Women & War: The Imperial War Museum Is Currently Holding an Exhibition That Explores the Role of Women in Warfare and Conflict Situations. Charlie Furniss Examines How Their Participation Has Changed in the Past 150 Years

By Furniss, Charlie | Geographical, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Women & War: The Imperial War Museum Is Currently Holding an Exhibition That Explores the Role of Women in Warfare and Conflict Situations. Charlie Furniss Examines How Their Participation Has Changed in the Past 150 Years


Furniss, Charlie, Geographical


When Boudicca and her daughters led the Iceni revolt against the Romans in 60-61 AD, they were bucking a trend as old as civilisation. In most societies, war was considered the sole preserve of men--women, it was thought, lacked the necessary strength and aggression and were better suited to caring and nurturing roles. But that all changed last century, when the largest conflicts the world has ever seen drew huge numbers of men to the front lines and women were required to take up roles, both in the military and as civilians, with an increasing level of responsibility.

Florence Nightingale took the first big step towards securing a permanent role for women in warfare when she introduced female nurses into military hospitals during the Crimean War. Her work led to the formation of the first military nursing units, and British, US, Australian and Canadian nurses subsequently served in both world wars. Working in units attached to the three services, nurses developed specialist skills to suit every area of combat: the 'Flying Nightingales', the RAF nurses, were renowned for their treatment of burn victims and the aeromedical evacuation techniques used during the Battle of Britain.

During the First World War, a number of voluntary organisations of British women supported the military nurses. Voluntary Aid Detachments, divisions of the British Red Cross, provided supplementary medical aid in hospitals at home and abroad. And the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry provided a link between front-line fighting units and field hospitals, driving ambulances and running soup kitchens and canteens. Members of the latter won numerous medals for bravery, including 17 Military Medals.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the British government was reluctant to recruit women for any military or quasi-military role other than nursing. But British women showed enormous enthusiasm for the war effort and the authorities subsequently allowed them to work in supporting roles as volunteers. The first were members of the Women's Legion, who served at home with the forces as cooks, waitresses and ambulance drivers. Although not officially part of the Army, it was organised along military lines and went on to become the largest women's voluntary organisation in the UK at the time, with more than 6,000 members.

As casualties mounted, the government decided to form voluntary organisations for women in the three services to replace the men who were needed for the front line. In the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF), they worked as cooks, telephonists, clerks, drivers and in other administrative roles. Most were stationed in the UK, although some members of the WAAC served in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. Although they were not combatants, some of those who served in the WAAC had to endure heavy artillery and bombing while in France with the BEF and were awarded the Military Medal for gallantry.

The women's services were disbanded after the war, but the threat from Nazi Germany changed everything. The WRNS and WRAF were recommissioned in the late 1930s, along with the new Auxiliary Territorial Service, whose 250,000 members provided support to the Army. From 1941, women aged between 19 and 31 were liable for military service. There were exemptions for married women and those with children under the age of 14. Again, they didn't have front-line roles, but their duties were greatly extended from those of the First World War, and they played a vital part in planning and running operations both at home and abroad.

Members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) undertook highly skilled and top-secret activities including forging documents for agents' cover and coding and signals work. From 1942, female members of the SOE were sent to Europe to help resistance movements, and by the end of the war they bad extended their service to North Africa, India and the Far East. …

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