Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

By Peter Craddick-Adams
The world wars of the 20th century caused immeasurable misery, but also offered a new freedom to many women. Take a look at how they adjusted to their new situation - on the Home Front and in the battlefields.
Jo Salter, Flight Lieutenant, with GR1 B Tornado 

Women's role

Throughout history, the business of war has generally been the preserve of men. In the 20th century, however, the role of women in the armed forces began a process of transformation that is still happening to this day. Women now serve in an increasingly wide range of jobs, including positions as jet fighter pilots in the Royal Navy, RAF and US Air Force.

'So what is the situation today, and what went on in earlier eras?'

Despite this, there remains an over-riding public perception that women continue to be excluded from the combat arms of land forces, especially the infantry, armour and artillery, apart from in administrative roles. And people seem to forget that, for example, in the Red Army during World War Two, women served as tank crew, infantry, snipers and military police - although once the emergency was over, they reverted to the supporting arms.

So what is the situation today, and what went on in earlier eras?


Image of a female Resistance fighter in France, 1942 with a rifle
A female Resistance fighter, France, 1942
The exclusion of women from combat has revolved around several key assumptions.

First, society argued that women were physically weaker than men. They were said, for example, to lack the upper body strength so important to enable one to haul ropes, wield a sword, shoulder a musket, or load a shell for a sustained period in combat.

To this has been added the psychological argument that women are different from men. They are said to possess characteristics of caring and nurturing, and to be less aggressive than men.

'It is thought that media coverage will focus on female casualties ...'

Armchair generals have also argued that women lack one of the unique qualities of young men in uniform, prized by the armies of all nations - their willingness to take risks, to kill and, in extremis, to sacrifice themselves. Another view, still prevalent, is that the killing or wounding of women is somehow worse than the concept of male battle casualties. It is thought that media coverage will focus on female casualties (the ‘body-bag’ factor) to the discomfort of politicians, who will therefore be wary of sending women in to combat.

Some armies (the Israeli Defense Force for example) also exclude women from front-line service for fear that their male colleagues will accord them special protection or attention on the battlefield, thus undermining combat efficiency.

Before the 20th century, such debate tended to push women who wanted to be part of the armed forces either to conceal their gender, or to gravitate towards the caring roles of nurse or camp follower.

The two world wars, however, proved that, given the chance, the physical and mental fighting qualities needed in the services could be developed equally well, through training, in women as in men.

The use of women in combat by the Red Army, and the 418 female agents trained by Britain's Special Operations Executive to work for European resistance networks (of whom 119 died and three were awarded the George Cross, two posthumously), are two examples of how women have served successfully in offensive land operations.

In the air, the fact that between 1942 and 1945, 12 per cent of the Red Air Force’s fighter pilots, including several aces, were women, speaks for itself.

Adventure seeking

Image of a female Tartar warrior on horseback with a bow and arrow
Female Tartar warrior with a bow and arrow
It's important to consider the motivations of female warriors to serve. These include a craving for adventure (remember that there are recorded examples of female highwaymen and pirates), the desire for revenge common to many partisans and guerrillas, or the need to follow a loved one and be closer to them than joining the ranks of camp followers would ordinarily permit.

Just as some male warriors have been driven by noble patriotism, or even crude blood-lust, some of their female counterparts have also exhibited the same callings through the years, as we shall see.

'... long hair was not uncommon, and the wearing of wigs for those who could afford them was widespread.'

For a woman to serve as a sailor or soldier was easier than you might think in the 18th- and 19th-century armies and navies of the dukes of Marlborough and Wellington. Medical inspections on enlistment were rare, and flowing coats and capes could disguise female curves, especially if the breasts were bound.

Go to the National Army Museum in Chelsea if you can, and look at some of the 18th-century military portraits. You’ll see that long hair was not uncommon, and the wearing of wigs for those who could afford them was widespread.

Also, with many young male drummers, ensigns and cornets aged as young as 12 around, a woman soldier's unbroken voice and lack of facial hair could be passed off as attributable to youth and immaturity. Habits of personal hygiene in this era meant that few troops stripped to the waist to wash, so a female body could be kept hidden, and was often only revealed as a result of illness or wounding.

