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Forces War Records Blog

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY - THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN WARTIME

The female role on the home front may have been behind the scenes, but it was a crucial one. Britain was victorious in both world wars because it was able to galvanize itself into a war machine – powering through times of hardship, grief and uncertainty.

Suddenly finding themselves a vital part of the workforce, women shook off their subordinate roles and started sampling the sort of freedom and financial independence normally only open to men at the time.

Many began to feel liberated and independent, and between 1914 and 1918, approximately 1.6 million women joined the workforce. Women left poorly paid jobs in service and increasingly substituted for men working in business, as land workers, and in the hazardous munitions factories.

Crucial job at serious risk

Producing around 80 per cent of the weapons and shells used by the British Army during war, munition workers did a key job, at serious risk. They worked with explosives and poisonous substances without appropriate protective clothing, or adequate safety measures in place.

 

Women workers engaged in the production of shell cases at a factory

Commonly called the Munitionettes, women in these factories were constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals, including the explosive compound TNT. Over time, the sulphuric acid they were exposed to caused their skin to turn yellow, which also earned them another tag: ‘the canary girls’.

Other women provided vital support as nurses, both at home in military hospitals at home and abroad. Nurses and support workers were sent to France and witnessed first-hand the devastating results of the action at the Front. Suddenly their daily, domesticated routine was one riddled with danger, death, disease and horrific scenes of war wounded.

The Army Nursing Service (ANS), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Territorial Force Nursing Service were all formed before the start of the First World War. However, it wasn’t until halfway through the war that the military formed women’s auxiliary services, including the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), to replace men in non-combatant roles, chiefly operating as cooks and domestic workers, clerks and drivers. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps enabled some women, in spite of resistance, to have a role behind the battlefield, to serve in France. They worked behind the lines, but a few died in air raids and shell attacks during the 1918 spring offensive.

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) helped form a vital link between front-line fighting and the base hospitals. Formed in 1907, members were originally mounted on horseback (hence the ‘yeomanry’title). When two leading FANY members – Grace McDougall and Lillian Franklin – arrived in France in 1914, the British Army at first would have nothing to do with them so instead they assisted the Belgian and French armies by driving ambulances and helping nurse the wounded. From 1916, they began driving ambulances for the British Army and received many medals for their bravery.

In 1909, a scheme for the organization of voluntary aid issued by the war office led to the formation of Red Cross  Voluntary Aid Detachments (groups of women trained in first aid, who became known as VADs), to support the medical services in wartime. Eventually, nursing VADs also served in military hospitals abroad, where, as casualties mounted, a few were allowed to assist in casualty clearing stations. GS (General Service) VADs worked in such roles as drivers, clerks, cooks, storekeepers, telephonists.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was formed in November 1917, followed by the Women’s Royal Air force (WRAF) in April 1918. Both these services aimed to free men up for combat duties.

Strength in hard times

With 3 million men sent away to fight in the First World War, women land workers began replacing the absent male agricultural workers and in March 1917, the Woman’s Land Army (WLA) was set up. Despite the scepticism of many farmers, land girls successfully turned their hands to ploughing, managing livestock, turning hay and keeping up the country’s food production.

The Land Army was disbanded in 1919, and reinstated in 1939 for the Second World War, which again saw the women of Britain step up to fill the labour shortage. The Land Army was at its peak in 1943, when there were more than 80,000 members, with an additional 6,000 women in the Timber Corps, felling trees and running sawmills.

In 1938, the WAAC was reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and in 1939, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a civilian organization, began recruiting women pilots to release male pilots for active service in the

RAF. Over the course of the war, 150 women flew with the ATA, which performed a ferry service, delivering new planes from factories to RAF units and transporting planes back for repairs. This was a vital and often dangerous role, carried out without radio contact and in all weathers. Failing to deliver could have damaged Britain’s attack capacity.

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) grew out of the ATS, coming into being as a separate service in June 1939. Members did not serve in individual female units, as they did with its army equivalent, the ATS, but as individual members of RAF commands.

Members of the WAAF were initially recruited as clerks, kitchen orderlies and drivers but as the war progressed, the roles available for women continued to become more varied and went on to include telegraphy, telephony, and the interception of codes and ciphers, as well as the interpretation of aerial photographs.

By the end of 1941, women aged 18-60 were conscripted into the war effort and had to choose between war work, factory work or nursing, or join the WAAF, or its army or air force equivalents, the ATS and the WRNS.

As war went on women took on what were considered more masculine roles, assembling weapons, building ships and aircraft, becoming mechanics, engineers, electricians and fitters for aeroplanes.

Women were really showing their strength and their worth, which helped change the initial resistance to working women. At first, there were doubts about whether women would have the physical strength or stamina to complete some tasks, but WAAF members proved they could complete even the hardest of jobs, including the operation of balloon sites. This involved lifting and lowering barrage balloons, which were 66 feet long and 30 feet high when inflated. One job that the women of the WAAF were not allowed to do was to fly. A few years after the war, in 1949 the WAAF was re-formed into the WRAF, and fully integrated into the RAF in 1994.

The FANY (which had survived the inter-war period) became known as the Women’s Transport Service  (FANY). Civilian women were recruited from the FANY to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up in July 1940, as agents and to conduct spying, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.

The SOE directly employed more than 13,000 people during the war, and about 3,200 of them were women. These women on top-secret jobs were highly skilled and worked on coding and signals, acted as conductors for agents and provided administration and technical support for the Special Training Schools.

During the war opportunities opened up that drastically changed the working lives of women. Their skills were sharpened, their confidence grew and they surprised everyone with their ability to do heavy and physically demanding work. By the middle of the war they were already regarded as a force to be proud of and their contribution to the war effort was considerable.

