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A timeline of women in the Army

10 min read
Camp Scenes by William Pyne, 1803 show women washing, cooking, serving beer and travelling with the soldiersshow women washing, cooking, serving beer and travelling with the soldiers.

Camp followers and impostors

For centuries, women have joined men on military campaigns. Until the 1850s, they held various unofficial roles in the Army as wives, cooks, nurses, midwives, seamstresses, laundresses and even prostitutes. They lived and worked with a regiment and sometimes travelled abroad with it. These women played a significant role in caring for the physical and emotional wellbeing of soldiers.

At the time, war was strictly seen as men's work. But that didn't stop some women from wanting to take part. There are several well-known cases of women disguising themselves in order to fight. However, their experience was far from the norm.


Civil Wars of Britain

So many women disguise themselves as soldiers to fight that King Charles I issues a proclamation banning women from wearing men’s military clothing.


Nine Years War and War of the Spanish Succession

Christian 'Kit' Cavanagh disguises herself as a male soldier to take part in the campaigns of King William III and the Duke of Marlborough.


War of the Austrian Succession

In August 1748, Hannah Snell takes part in the capture of the French colony of Pondicherry. She also fights in the Battle of Devicotta in June 1749. Snell is wounded several times during her service, but manages to keep her sex a secret.


Battle of Waterloo

Several women accompany the Anglo-Allied army into action at Waterloo. A handful are found dead on the field in the aftermath of the battle.


A surgeon of the Empire

Dr James Barry has a distinguished career as an Army surgeon. On his death, he is discovered to have been a woman.


With the ongoing professionalisation of the Army in the second half of the 19th century, women found themselves increasingly excluded from service. However, one area where women's involvement flourished was through nursing.

Florence Nightingale revolutionised the nursing profession during the Crimean War (1854-56) and established its necessity by caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Professional, trained nurses returned to the battlefield in later conflicts and organisations were created to formalise their work.


The Lady with the Lamp

Florence Nightingale travels to the Crimea with her nurses to care for the wounded. Her work there sets the standards for modern nursing.


Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service

QAIMNS is established during the Boer War. It replaces the Army Nursing Service, which began in 1881. Women from across the British Empire serve in it.


First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

The FANY, a mounted auxiliary nursing unit, is established in 1907. It acts as a first-aid link between fighting units and field hospitals. As well as running hospitals, FANYs drive ambulances and run soup kitchens and canteens.

Recruiting poster for Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, 1918

War work for women

During the early 1900s, several quasi-military volunteer groups for women's work were established including the Women's Emergency Corps, the Women's Forage Corps, the Women's Defence Relief Corps and the Women's Land Army.

The outbreak of the First World War (1914-18) provoked a debate on women's roles in the conflict. The economic strain of the war meant that women were already working on the Home Front in factories. And volunteer groups like the Women's Legion cooked for the troops. Owing to manpower problems, the Army started looking for more formal ways to bring women into the fold.

21 July 1915

Jobs for women!

Suffragettes march in London to persuade the authorities to widen women’s roles in the First World War.

Summer 1916

Manpower problems

The heavy losses suffered during the Battle of the Somme prompt the High Command to consider using women in supporting roles so that men can be freed up for combat.

Spring 1917

Women on the Western Front

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, headed by Controller Alexandra Chalmers Watson, is formed in response to the manpower crisis. The first women arrive to carry out support duties in France and Belgium on 31 March 1917.


WAACs at war

Over 100,000 women have enrolled into military support organisations by the end of the war. This number is far higher than anticipated.


Controller Alexandra Chalmers Watson resigns

Chalmers Watson resigns after a media storm over supposed moral impropriety among the WAAC in France, and after failing to get equal pay for women.

6 February 1918

British women given the vote

The Representation of the People Act 1918 gives the vote to women over 30.

April 1918

Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps

In recognition of their hard work and bravery during the Spring Offensive, Queen Mary gives her name to the WAAC. But peacetime cuts lead to disbandment in 1921.

Second World War

QMAAC had been disbanded in 1921, but it inspired the formation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), which was established in September 1938. Women were still not allowed to fight in battle, but once again returned to supporting roles during the Second World War (1939-45).

They were cooks, clerks, drivers, radar operators, telephonists, anti-aircraft gunners, range finders, sound detectors, military police and ammunition inspectors. The Women's Royal Naval Service and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force were also established at that time. Women again went to work on the Home Front too, either in industrial roles, as before, or as part of the Women's Land Army.

July 1941

Auxiliary Territorial Service

The ATS is given full military status, meaning its members are no longer volunteers.

December 1941

Conscription of women

The National Service Act makes the conscription of women legal. At first, only single women aged 20-30 are called up. But by mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women are employed in war work.

February 1945

Royal service

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) joins the ATS, training at Aldershot as a driver and mechanic.

8 May 1945

VE Day

By the end of the war, over 190,000 women are members of the ATS.

WRACs at work

Women's Royal Army Corps

The Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was formed in 1949, absorbing the remaining troops of the ATS. It eventually included all women serving in the Army except medical and veterinary orderlies, chaplains and nurses.

Between 1949 and 1992, WRAC women served in over 40 trades in operations across the world including Cyprus (1955-59), Northern Ireland (1969-92), the Falklands (1982-83) and the Gulf (1990-91). Their many roles included patrolling with arms and explosive search dogs.

1 February 1949

Women's Royal Army Corps

The WRAC is formed as a successor to the ATS.

March 1952


Ranks in the WRAC are aligned with standard British Army ranks.


Supporting roles only

The Sex Discrimination Act is introduced. Section 85(4) allows for the continuing exclusion of women from combat roles.


Search dogs

Ellie Walton becomes the first female soldier to patrol with an arms and explosive search dog in Northern Ireland.



The WRAC is disbanded, and its non-medical members merge into the new Adjutant General’s Corps.


Royal Irish Regiment

Women join the Royal Irish Regiment and deploy in Northern Ireland after completing infantry training.

Women for combat roles

Following the disbandment of the WRAC in 1992, women were absorbed into the rest of the Army. But they were still largely restricted to support and medical positions.

Combat roles remained closed to the vast majority of female soldiers until 2016, despite the fact that women had already been present at the front for some time. Six women were killed in action in Iraq (2003-11), and another three in Afghanistan (2001-14). Some women had even served as combat medics and shown bravery under fire.

Much of the debate about female combat centred on the impact of gender integration on battle effectiveness. Many questioned whether female physical and psychological characteristics were suitable for combat, rather than looking at their overall contributions to teams and units.


Challenges to the status quo

The exclusion of women from certain roles in the military under the Sex Discrimination Act is challenged unsuccessfully in the European Court of Justice. The same year, Patricia Purves becomes the first woman to gain the rank of brigadier since the disbandment of the WRAC.


Not fit for service

A Ministry of Defence study concludes that women in ground combat roles could adversely affect ‘unit cohesion’.


The Ministry changes its tune

A Ministry of Defence report concludes that there was no statistically significant evidence in relation to women and unit cohesion. Nevertheless, women remain excluded from close-combat roles.

December 2014

End of exclusion

The Women in Close Combat Review paper recommends ending the ban on women in front-line infantry and armoured corps roles.

December 2015

Open to all

Prime Minister David Cameron announces that all armed forces roles will be open to women.


Lifting the ban

The ban on women serving in some parts of the Royal Armoured Corps is lifted in July 2016. Role-based training begins in November 2016 for women wanting to join the regular army.

October 2018

All roles

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announces that all combat roles are open to women, including infantry and special forces units.

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