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Four decades of women at Sandhurst

Forty years ago this month, the first Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) platoon commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, making history as the inaugural female officer cadets to take part in the prestigious Sovereign’s Parade.

However, they almost didn’t make it there, Rosalind Cameron-Mowat, who left the Army as a Captain after seven years, recollects: “The late Queen is responsible for us being on the parade square 40 years ago, because Sandhurst did not want us to be there – saying something about female feet, saying ‘they can’t march’ - and the Queen insisted, and she said ‘when I was in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) we had a skirt and we could march perfectly well’ and so it is down to the late queen that we were on the parade square forty years ago.”

With the late her Majesty the Queen to thank, 28 women took part in the parade, and were inspected by the Duchess of Kent as Sovereign’s Representative. They went on to serve illustrious careers in the British Army.

Rosalind was one of 18 members of the inaugural WRAC Course 4 who reunited at Old College on Wednesday, 10 April, to view Commissioning Course 232’s Commandant’s Parade and meet current female Officer Cadets.

While their experience differed by four decades, they shared anecdotes and memories with the young women, displaying the scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings from their trailblazing time at the military academy. In return, the young women offered a glimpse at how today’s Army offers a far more equal female experience.  

Rosalind commented: “It's quite emotional being here today. I can't believe it has been forty years, but it has changed out of all recognition. Back then, we had a different curriculum to the men, so when they were doing ambush training we were doing service writing. So it was very odd. It was a transition period, actually, not everyone had accepted that we were going to be proper cadets at Sandhurst.

“But it’s really exciting being back here today. The officer cadets are so professional and they appear to be enjoying it, they find it stimulating, and they're very mature for their age.

“I think it was a lot tougher for us in the sense that we were the first. But I'm under no illusion that their training isn’t tougher than ours was forty years ago, because they do exactly the same as their male counterparts.”

While they weren’t the first WRAC Officers, WRAC Course 4 was the first to commission from Sandhurst, marking a monumental change for the military academy. Until 1981, it had been exclusively a male establishment, while the female officers were trained at the nearby Woman’s Royal Army Corps College in Camberley. In October that year, the WRAC College was incorporated as the fourth college of RMAS. However, the female officer cadets remained resident at their own barracks, and were bussed across for joint lectures and training with their male peers.

After a period of transition, on April 6, 1984, WRAC Course 4 became the first to pass off the Sovereign’s parade alongside their male counterparts. However, they were not allowed to participate fully, with their role limited to marching on to the parade square after the male cadets had finished their drill demonstration. Jo Myers, who was 18 at the time, recalls:

“I was just sitting next to my Platoon Commander from 1984 and she was describing how she sat in the seats and was absolutely livid for the whole parade, because she had fought the fight to get us to be allowed to march on the whole parade and she lost, as we were only allowed to march on and up the steps and not march around. It feels unimportant now, but it was a big part of what she was representing, as she was our platoon commander at the time.”

Later that year, in September (commissioned in April 1985), WRAC Course 6 became the first to become fully resident and trained at RMAS, marking the start of the full integration of male and female officer cadets. However, it was nowhere near as integrated as it is today, as the retired officers found out upon discussion with current officer cadets.

It’s an incredibly special moment to bring those who come before with those who will serve in the future." Major-General Zac Stenning, Commandant RMAS

Officer Cadet Emily Brothwood, who will be commissioning this week as part of Commissioning Course 232, said:

“I met six different women who had commissioned in 1984 and it was really cool to be able to speak to them about their experiences and how much better it is for us now, they had to commission into a women’s corps, we can commission wherever we want!”

Ever since, the female role at Sandhurst has continually evolved. The WRAC was disbanded in the early 1990s, with the remaining members transferring to Corps of their choice. The commissioning course was standardised in September 1992, and two decades later, in January 2015, platoons became mixed.

Throughout, female officer cadets have excelled, both at Sandhurst and across the British Army, with Fiona Stewart of the Royal Signals becoming the first of six women to date to win the prestigious Sword of Honour in 1998. Women served in support roles on the frontline throughout the conflicts of the 21st century, and in December 2018 infantry and cavalry roles were opened up to women.

Speaking to the crowd of gathered women, Major-General Zac Stenning, Commandant Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, commented:

“At the heart of what we’re doing is we’re preparing these young women to be combat ready leaders. They are of course in an army now where every avenue and every capability is open to them now, including close combat, and that’s how much our Army has progressed and that’s what we’re all very proud to be part of. But of course none of that would been achievable without the trailblazers that you all are.

“Everything I see as Commandant in our next generation of young leaders, female and male, tells me that we’re in a very, very strong place. They’re committed to service and duty to our nation. They’ve got the character to inspire the integrity that people will trust them and perhaps most fundamentally, the respect for others that no matter what the race, creed or gender, that they know what’s right and the best outcomes come of them, the best inclusivity.

He added:

“It’s an incredibly special moment to bring those who come before with those who will serve in the future. And I think just listening to the power of conversation between the alumni members of the course 4 of the WRAC sitting next to the regular commissioning course of 2024 - that's a remarkable span of time. And what's been fascinating to listen to is how much we've progressed, rightly, in terms of our integration of female colleagues into the whole Army, so it’s a really powerful day.

“I'm very proud of what's taken place in the Army over the last 20 years, with all roles now open to our female colleagues. We rightly see our female leaders occupying combat positions, combat support positions and combat service support across the full spectrum of the capabilities the Army delivers right up to high end war fighting, which is right and proper for a modern nation and a modern army of the 21st century.”

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