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18 September 2014
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Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

By Peter Craddick-Adams
Medical staff

Image of the Scottish Women's Hospital ambulance drivers, 1915
The Scottish Women's Hospital ambulance drivers, 1915 ©
There were, in 1914, two uniformed services in Britain that were open to women. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was created in 1907 as a link between front-line fighting units and the field hospitals.

During the war, FANYs ran field hospitals, drove ambulances and set up soup kitchens and troop canteens, often under highly dangerous conditions. By the Armistice, they had been awarded many decorations for bravery, including 17 Military Medals, one Legion d'Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre.

'... women volunteers over the age of 23 were allowed to go to hospitals overseas ... '

Then there were the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) of nurses, formed in 1909 to provide medical assistance in time of war. By the summer of 1914 there were more than 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain.

At first the War Office was unwilling to accept VADs at the front, but this pointless restriction was removed in 1915 and women volunteers over the age of 23 were allowed to go to hospitals overseas serving the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli.

During the next four years 38,000 VADs worked as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. Both the FANY and VAD tended to (or were perceived to) recruit only from the middle and upper classes.

Initially, British female medical staff were kept away from the traumas of front-line nursing. But two Englishwomen not content to adhere to the rules were Elsie Knocker (later Baroness T’Serclaes) and the 18-year old Mari Chisholm, who tended wounded in the Belgian sector from August 1914. They collected their wounded out of the mud, gave them first aid and drove them to a base hospital 15 miles away, running a gauntlet of shellfire all the way.

'It was decided to use women to replace men doing uniformed administrative jobs in Britain and France ...'

In 1917, they were both awarded the British Military Medal for arranging a truce with the Germans and rescuing a British pilot who had crashed in No Man’s Land. Their war ended in March 1918, when both were gassed in the German offensive and had to return home. Both had achieved recognition as women, but working in the front line, against official British regulations.

Eventually - and only after it was apparent that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’ (the cry of August 1914) - female branches of the hitherto all-male armed forces were established. This development happened surprisingly late in the war - too late for many impatient women - and stemmed from the heavy losses sustained on the Western Front in 1916. It was decided to use women to replace men doing uniformed administrative jobs in Britain and France - thus releasing the men to fight at the front.

The Royal Navy was the first of the armed services to recruit women. Formed in 1916, the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS - the ‘Wrens’) took over the role of cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians.

By the war’s end 5,000 ratings and nearly 450 officers had joined, and their success had spawned the army and air force equivalents also.

Published: 2005-03-01

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