Gallant 'she-soldiers'

Image of Boadicea with spear
Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, from a Victorian costume collection
Female warriors have been known of for centuries, although the record has big gaps. As long ago as AD 69 Britain’s first known female warrior, Boadicea (more correctly, Boudicca) of the Iceni tribe, led an ultimately doomed revolt against the Roman invaders of these islands, which took Camelodunum (Colchester), Londinium and Verulanium (St Albans).

Very little filters out from British history during the next 16 centuries about women at war, though British troops encountered Joan of Arc between 1429-31.

'... the birth of a son unmasked her.'

A 17th-century soldier, one Private Clarke, was perhaps the next recorded example in British history of a woman combatant, possibly representing many other, unrecorded examples. She served in the same regiment as her husband for nine years, until the birth of a son unmasked her.

In 1655, Clarke was commemorated in an affectionate four-verse ballad, 'The Gallant She-Soldier', all the more remarkable for its composition during the strict Puritan era.

With musket on her shoulder, her part she acted then, And every one supposed that she had been a man; Her bandeleers about her neck, and sword hang’d by her side, In many brave adventures her valour have been tried.
With musket on her shoulder, her part she acted then, And every one supposed that she had been a man; Her bandeleers about her neck, and sword hang’d by her side, In many brave adventures her valour have been tried.
For other manly practices she gain’d the love of all, For leaping and for running or wrestling for a fall, For cudgels or for cuffing, if that occasion were, There’s hardly any one of ten men that might with her compare.
Yet civil in her carriage and modest still was she, But with her fellow souldiers she oft would merry be; She would drink and take tobacco, and spend her money too, When as occasion served that she had nothing else to do.
Women in Battle, John Laffin

Participants in battle

Image of the siege of Namur, 1792
The Battle of Namur, 1792
By the end of that same century, Ensign Robert Cornelius, who fought for William III at the battle of Namur in 1695 (the British Army’s first battle honour), had been unmasked as a woman by field surgeons treating her wounds.

In fact, there have probably always been female soldiers serving in disguise in the British Army, and they continued to do so. One of Marlborough’s lady warriors is commemorated on her grave-stone in the shadow of St Nicholas’ Church, Brighton:

In Memory of Phoebe Hessel/ Who was born at Stepney in the year 1713./ She served for many years/ As a private Soldier in the 5th Regiment of foot/ In different parts of Europe,/ And in the year 1745 fought under the command/ Of the Duke of Cumberland,/ At the Battle of Fontenoy,/ Where she received a Bayonet Wound in her Arm./ Her long life, which commenced in the time of Queen Anne,/ Extended to the reign of George IV,/ By whose munificence she received comfort/ And support in her latter Years./ She died at Brighton, where she long resided,/ December 12th, 1821, Aged 108 years.

More participants

Image of Hannah Snell in tricorn hat
Hannah Snell (1723-1792), aka Marine James Grey
Many other accounts survive of women involved in front-line combat. Also fighting at Namur was thrice-married Trooper Kit (Christiana) Welsh [/history/trail/wars_conflict/home_front/women_at_war_fact_file.shtml] . She subsequently fought in several regiments in the 1700s and was also involved in a duel with a sergeant over another woman.

Trooper Mary Ralphson, born in 1698, fought alongside her husband at Dettingen (1743) and Culloden (1746). At the same time, at sea, Ann Mills was recorded as serving on His Majesty’s Frigate HMS Maidstone, and a swashbuckling print of the era depicts her with a sword in one hand and a Frenchman’s head in the other. The print underlines the fact that female participation in the grizzly task of decapitating passing Frenchmen met with popular approval, just as the ballad of a century earlier smiled on the service of Private Clarke.

'Mary bore the great stigma (of the day) of being illegitimate ...'

Another seafarer was Marine James Grey [/history/trail/wars_conflict/home_front/women_at_war_fact_file.shtml] (actually Hannah Snell). She was born in 1723, and originally joined the army to look for a lost lover. Then she deserted and joined the Marines.

