse. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed to free up soldiers from non-combat roles so that they could go and fight. Alexandra Chalmers Watson was appointed to lead the new force in Britain. She was the sister of Brigadier Auckland Geddes, the War Office Director of Recruiting. A small contingent of the WAAC embarked for service in France in March 1917, under their first commander, Assistant Controller Helen Gwynne Vaughan. On arrival, Vaughan proved an able commander despite the obstruction of some male colleagues. She said of this:
‘I discovered that the objection to the employment of women was almost universal. The Services, of all professions, had, naturally the least experience of working with women, they knew little of the extent to which, even then, men and women were working easily together, they mistrusted the complications which the influx of a large body of women might entail, they disliked the intrusion into their offices and workshops of an alien element.’
Unlike male soldiers, the women of the WAAC ‘enrolled’ rather than ‘enlisted’. This gave them a different status to men, more like that of civilians in uniform.
They also had a different command structure to their male counterparts. Officers were called ‘Officials’; Non-Commissioned Officers were referred to as ‘Forewomen’, and other ranks as ‘Workers’. In name at least, the WAAC resembled the factory structure familiar at home, rather than a military formation. Young women like Lia Parfitt jumped at the chance to enroll:
‘In 1917 I began to see girls in khaki uniforms, these were… members of the WAAC. Then my evil spirit and restlessness began to catch up with me. I wanted to be a WAAC and do my bit – this was my usual theme of conversation whenever my poor father was home, and his usual answer was No, No, No!’
By 1918, nearly 40,000 women had enrolled. Of these, some 7,000 served in France on the Western Front; the rest in the UK. On the Western Front, the WAAC often shared the same dangers as their male colleagues. Air raids on the camps and depots were frequent.
Female soldiers attracted a mixed reception from the press and public. Some wives and mothers resented their male relatives being replaced in their non-combat roles and sent to the dangers of the front line. Entrenched sexism was still prevalent, and several newspapers suggested that improper relations took place between women soldiers and ‘Tommies’. This rumour persisted despite an investigation in March 1918 that found only 21 women had been sent home pregnant in the past year.
Despite the solid progress made during the war, there was no whole-hearted attempt to take the scheme forward into peacetime. It was not until 1938 that a rough equivalent, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was set up as a part-time corps. This subsumed the other women’s units that existed, but its ranks were still treated as an auxiliaries rather than soldiers.
In mid 1942 ATS personnel were posted to searchlight units and by October that year the 93rd Searchlight Regiment Royal Artillery were formed of 1,500 women and fewer than 200 men. Their competence – and the success of mixed batteries – did a lot in establishing the perception of women’s ability to perform complex tasks in dangerous situations. By the end of the war over 190,000 women were members of the ATS.
The ATS became the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1949. For the next two decades, the issue of arming women was a live one: Brigadier Eileen Nolan, corps director from 1973–77 did a lot to move recognition towards that of a combatant but non-belligerent corps. Under her guidance, the women’s training college was amalgamated with Sandhurst. Between 1949–92, women served as part of the corps all over the world in 40 trades and occupations.
In 1992, the corps ceased to exists, its serving members transferred to appropriate units in the regular army. They were still restricted to support and medical roles, a situation that was legally challenged in 1999, the same year that Patricia Purves became the first woman to gain the rank of brigadier.
The army’s own research shows that less that five per cent of the 7,000 women in the army would pass the current tests to join the infantry. But determining roles in the army according to ability and not gender is a move that brings the British Army into line with international counterparts, including the United States.
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