International Women's Day 2019 - Header Image
Stories

Women Who Went To War: Meet Five Heroines Who Gave Everything For Britain

For International Women’s Day, we have profiled five women who have shown remarkable courage during conflict.

International Women's Day 2019 - Header Image

Throughout the ages, women from Britain and the Commonwealth have taken up arms for Crown and country. They have led soldiers into battle, nursed the wounded and spied in the most dangerous of circumstances.  

For International Women’s Day, we have profiled five women who have shown remarkable courage during conflict.

International Women's Day 2019 - Channing Day Banner

Corporal Channing Day was just 25 years old in 2012 when a drug-using Afghan policeman turned his gun on her.

Cpl Day was the third British woman to die while serving in Afghanistan since 2001.

She had been deployed the previous month to give medical support to 40 Commando Royal Marines.

Cpl Day, of 3 Medical Regiment, had harboured ambitions of a military career since her school days. After completing work experience with the Army, a Commanding Officer told a teacher that if she chose a military career “she would do very well”.

A veteran of previous Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, according to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) she was "looked up to, especially by more junior soldiers in her Squadron, as a mature voice of experience and good advice".

"Diligent in every respect of her preparation, she had worked hard all the way through the build-up training and led by example in all that she did," said Lieutenant Colonel Phillip de Rouffignac, Commanding Officer, 3 Medical Regiment.

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Corporal Channing Day wanted to join the military from a young age (Picture: MOD).

An estimated 1,000 people attended her funeral in her hometown of Comber, Co. Down.

In a statement, the Day family paid tribute to their daughter:

"Channing was bubbly, sporty, beautiful and lived her life for the Army. She has died doing what she lived for and in the life that she loved.

"A girl who lived her life to the full without ever giving up on her dreams.

"She was a fabulous daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin, niece and friend. She will be so sadly missed by all."

Since her passing, the Day family have thrown themselves into fundraising, raising tens of thousands of pounds for servicemen and women suffering from trauma.

"We've tried to run events we think Channing would have liked,” her mum, Rosemary, told the Belfast Telegraph.

“We've had cinema nights and a Groovy Train night and a Halloween night and we do 'The Fare on the Square' every year, which raised almost £1,000 last time.

"The money goes to help the girls and fellas that have been through past wars to ensure they are getting the help they need.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder takes more lives after they come back from war than those actually killed in war.”

   

International Women's Day 2019 - Nancy Wake Banner

“I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas,” Nancy Wake once told an interviewer.

Nicknamed ‘The White Mouse’ by the Gestapo, Ms Wake was a socialite with a rich husband in the south of France when the Second World War broke out. A chance meeting in a bar led her to join the French Resistance and she began to help Allied servicemen escape France into neutral Spain.  

After being placed on the Gestapo’s most wanted list, she fled France in 1943 in the back of a coal truck.

Once in Britain, Ms Wake began to train as a Special Operations Executive agent before being parachuted back into France in 1944.

Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) conducted espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe during the Second World War.

Many reported of her incident with a parachute, when she became entangled in a tree and a Resistance fighter was sent to meet her. He remarked: 

“I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”

"Don't give me that French s**t," she snapped back.

Nancy Wake
Nancy Wake's role within the Resistance was varied (Picture: Australian War Memorial).

She controlled the organisation's communications with London, distributed arms and equipment and kept a careful eye on the finances.

More dangerously, she took part in ambushes of German troops and sabotaged railways lines and bridges. She claimed to have strangled a Nazi with her bare hands on one occasion, and also to have ordered the execution of a woman she suspected of being a German spy.

She was, as she told one journalist, “not a very nice person.”

“And it didn’t put me off my breakfast,” she added.

After the war, Britain awarded her the George Medal, second only to the George Cross for civilian heroism. The French Republic showered her with honours; the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre (twice) and the Médaille de la Résistance. From the United States, she received the Medal of Freedom with Palm and the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association - country of her birth - gave her a badge in gold. Australia, where she spent most of her life, also made her a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.

 

International Women's Day 2019 - Noor Inayat Khan Banner

Born an Indian princess in Moscow, on paper Noor Inayat Khan was an unlikely British spy. 

In her spare time, she was a musician who also wrote children's stories.

She moved to London and then Paris, where she was educated before she fled to Britain in 1940 when the Nazis invaded.

The bilingual Khan first joined the WAAF, and then was quickly snapped up by SOE in 1942.

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Noor Inayat Khan in 1943 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

She was a reluctant spy and disliked handling weapons. An SOE report from 1942 said she was "not over-burdened with brains" and judged her "unsuited to work in her field".

Regardless, she was deployed to France as a wireless operator where she posed as a children’s nurse.

Within 10 days of her arrival in France, all the other British agents in her network were arrested but Khan refused to return to Britain. She called in favours from friends and continued to send messages to London.

Her luck ran out in October 1943, when she was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to a German prison where she was beaten and kept in solitary confinement.

In September 1944, she was moved to Dachau concentration camp and shot alongside three other women from SOE. As the guns of the firing squads were raised towards her, her defiant last words were, “Liberté.”

She is regarded by some as Britain's first Muslim war heroine.

 

International Women's Day 2019 - Edith Cavell Banner

Born in a small village near Norwich in 1865, Edith Cavell was working as a nurse in Belgium when war broke out.

She transformed her clinic into a Red Cross Hospital, treating thousands of men from both sides of the increasingly bloody conflict.

WWI nurse Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell was a pioneering nurse who during the First World War saved the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination.

However, it was her hospital’s role in secretly repatriating British soldiers that got her into trouble. She was arrested in August 1915 and confessed to ‘successfully conduct[ing] allied soldiers to the enemy of the German people’.

She was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad in October 1915.

One of her final statements prior to her execution is widely remembered across Britain:

“Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

The Anglican Church remembers her with a memorial day on 12 October in its Calendar of Saints. 

   

International Women's Day 2019 - Boudica Banner

The imposing statue of 'Boudica and Her Daughters' close to the Palace of Westminster, erected in 1902, is a testament of the esteem the Victorians held the Warrior Queen.

When Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, the Iceni King, died, the Romans seized the tribe’s lands, in present-day Norfolk and Suffolk.

When Boudica objected, she was flogged and her daughters were raped.

Boudicca statute in Westminster 300119 CREDIT Carole Raddato Flickr.jpg
The statue of 'Boudica and Her Daughter' outside the Palace of Westminster (Picture: Carole Raddato/Flickr).

Amid growing hostility towards Roman rule in Britain, Boudica decided to lead a rebellion against what was then the mightiest Empire on Earth.

In 60 or 61 AD, the Roman Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was away at the head of a military campaign in North Wales. Boudica chose that moment to strike and other tribes joined in the rebellion.

The Celts defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and killed 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons, according to contemporary historians. The modern-day cities of London, St Albans and the Roman capital of Britain, Colchester, were also all destroyed.

However, Paulinus returned with a replenished army and defeated Boudica’s troops.

It is not known for sure how Boudica died, but it is believed that she either died of shock or took poison to avoid the ignominy of capture.

Design and illustrations by Seonaid Burns.