Finding women who served in the World Wars

A lot of people make the mistake of assuming that, since women took up non-combatant roles in the two World Wars, their records will not be among those listed on military genealogy sites. In fact, with women jumping at the chance to challenge themselves and fill the voids left by absent fathers, husbands, brothers and cousins, your female ancestor may be at her most visible in periods of war. Many women served as nurses, although the Army Medical Services were notoriously suspicious and dismissive of women, and ladies, however well trained, were always paid less than male equivalents and kept carefully subordinate to gentleman physicians.

Some made it into uniform as members of the Women’s Land Army, the Voluntary Aid Detachment or the various auxiliary units. Others risked their lives by covering vital jobs in industry, including roles in the dangerous ammunition factories. However they served, women in the World Wars cheerfully accepted such roles as they were allowed to take on, and worked hard to prove themselves every bit as valuable as the men.

Let’s look at the nursing services first of all. These included such organisations as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS), the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) and the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in World War One.

Arguably, the most well-prepared but undervalued of these groups was FANY, created in 1907 precisely to act as a link between the Front Line and Field Hospitals. These valuable workers were trained in First Aid, home nursing, horsemanship, veterinary work, signalling and camp cooking, but, according to Mark Adkin’s ‘Western Front Companion’, were summarily turned down when they went to offer their services to the British Army. Luckily, they found Belgium and France to be far more welcoming and appreciative, and served out the war working mainly for these nations. In the Second World War FANY Corps was asked to form the Auxiliary Transport Service, and it is famous for providing most of the female agents for the Special Operations Executive. In both wars, FANY members were awarded a hefty portion of honours and awards.

That being the case, on our site you are most likely to find them in our ‘Gazetted Awards & Mentions in Despatches Registers’ collection. In fact, this isn’t a bad place to start looking for any female ancestor who served in the war. Since they were ever-near to danger, FANY members can also be commonly found in the ‘Imperial War Graves Commission/Commonwealth War Graves Commission Registers’ collection. Again, this applies to any female ancestor, particularly as this collection lists ‘civilian casualties’. There are also rarely some women listed in our ‘Military Hospitals Admissions and Discharge Registers WW1’ collection. Of course, a shortcut is simply to do a unit search for First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (or any other female unit), then you can see the full spectrum on offer.

QAIMNS insisted its nurses completed a 3-year training course, according to Your Family Tree’s ‘Get Started in Military Family History’ guide, so they too were very well qualified, and since only higher class ladies were initially allowed to join, well regarded socially. By the end of the First World War, however, standards had been relaxed and over 11,000 had joined the service. Around half of these were serving overseas. Not many records survive, but those that do will be in WO399 at the national archives, or may be found on our site in our many UK Army List collections; we have quite a few names listed from this unit. Meanwhile, the QARNNS was extremely small in WW1, serving in only a small number of naval hospitals and hospital ships, but expanded rapidly in WW2. Their records can be found at the National Archives in class ADM104, and officers may also pop up in the navy lists .

We have some records for the Territorial Force Nursing Service, in our UK Army List 1911, but more can be found in WO 339 at the National Archives or in local or regional museums, archives and collections. This organisation, formed in 1908, tended to be staffed by civilian nurses according to ‘The Western Front Companion’. They were intended to be mobilised in the event of war to staff British hospitals, but again, many ended up overseas. Seventy-eight thousand served in WW1, 2,300 of that number overseas, and being well used to the work of nursing, they often took up managerial positions.

That leaves us with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. There were a massive 90,000 women in this service by the end of the Great War, trained in basic first aid and capable of taking on general jobs relating to the running of hospitals. Due to their lack of formal qualifications these ladies were sometimes wryly known as ‘Very Active Dusters’, but they energetically defied their critics by taking on all sorts of roles, from driving ambulances to staffing hospital kitchens, and 23,000 served as nurses. Since they were managed by the Red Cross, thousands of them can found in our archives under the Red Cross unit name or in the extensive ‘British Red Cross overseas volunteers 1914-1918’ collection. If you are looking for a relative’s VAD records from WW2, the best place to start your search is by contacting the British Red Cross Museum. The staff can provide information on written or emailed request, although the museum asks that a donation to the society of at least £10 should be made for their time. All those with nursing ancestors may also benefit from a visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital or to the Army Medical Services Museum in Surrey (soon to move to the Midlands).

Some women preferred to join a service more closely allied with the Forces, and served with the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF, later to become the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the WAAF, in WW2), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). At first women were not considered suitable for roles of this type, but mid-way through the Great War the government realised that their supply of manpower was limited. The idea was broached that women might be able to take on crucial non-combatant roles, so that men would be freed up to go to the Front and fight.