The case of Mary Anne Talbot [/history/trail/wars_conflict/home_front/women_at_war_fact_file.shtml] (1778-1808) tells us why a girl might end up fighting for king and country. Mary bore the great stigma (of the day) of being illegitimate and was sold by her guardian to a Captain Bowen of the 82nd Foot. He took her with him on his campaigns, disguised as a drummer boy, and her subsequent adventures found her as a castaway, as a powder-monkey on HMS Brunswick, being held prisoner by the French, and serving as a junior officer on a merchant ship.

Another example of female combatants came to light during the Peninsular War (1808-14), when British soldiers were surprised to come across female Spanish 'guerrillas' (guerilla means ‘little war’, and this was when the word first came into use). They were fighting the hated French occupiers of their country every bit as effectively as their male counterparts. They cruelly avenged the loss of their loved ones, which made Wellington’s men glad they were fighting with the Spanish, not against them.

Female doctors

Image of Dr James Barry
Dr James Barry - female military medic
It was possible, even in the 19th century, for women to slip through the net into the male world of the army. There is the remarkable case of Dr James Barry (1795-1865), who qualified at the Royal College of Surgeons (open only to men) in January 1813 as a regimental surgeon.

Little is known of her origins or of her female name, if she ever had one, but the little, five-foot doctor pursued a career in the army medical service via postings in South Africa, Mauritius, the West Indies, Malta (where she earned the Duke of Wellington’s praise), the Crimea and Canada.

'As a doctor, she was able to maintain the privacy she required to serve in an all-male environment.'

She fought a duel and eventually became senior inspector-general of hospitals, with the status of a major-general. Her gender - and the fact that she had at some stage born a child - was only uncovered on her deathbed.

What attracted her to army life? Perhaps in this case it was the desire to prove herself professionally, in a career that was denied to women at that time. As a doctor, she was able to maintain the privacy she required to serve in an all-male environment.

Another medical woman, Mrs Frances Bell, served in the Boer War of 1899-1902. She rescued some badly wounded men who were under fire, trapped in an ambushed convoy. As a reward for her bravery, she was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and awarded a Victoria Cross, but the award was never gazetted, for women were not eligible to receive it.

Thus, many unofficial precedents had been set prior to the 20th century, which illustrate that women have always been at the front – if only you knew where to look for them.

World War One

Imagae of Christobel Pankhurst
Christobel Pankhurst, suffragette campaigner
Of the two world wars, the first provided the greatest challenge in terms of widescale female participation in the war effort.

British society found itself at war with more than just the Germans. There was a psychological war, too, with the changes in society and its values that total war (the mobilisation of the entire population and all their resources for the war effort) demanded.

Although it was against it until the actual declaration of war against Germany, the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies became ardently patriotic as soon as hostilities started. On 6 August 1914, two days after the declaration, the women’s suffrage newspaper Common Cause expressed the hope that:

‘In the midst of this time of terrible anxiety and grief, it is some little comfort to think that our large organisation, which has been completely built up during past years to promote women’s suffrage, can be used to help our country through the period of strain and sorrow.’

Women acted as subtle and not so-subtle recruiters for the army. Admiral Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather, which encouraged women to hand a white feather to any young man who had not enlisted.

'Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon.'

Reading newspaper accounts of the outbreak of war in 1914, you will find many references to the militant Women’s Suffrage movement, which had been so opposed to the government just months before, now backing the war effort. Christobel Pankhurst made a series of speeches in favour of the war effort, encouraging young men to join the army and women to play their part, too.

Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon. When the distinguished Scottish medic, Dr Elsie Inglis offered to form a women’s ambulance unit, she was rebuffed at the War Office with the words, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still!’

Flora Sandes [/history/trail/wars_conflict/home_front/women_at_war_fact_file.shtml] (1876-1955) couldn’t sit still, and joined a seven-woman ambulance unit in August 1914 that went to aid the Serbs, who were then allies of Britain and struggling against the Austrians. Sandes achieved recognition without disguise, but in a foreign army fighting for a foreign nation’s survival.

