While thousands of women volunteered as nurses and participated in war work during the First World War, the major turning point for women in warfare came with inescapable urgency in 1939.
The role of women in the First World War was at first greatly undervalued, but as time has passed the extraordinary ways in which women helped the war effort have been revealed. Nursing was the main involvement by women in the conflict, and young single women flocked to volunteer for the Voluntary Aid Detachment or the British Red Cross.
Working in what were often shocking conditions and with little or no medical equipment, volunteer nurses from all walks of life had to tend to the injured, assist with amputations and sit with the dying in their final hours. At main battles such as the Somme, where there were literally thousands of casualties, nurses often had to enter the arena of war to rescue injured soldiers and get them to a field hospital. Makeshift ambulances were driven by women into impossible terrain, and lifesaving procedures were often carried out in appalling conditions. But it was not just in the field hospitals where women were involved.
Some women wanted to be able to actually fight for their country, and there were several cases of female soldiers who enlisted disguised as men in order to get to the front line. But most women were left at home to keep the country operating while the men were away at war. Due to the huge numbers of enlisted men, more and more vital roles were put on to women, including on the railways, as police officers, factory workers and munitions operatives. In the upper classes, women also supported the war effort by knitting uniforms, raising money for charities such as the newly formed Red Cross and writing to soldiers in the trenches. The new-found freedom for many women was symbolic of a change that was occurring in wider society: the suffragette movement was building and by 1914, although interrupted by the war, had become a huge force for change in Great Britain. Women’s lives were about to change forever.
Women’s roles expanded greatly in the Second World War. By 1945 millions of women were working to supply the military with aircraft, ships and ammunition. Not only were women encouraged to volunteer to raise funds, take in evacuee children, ‘dig for victory’ in their gardens, and take jobs in war work factories – they were also asked also to join military ranks. Seventy-five per cent of women who joined the forces were volunteers.
Military roles for women ranged widely. Air Transport Auxiliary pilots flew planes on dangerous routes from factories to military bases whilst codebreakers decrypted messages at Bletchley Park and ‘Lumberjills’ in the Women’s Timber Corps. These women, alongside the Wrens, FANYs, ATS servicewomen and others, each played crucial and heroic parts in Britain’s war effort. More than 640,000 women served across the services.
Although each of these positions helped to win the war, women’s responsibilities were often clerical and limited to non-combat positions away from the frontlines. It was only in 2016 that Ground Close Combat roles were opened to women serving in the British Armed Forces.