Women in Conflict

From the First World War to the recent war in Afghanistan, women have played vital roles and been profoundly affected by conflict.

The First World War

Before the First World War the only task that women were permitted to undertake was the role of nursing, as epitomised by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole.

Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAINS) was established in 1902, replacing the Army Nursing Service. Exclusively open to women and along with the QAINS Reserve and Territorial Force Nursing Service, they were immediately mobilised for duty within a week of the First World War being declared.

Only a few years earlier in 1909, the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was formed in Britain to ‘act as support in times of war’ – their foresight was remarkable.

The Great War changed everything and by 1918 the number of British women in employment had increased by 1.5 million, many playing active roles linked directly to the conflict. Their number included 57,000 WAACs (members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps set up in 1917) who, though not allowed to take part in active combat, served in France and Britain, fulfilling essential medical, clerical and other jobs.

Around 800 women are included in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records as dying during the war. One of these female casualties was Nellie Spindler who is buried at Lijssenthoek Cemetery in Belgium, alongside the men with whom she worked – hers is the only female grave among 10,000.

Nellie, born in 1891, was a nurse from Wakefield serving at a tented medical clearing station close to the Belgian front line. She was hit by a fragment from a German shell and died less than 20 minutes later aged just 26.

One of the most famous British casualties was Edith Cavell, executed by the Germans in October 1915, for protecting and assisting her countrymen. 

The Second World War

During the Second World War women’s roles were extended in both military and civilian arenas. Apart from nursing roles in hospitals near the front lines, women in Britain were based at radar stations, military camps and dockyards, all targets for German bombing campaigns.

By 1943, 90% of single women and 80% of married women were directly involved in war work. The Women’s Land Army, formed in 1939, meant that women took on vital jobs to support the war effort and feed those at home by working on farms, labouring and taking on many of the roles previously filled by men.

37 women were also recruited as SOEs (Special Operations Executives) including Violette Szabo, Odette Churchill, and Noor Inyat Khan, whose secret and highly dangerous missions overseas included sabotage and subversion.

Szabo and Churchill were both captured and tortured whilst fulfilling their secret roles. Violette Szabo was executed by the Germans at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Both women received the George Cross for their exceptional courage.

Szabo and Churchill were both captured and tortured whilst fulfilling their secret roles. Violette Szabo was executed by the Germans at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Both women received the George Cross for their exceptional courage.

Women in the Armed Forces Today

Today women play leading roles across the British Armed Forces, their roles equal to many of their male counterparts, except in hand-to-hand combat, though this is likely to change in the near future.

In December 2014, the then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, announce that he wanted to end the Army’s ban on women serving in frontline infantry roles.

“There are women flying fighter bombers at the moment over Iraq and I don’t think it is right now to exclude women from considering any role that they want to apply for… it is wrong to restrict the entry of women into any branch of the Armed Forces. It has been done already in the frontline for police, for example, where women are serving in firearm units and smashing down doors.” Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary

In July 2014, 10% of British Armed Forces personnel were women, 12% at officer level and 9% of other ranks; the intake of female personnel was higher in the RAF (14.3%) than in the Army (9.6%) and Naval Service (8.4%). Source DASA.

At Home

Many women are directly affected by conflict today, as the wives or partners of those serving in the British Armed Forces.

They can face long periods of separation and times of great tension knowing their loved-ones are in danger. Daily family life is often seriously impaired.

The Legion since its creation in 1921 has supported, and still supports, women in Service, female veterans, partners/spouses of serving personnel and their children.

Find out more about how we can help.

Women at War 100

This summer we will be commemorating the centenary of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

We will be celebrating the unique achievements of women in the military, ensuring their unique contribution is never forgotten.