International Women's Day
IWD 2018 provides a platform to look at "first among equals", from those who have broken through barriers, to advancement for talented individuals and groups; to celebrate what is working and celebrate skills and talent everywhere. Those pioneers who have overcome the barriers of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and disability allow us to ask what works, who we can widen lessons learned, and what we all stand to gain from a world which is more diverse, more egalitarian and more mobile.
The first women soldiers
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.
But it was not until the creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps on 7 July 1917 that women were formally able to be employed by the Army. Initial obstacles included such considerations as uniforms; 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 and about mixed genders working together in certain situations.
Once WAAC was formally established, women were able to be employed as cooks, mechanics, clerks and other miscellaneous roles. In recognition of its contribution, it was announced on 9 April 1918 that 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.
Women in the Second World War
The next women’s branch was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) formed on 9 September 1938. These women worked as cooks, clerks and storekeepers, with 300 sent to France at the outbreak of WWII. And although they were barred from combat roles, ATS telephonists were among the last British personnel to leave the country in the evacuation 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 or the Women’s Land Army. The size of the ATS increased, and roles expanded to include orderlies, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and drivers.
A secret trial was undertaken to test whether women were capable of operating heavy equipment and working in isolated areas, which saw women take over an increasing number of tasks, such as crewing anti-aircraft guns and as military police. In July 1942 the first mixed regiment, 26th London Electrical Engineers Searchlight Regiment RA, was formed.
By VE Day, there were over 190,000 members of the women’s ATS.
Up to the present day
The ATS existed until 1949 when it was merged into the Women’s Royal Army Corps. Its members continued to perform administrative and support tasks until it was disbanded in April 1992. The 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.