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

By Peter Craddick-Adams
World wars

Image of a Wren training an army recruit in respirator drill
A Wren trains an army recruit in respirator drill ©
In January 1917, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was established, offering jobs for women to serve as chauffeurs, clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks, and as instructors.

When the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged in March 1918 to form the Royal Air Force, a female branch, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), was immediately created.

'... Britain’s existence had been threatened as never before ...'

Here women worked as clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and storekeepers. Overall, with official sanction, over 100,000 women served in the uniformed services during 1914-18. Nearly half were connected with nursing, and few were permitted anywhere near the fighting.

The experience of Dorothy Lawrence highlights the prevailing attitude of officialdom to women at the front in 1914-18. In her quest to report from the front, she travelled in disguise to the town of Albert, on the Somme. Here she survived 12 nights in the trenches, before her identity was discovered, and she gained a true picture of the conditions under which the soldiers were fighting. Her bestseller about her experiences reflected a popular post-war desire for social change in Britain.

The picture of the role of women in war altered dramatically in World War Two. Arguably Britain’s existence was threatened as never before, and in December 1941, reflecting the gravity of the situation, Churchill’s wartime government passed the National Service Act (No 2) which allowed the conscription of women.

This was further than any other unoccupied country had gone at this time in mobilising a nation’s labour resources, and further than the Germans could go, as Hitler had promised to keep his females at home, nurturing the little storm troopers of the future.

In Britain, it was initially single women and widows without children, aged between 19 and 30, who were called up. Later the age limit was pushed as far as 43 (or 50 for veterans of World War One). They went into a variety of vital war industries, the Women’s Land Army and the armed forces.

Published: 2005-03-01

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