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.

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 [/history/trail/wars_conflict/home_front/women_at_war_fact_file.shtml] 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.

Front line

Image of Auxiliary Territorials Services (ATS) on training during World War Two
Auxiliary Territorials Services (ATS) on training during World War Two
All the women’s armed forces had been disbanded after World War One and had to be reformed as the war clouds gathered once again. The WRNS was re-established in April 1939.

They were attached to nearly every naval unit at home and overseas, and an élite few were employed in secret naval communications and in decyphering coded German messages. By 1945, 72,000 were in service. The WAACs likewise were reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1938, and by 1945, these numbered more than 190,000, including 2nd Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, later to become Queen Elizabeth II.

'... significantly Britain, too, became part of the front line.'

The women drove and maintained vehicles, as well as manning anti-aircraft guns. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), formed in June 1939, manned the top secret Radio Direction Finding (radar) stations in the Battle of Britain, and numbered 153,000 by the war’s end.

Women in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) ferried aircraft from factories to airfields, even across the Atlantic. Several were killed in air crashes, including the famous pre-war flyer Amy Johnson. And the FANY - never disbanded - continued, serving under the guise of the Women’s Transport Service.

The recent film Charlotte Gray portrays a particular breed of female warrior during World War Two. These women were right on the front line, often in actual combat, and Charlotte is an amalgam of several real-life heroines who worked with the French Resistance.

Of these, Violette Szabo was a FANY. She volunteered to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was parachuted into France as an intelligence radio officer. Ambushed by the Germans and wounded in the ensuing gunfight, she was captured and died at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945.

The same fate befell her SOE colleague Nora Khan, who originally enlisted as a WAAF and was murdered at Dachau. Both women were posthumously awarded a George Cross, as was Odette Churchill who, despite terrible torture, survived the war.

Women served in most theatres of war, but significantly Britain too, eventually became part of the front line. All of a sudden, after years of official separation from the business of battle, women found themselves not only conscripted, but de facto at the front.

During the Battle of Britain, flight officer Felicity Hanbury [/history/trail/wars_conflict/home_front/women_at_war_fact_file.shtml] was a 26-year old WAAF officer in charge of the WAAF section at RAF Biggin Hill, comprising about 250 airwomen. Perhaps her memoires speak for many. In July 1940 she attended her Assistant Adjutant’s Course and wrote home:

‘Must say this course is very interesting, but I do wish it was over ... I’m longing to get back to Biggin.’


Image of wrens on board ship, 1990
Wrens on board ship, 1990
'War is men’s business, not ladies',' we are told in Gone With the Wind, but the total wars of the 20th century have dismembered this concept and forced us to acknowledge that it is just as much the concern of women.

Professor Margaret Randolph Higonnet argues that the advances in military technology and strategy have blurred the boundaries between war zones and the home front, whilst mass communication and psychological warfare have affected all sectors of nations at war.

'Now, it is accepted that women are as competent as their male colleagues in many uniformed roles ...'

Breaking with the past, in 1914-18 women displayed independence by taking over men’s jobs and risking their lives as nurses and ambulance drivers at the front. But in 1919, their organisations were largely disbanded as men again took full control of the business of soldiering.

By World War Two, they had gone into combat in the Soviet Union and joined resistance movements throughout Europe, and the male-female distinction in total war lost any meaning.

As most historians have themselves in the past been men, we should not be surprised that there has been relatively little interest in the female perspective of historical events or personalities until recently. The tide has now turned, and modern historians are devoting a great deal of time and attention to this hitherto unresearched field.

We are now discovering that there has, perhaps surprisingly, been a long tradition of women serving in the armed forces of their country, alongside men, and that their contribution has not been limited to nursing - scooping the wounded, angel-like, to safety and recovery.

Now, it is accepted that women are as competent as their male colleagues in many uniformed roles, and have proved themselves capable in combat. The lesson we learn is that war is equally the business of some men and some women, but that it is the preserve of neither.

Published on BBC History: 2005-03-01
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