13 July 2017

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Women at War 100

On 7th July 2017, a ceremony was held at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to commemorate the 100 years that women have been part of the British Armed Forces. Female members of the Band of the RAF Regiment and the RAF Salon Orchestra were privileged to take part in providing joint service musical support to the occasion. The ceremony was led by Reverend (Wing Commander) Ruth Hake, and the Tri Service Military Band was under the direction of Captain Lauren Petritz-Watts (CAMUS).

Women at War 100

In 1917, Britain – in the midst of World War One – faced a severe shortage of manpower. For the previous two and a half years women had undertaken essential work on the home front, and had served overseas with independent organisations, such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, demonstrating their value. With the approval of the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas Haig, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed in March 1917 and officially instituted five months later be Army Council Instruction Number 1069, dated 7th July 1917. Women were enrolled into the British Army for the first time in such jobs as cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics, telephonists and telegraphers. Renamed the Queen Mary Army Auxiliary Corps in April 1918, over 57 000 women served in the Corps before it was disbanded in 1921. During the war five members of the Corps were awarded the Military Medal and 82 women died in service.

The formation of the WAAC was followed in November 1917 by the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in April 1918. Their members were the first of many thousands of women to serve the Crown on military operations over the past 100 years up till the present day. Although disbanded in the 1920s, the three Women’s Services were reformed on the eve of World War Two: the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) on 9th September 1938; the WRNS in April 1939 and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in June 1939. Nearly 500 000 women served during the conflict in varied roles including air mechanics and torpedo women, staffing the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre, and as Special Operations Executives (SOE) operatives behind enemy lines.

Woman at War

After performing such vital tasks in World War Two, the three services were made permanent in 1949. The ATS was renamed the Women’s Royal Army Corps and the WAAF became WRAF once more. The WRAC, WRNS and WRAF would subsequently take on more roles, becoming more integrated with their male counterparts. WRACs served during the troubles in Northern Ireland and at Port Stanley immediately following the Falklands War. Women from all three Services served on Operation Granby during the 1991 Gulf War.

The early 1990s marked a significant change with the full amalgamation of women into the British Armed Forces. By the early 2000s, with the exception of frontline service, the majority of roles in the Armed Forces were open to women. The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns saw women deployed to the frontline in critical support functions, and won several gallantry awards. In 2016, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) lifted the ban on women in ground close-combat roles and the first tranche are already in training prior to joining their Regiments and Battalions. Within 100 years, women have been fully integrated into the British Armed Forces.

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