Celebrating 100 years of women in the Armed Forces

This week marks a century since the Armed Forces relaxed it's male-only policy. Sarah Freeman meets the women responsible for 100 years of frontline history.

From left to right: Rose Watson; former RAF Wing Commander Kirsty Bushell; Olympic rower and Royal Artillery Major Heather Stanning; Caroline Paige, the first transgender officer to openly serve in the military; former sergeant and Olympic gold medalist Kelly Holmes; Engineering Officer Nosheen Chaudry, Sara Jones, who has worked as the shore crew for a Royal Navy submarine; Major General Susan Ridge, the highest ranking female officers in the Army; Chantelle Taylor, the first UK female soldier to kill in combat; Navy reservist Natalie Corney; combat medic Abbie Colvin; Able Seaman Lynsey Hellier.

Rose Watson shouldn’t have played much part in the Second World War. She was just 16 years old in the summer of 1939 and having left school was working as a machinist at Leeds’ famous Burton clothing factory. However, when friends talked of joining a new ‘women’s army’ Rose decided that she would do the same.

“In order to be eligible I had to lie about my age and when the recruiting officer asked how old I was I quickly added on a couple of years,” says the 95 year old, who is one of the faces of a new campaign celebrating 100 years of women in the Armed Forces.

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“I joined up on September 5, 1939. On that same day two of my brothers, who had been in the St John Ambulance, also left home, headed for the medical corps. I suppose it sounds quite shocking now, but I don’t remember any great emotion. My mother had eight of us to look after, so maybe three less mouths to feed wasn’t such a bad thing. Back then we just did what we had to do. I don’t think we dwelled too much on what might happen or what the consequences might be.”

With her registration papers in hand, Rose headed for the Auxiliary Territorial Service’s makeshift camp at Woodhouse Moor on the outskirts of the city centre which would be her temporary new home.

“Each of us had a blanket under our arm and we were given three biscuits,” she says. “The biscuits weren’t the type you could eat, they were the three square slabs which basically doubled as a mattress.

“I don’t remember too much about those first days, but eventually we were separated in smaller camps and were allotted roles. Women could either be cooks, office workers or orderlies. I didn’t really have much life or work experience so initially I ended up being an orderly and every day we were taken to wherever we were needed.

“A lot of those years passed in a bit of a blur, but I do remember being taken to the barracks in Strensall near York. It was one of those days when the rain didn’t stop and I had to peel an entire sack of onions. I didn’t cry one, I think because maybe there was so much water around the place already.”

Eventually promoted to cook, Rose, who was known by the nickname ‘Sugar’ thanks to her maiden name Sugarman, fed the soldiers manning Yorkshire’s anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz, a period which saw devastating bombing raids on many of the county’s cities.

“I earned a shilling a day,” she says. “Eight pence went straight home to my mum and the rest I kept for myself. My mother did walk up to the campsite once and she walked straight past me. It was my day to clean the chimney of the boiler and I was covered head to foot in soot.

“Of course everyone remembers the day that peace was declared, but for many families it wasn’t the end. One of my brothers was still out in Burma and while of course there was relief, there was still an anxious wait while they all came home.”

After the war, Rose followed her sisters by getting a job on the buses of the West Yorkshire Road Car Company. It was while working as a conductor that she met her husband, who was one of her regular passengers. The couple married in 1950 and as life moved on, Rose thought less and less about the war years until she was contacted by SSAFA.

Friday marks 100 years since the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the forerunner of the ATS, which was the first unit to recruit women and to mark the centenary, the Armed Forces charity commissioned renowned war photographer Robert Wilson to create an iconic image of veterans and serving personnel from the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force.

Most assumed they would be pictured in uniform, but Wilson had other ideas for the group shot which is more Vanity Fair than parade ground inspection. Twelve women were chosen in all and as well as Olympians Dame Kelly Holmes and rower Heather Stanning, who both had a career in the Armed Forces become professional athletes, the dozen include the first woman to kill in combat, the highest-ranking woman in the British Army and the first transgender woman to serve

Now 57 years old, Flight Lieutenant Caroline Paige joined the RAF as a male officer in 1980, initially serving as a fast jet and battlefield helicopter navigator. In 1999, she became the first transgender officer to serve openly in the UK Armed Forces and spent the following 16 years as a female officer.

“It was very difficult, because back then the military was a very different place to what it is today,” she says. “However, I have always used my experience to inspire a change in attitude and help the military become as open and inclusive as it is now.”

SSAFA hopes this week’s landmark anniversary will be a chance to look back on the steps taken towards equality in the Armed Forces.

“The formation of the WAAC was the first time women were formally enrolled in the UK Armed Forces,” says Sir Andrew Gregory, SSAFA chief executive. “Back then, women’s roles involved cooking, administration and mechanical work. Today, 100 years on they stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.

“Over the past 100 years, British females have served alongside men in almost 50 wars and conflicts, including both World Wars, the Falkland’s, Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, the Libyan Civil War.

“It is essential that we continue to promote inclusivity and diversity throughout our Armed Forces in order to benefit from the talent that exists across British society and so it is right that we take a moment to pause, reflect and celebrate their contribution as this milestone approaches.”

As of 2016, female soldiers can now join armoured units and despite some controversy, by the end of next year they will be able to apply for all close ground combat jobs.

“There has been a rapid change from no women in the military to where we are today, with women now even serving on submarines and holding some of the highest positions,” says 37 year old Petty Officer Natalie Corney. “This has had a massively positive impact on perceptions of their abilities and their own ambitions.

“Being a reserve is an opportunity to do something out of your normal daily routine. We do get fewer women interested in joining than men but they shouldn’t be put off. Being a reservist is a fantastic opportunity and if I can do it, then absolutely anyone can.”

As for Rose, after the death of her husband she moved to Folkestone to be closer to family and her starring role in SSAFA’s campaign was an unexpected surprise.

“I always think I’ve lived quite an ordinary life,” she adds, modestly. “When I got to London I wasn’t quite sure what was in store, but I didn’t expect something quite so glamorous. It just shows that even at my age you never know where life will take you.”