WAAF members in their flying kit and ready for duty

The WRNS was established in 1917, and excellent records were kept for women in the service; the remaining documents can be found in several classes at the National Archives, which include ADM 318, ADM 336 and ADM 321 according to the ‘Get Started in Military Family History’ guide. Several records are listed on our site, and can be found through a unit search, mostly from the IWGC and ‘Gazetted Awards & Mentions in Despatches Registers’ collections, with one or two from the ‘Royal Navy Inter War 1918-39 roll’. Rarely, a WREN working for the Ministry of Supply can be found in the ‘UK Army List 1945’ (often post 1921 records are retained by the Navy, though). The women in the WRNS did not go out on the ships, and served mainly at bases in the UK. They worked as cooks and mechanics, operated wirelesses, plotted the course of both friendly and enemy ships, and more besides.

The WRAF started in 1918, so few WW1 records exist, but those that do can be found in the National Archives in AIR 80, while an official history can be found in AIR 1. More women served in the WAAF in WW2, and some, who served with the Air Transport Auxiliary, were trusted to fly Hurricanes, Spitfires and other aircraft from factories or Air Stations to frontline bases in the UK. Others did all sorts of jobs within the Air Force, as ‘The W.A.A.F in Action’ by Flying Officer Goodchild, reproduced in our Historic Documents archive, explains. Everyone has heard of the heroics of ‘The Few’ in the Battle of Britain, but women played a role too by plotting the course of incoming raiders using radiolocation systems (Radar), thereby allowing the pilots to accurately intercept them. This job was useful in the daytime, and absolutely vital during night raids, when they acted as the pilots’ eyes. Women also maintained barrage balloons, packed parachutes and dinghies, manned air ambulances, tested guns and repaired aircraft.

‘The W.A.A.F in Action’ really does make a fascinating study, with a large collection of photographs and a nice introduction. One Group Captain says, “As an officer of 26 years’ service I sincerely believed that war was not a job for a woman. In war, women could tackle the more quiet and comfortable civilian jobs, and leave it to the fathers and brothers and cousins to fill the fighting services.” On hearing about the introduction of “petticoats in the R.A.F.”, he admits he was horrified. However, so impressed was he with their service, and the fact that the women remained at their posts even during the fiercest bombing raids, that he later said, “I have cause to thank goodness that this country can produce such a race of women as the W.A.A.F. of my station.”

The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was founded in 1917, and later renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). In the final two years of WW1, 57,000 women served in this unit, and just over 5,000 of their records can be found on our site, many in the ‘Silver War Badge List 1914-1918’ collection and the ‘UK Army List 1918’, though some again are documented as having been killed in the war. This service only operated in WW1, in WW2 the equivalent was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). By 1941, 65,000 women had joined. They did many run-of-the-mill administrative jobs, but also maintained the vital anti-aircraft guns. We hold over 13,000 of their records, many from the ‘UK Army List 1942’ and ‘UK Army List 1945’, and the National Archives may hold more.

An alternative to serving in the Forces in WW1 was to volunteer for the Women’s Land Army orthe Forage Corps. We have plenty of information regarding both of these services in our Historic Documents archive. What becomes immediately obvious when you read up on their history is that working the land was not the easy option that many people mistakenly perceived it to be, with the hours being long, the pay scandalously low and the work extremely strenuous. It was also a vital job, as the nation had to be fed. The ‘Land Girls’ numbered 260,000 in WW1, the Forage Corps 6,000, tasked with finding food for the many horses in service. In WW2 the Forage Corps was obsolete, but the ‘Lumber Jills’ of the Timber Corps took care of the nation’s forests and produced wood for all sorts of industries. The Land Army remained, this time with 80,000 serving.

Women from the Land Army getting advise on the correct method of thatching.

Ladies who were older or had children could join the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), and once again, this was not the soft option that it seemed. The WVS organised the evacuation of children all over the country, which must have been an administrative nightmare, and also actioned all air raid policies in local authorities. Since they were often working out during the Blitz, helping bombed-out families, providing first aid and directing the public to shelters, many of these workers died in action or were traumatised by horrific sights. For WW1 the Ministry of National Service controlled the recruitment of women, so you can find general information on all services in NATS1, National Archives. For Land Girls, search the National Archives website, check the London Metropolitan Archives or have a look through the Imperial War Museum’s collection.

Last of all we have the factory workers; the women at the ammunition factories especially risked liver damage from the harmful chemicals they were exposed to (they were known as ‘Canary Girls’), as well as explosions due to the unstable nature of some of the materials used in production. In fact, after an explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell in 1918, which killed 134 employees, there were calls for gallantry awards to be given to every worker who went back to the job. In WW2, once again, almost 1 million women took up this hazardous work without complaint. Records of these brave women can be found in trade journals and magazines, factory histories, and the archives of local authorities.

Women factory workers inspecting a batch of shiny 7.2inch shells for final delivery.
If you’re not sure which service your ancestor worked in, and you have a picture of her in uniform, our Photo Expert Service (free to Full Subscribers) might help to give you boost!
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