The female role on the home front may have been behind the scenes, but it was a crucial one. Britain was victorious in both world wars because it was able to galvanize itself into a war machine – powering through times of hardship, grief and uncertainty.

Suddenly finding themselves a vital part of the workforce, women shook off their subordinate roles and started sampling the sort of freedom and financial independence normally only open to men at the time.

Many began to feel liberated and independent, and between 1914 and 1918, approximately 1.6 million women joined the workforce. Women left poorly paid jobs in service and increasingly substituted for men working in business, as land workers, and in the hazardous munitions factories.

Crucial job at serious risk

Producing around 80 per cent of the weapons and shells used by the British Army during war, munition workers did a key job, at serious risk. They worked with explosives and poisonous substances without appropriate protective clothing, or adequate safety measures in place.

Commonly called the Munitionettes, women in these factories were constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals, including the explosive compound TNT. Over time, the sulphuric acid they were exposed to caused their skin to turn yellow, which also earned them another tag: ‘the canary girls’.

Other women provided vital support as nurses, both at home in military hospitals at home and abroad. Nurses and support workers were sent to France and witnessed first-hand the devastating results of the action at the Front. Suddenly their daily, domesticated routine was one riddled with danger, death, disease and horrific scenes of war wounded.

The Army Nursing Service (ANS), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Territorial Force Nursing Service were all formed before the start of the First World War. However, it wasn’t until halfway through the war that the military formed women’s auxiliary services, including the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), to replace men in non-combatant roles, chiefly operating as cooks and domestic workers, clerks and drivers. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps enabled some women, in spite of resistance, to have a role behind the battlefield, to serve in France. They worked behind the lines, but a few died in air raids and shell attacks during the 1918 spring offensive.

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) helped form a vital link between front-line fighting and the base hospitals. Formed in 1907, members were originally mounted on horseback (hence the ‘yeomanry’title). When two leading FANY members – Grace McDougall and Lillian Franklin – arrived in France in 1914, the British Army at first would have nothing to do with them so instead they assisted the Belgian and French armies by driving ambulances and helping nurse the wounded. From 1916, they began driving ambulances for the British Army and received many medals for their bravery.

In 1909, a scheme for the organization of voluntary aid issued by the war office led to the formation of Red Cross  Voluntary Aid Detachments (groups of women trained in first aid, who became known as VADs), to support the medical services in wartime. Eventually, nursing VADs also served in military hospitals abroad, where, as casualties mounted, a few were allowed to assist in casualty clearing stations. GS (General Service) VADs worked in such roles as drivers, clerks, cooks, storekeepers, telephonists.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was formed in November 1917, followed by the Women’s Royal Air force (WRAF) in April 1918. Both these services aimed to free men up for combat duties.

Strength in hard times

With 3 million men sent away to fight in the First World War, women land workers began replacing the absent male agricultural workers and in March 1917, the Woman’s Land Army (WLA) was set up. Despite the scepticism of many farmers, land girls successfully turned their hands to ploughing, managing livestock, turning hay and keeping up the country’s food production.

The Land Army was disbanded in 1919, and reinstated in 1939 for the Second World War, which again saw the women of Britain step up to fill the labour shortage. The Land Army was at its peak in 1943, when there were more than 80,000 members, with an additional 6,000 women in the Timber Corps, felling trees and running sawmills.

The Women's Land Army girls receive expert advice from an instructor on thatching the top of a hay-rickl

 

In 1938, the WAAC was reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and in 1939, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a civilian organization, began recruiting women pilots to release male pilots for active service in the

RAF. Over the course of the war, 150 women flew with the ATA, which performed a ferry service, delivering new planes from factories to RAF units and transporting planes back for repairs. This was a vital and often dangerous role, carried out without radio contact and in all weathers. Failing to deliver could have damaged Britain’s attack capacity.

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) grew out of the ATS, coming into being as a separate service in June 1939. Members did not serve in individual female units, as they did with its army equivalent, the ATS, but as individual members of RAF commands.

Members of the WAAF were initially recruited as clerks, kitchen orderlies and drivers but as the war progressed, the roles available for women continued to become more varied and went on to include telegraphy, telephony, and the interception of codes and ciphers, as well as the interpretation of aerial photographs.

By the end of 1941, women aged 18-60 were conscripted into the war effort and had to choose between war work, factory work or nursing, or join the WAAF, or its army or air force equivalents, the ATS and the WRNS.

As war went on women took on what were considered more masculine roles, assembling weapons, building ships and aircraft, becoming mechanics, engineers, electricians and fitters for aeroplanes.

Women were really showing their strength and their worth, which helped change the initial resistance to working women. At first, there were doubts about whether women would have the physical strength or stamina to complete some tasks, but WAAF members proved they could complete even the hardest of jobs, including the operation of balloon sites. This involved lifting and lowering barrage balloons, which were 66 feet long and 30 feet high when inflated. One job that the women of the WAAF were not allowed to do was to fly. A few years after the war, in 1949 the WAAF was re-formed into the WRAF, and fully integrated into the RAF in 1994.

The FANY (which had survived the inter-war period) became known as the Women’s Transport Service  (FANY). Civilian women were recruited from the FANY to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up in July 1940, as agents and to conduct spying, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.

The SOE directly employed more than 13,000 people during the war, and about 3,200 of them were women. These women on top-secret jobs were highly skilled and worked on coding and signals, acted as conductors for agents and provided administration and technical support for the Special Training Schools.

During the war opportunities opened up that drastically changed the working lives of women. Their skills were sharpened, their confidence grew and they surprised everyone with their ability to do heavy and physically demanding work. By the middle of the war they were already regarded as a force to be proud of and their contribution to the war effort was considerable.

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