National Archives
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Documenting a history of women in the army

In honour of this month's celebration of International Women's Day, The National Archives highlights the records held on women in the army during the two world wars and beyond.

Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC)

With men urgently needed for front line service during the First World War, women across the country were encouraged to take their places in industry and the services at home. The part they played in the war effort did a great deal to change existing attitudes to women's roles.

Following heavy losses on the Western Front in 1916, there was an urgent need for voluntary services, from which emerged the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), founded in 1917. The WAAC was divided into four sections: cookery, mechanical, clerical and miscellaneous, offering jobs such as chauffeurs, clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks and instructors. Over 57,000 women served in the WAAC from January 1917 to November 1918. Most stayed on the Home Front but around 9,000 served in France. It was renamed the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) in April 1918 and many volunteers entered the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). The force disbanded in September 1921.

For more information on World War One service records, listen to Records Specialist William Spencer's podcast on 'Tracing World War One Ancestors'.

War Diaries for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) give a daily account of arrivals, departures, promotions, inspections and any disciplinary matters and can be searched and downloaded from DocumentsOnline. You can also download two QMAAC diaries, in WO 95/84 and WO 95/85.

Learn more through our research guide on First World War Women's Services .

MovingHistory presents 'Life of a WAAC' - a First World War Ministry of Information recruiting film for the WAAC.

Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the WAAC were reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and eventually totalled over 190,000 members.

World War Two brought about a major change for women in the services with the passing of the National Service Act in December 1941. This saw the conscription of, initially, unmarried women, who had to choose whether to enter the armed forces (including the Women's Royal Naval Service - WRNS - and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force - WAAF), or work in industry or farming. The Women's Land Army (WLA) - commonly known as the Land Girls - helped with agriculture.

Military service records for the Second World War are kept by the Ministry of Defence. See the Veterans UK website for more information.

Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC)

Last month saw the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), formed after the Second World War as the successor to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The establishment of the WRAC allowed women to pursue a military career within the army for the first time.

The establishment of the WRAC, and the opportunities it offered women as military personnel, formed the basis for women's continuing service in the British Army. Today, the Army employs over 7,000 trained women, representing 7.7 per cent of the total British Army, according to latest figures from the Ministry of Defence. 

Records relating to the WRAC held by The National Archives can be searched and downloaded at DocumentsOnline in series WO 373 - Recommendations for Honours and Awards 1935 - 1990.

For further information, the Family Records website hosts an online exhibition - Women in Uniform - featuring 'Women in World War II'.

 

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