Women in war

It is over 100 years since women were first officially employed in the armed services. During the First World War tens of thousands of women joined the uniformed services doing vital auxiliary work – over 400 of them were to die in the line of duty. Yet it was only recently that the decision was finally taken to lift the ban on women serving in close combat roles. How important a part do women play in the modern armed services?

Armed female soldiers - Rathbone Investment Management

Jo Sword, Investment Director, Rathbones

The army has drawn on women’s labour for centuries. Camp followers are often perceived as soldiers’ wives or girlfriends, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, a far wider community of women played important roles in providing nursing care, delivering food and drink, cooking and laundering.

Nevertheless, in 1917 when the War Office established the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), it was a significant development.

Army generals recognised that getting women to carry out support jobs in offices, canteens, stores and transport would free desperately needed men for the front line. They were encouraged by the remarkable courage women had shown in munitions factories and in voluntary nursing organisations like the Women’s Hospital Corps that sent women to France from the outset.

On 1 April 1918 the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was created. All three services offered uniforms and status. Some of the women — like typists who earned 48 shillings a week — were better paid than many men. By the end of the war more than 50,000 women had joined the WAAC alone.

The pattern repeated itself in the Second World War, when women were conscripted into supporting the war effort. Nearly 500,000 women found a whole host of roles, including service in the Women’s Land Army (farming), the Auxiliary Territorial Service (mostly in anti-aircraft command on searchlights) and the WRNS (helping maintain ships and, in some cases, participating in D-Day planning).

One contemporary report suggests: “Many men were amazed that women could make adequate gunners despite their excitable temperament, lack of technical instincts, their lack of interest in aeroplanes and their physical weaknesses.” After the war, women’s units were retained but the battle to change perceptions continued — and still does.

Professor Rachel Woodward from Newcastle University is studying the role of women in the armed services. She says the collapse of the Soviet Union was a crucial turning point in the story. “In the early ‘90s there was a big reduction in the size of the armed forces to reflect the ending of the Cold War. Many regiments were disbanded, including separate women’s units. Women were reallocated to remaining male regiments.”

Women were still mainly serving in roles like administration, logistics and nursing, but things were changing. In 1998 women were deployed to peacekeeping roles in Bosnia. Regiments like the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers began to give roles to women, but even then they were still excluded from many direct combat posts because of fears their presence might undermine close team spirit.

In 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the lifting of the last restrictions preventing women from operating fully in front-line roles and set targets for 15% of services personnel to be women by 2020.

Professor Woodward says: “The old guard have been presenting arguments against women serving on the front line for years — physiology, emotion, unit cohesion — but the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, where a lot of women were deployed, proved the nonsense of these claims beyond doubt. Women worked alongside men. They weren’t a terrible distraction and the sky didn’t fall in. These are competent trained professionals. They were perfectly capable of sharing a living space together and working effectively under pressure.”

Today all the armed services are facing a serious recruitment challenge. Neglecting the talents of half the workforce is as much folly today as it was recognised to be in wartime. The proportion of serving women is slowly creeping up. They now represent 10.2% of the British Armed Services, serving across all units and at all levels. Well, nearly all levels. We are still awaiting the appointment of the first woman general. It cannot be long.

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