The first women associated with the Army were called camp followers, and provided much needed services including cooking, laundry and first aid. Some of these were soldier’s wives. A ballot selection was held at the dock, with six (later four) women per 100 men allowed to accompany the regiment. Women who were left behind had no support from the army. The women who went on campaign were entitled to half rations with children entitled to quarter rations, however they lost all support if their husbands died on campaign.
For those stationed at home, there were no married quarters. In barracks the married men had a curtained off area for their wives and children, sleeping in a large room with the single men. After the end of the Crimean War (1853-1856), the British Army underwent radical changes as it became concerned with the moral and physical well-being of soldiers and their families.
The First World War
The First World War was the first time women served in uniform outside the role of nursing. By 1915 there were several voluntary women’s groups that took on driving roles and cooking, but nothing official was formed until after the Somme in 1916. To free up men for front line service, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed of civilian women who undertook support and administrative roles in the UK and France. They acted as clerical staff, domestic staff, cooks, drivers, supply clerks, and within the Graves Registration Unit. For their service during the 1918 Spring Offensive they were renamed the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). They were disbanded in 1921.
The Second World War
When it looked like war with Germany was inevitable, the War Department began to think seriously about creating another auxiliary unit. The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was formed in 1938, originally as volunteers and followed by conscripts in 1942. As with the WAACs of the First World War, the ATS undertook support and administrative roles, including clerical, driving, provost duties and anti-aircraft command. They served in most of the overseas theatres of operations, including Palestine. Towards the end of the war, the then Princess Elizabeth joined the ATS and trained as a driver at Camberley.
The ATS performed such a vital role in wartime that it was agreed that a peacetime women’s corps should be formed. The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) formed from the ATS in 1949, finally coming fully under the Army Act. In 1950 female officers were to use the same ranks as men for the first time. The WRAC served in forty different trades in twenty different regiments and arms and served worldwide during emergencies and on operations.
In 1991 all WRAC personnel permanently attached to regiments transferred to those regiments, with all others transferring to the AGC in 1992.