Female officer’s pride in Army’s progress on accepting women in all roles

Women could not serve in the British Army’s infantry in close combat roles until December 2018.

08 March 2022

One of the first female infantry officers in the British Army has spoken of her pride at being considered in the same bracket as trail blazers.

Second Lieutenant Emily Smith, 26, from Somerset, is the third female officer in the UK’s largest infantry regiment, The Rifles.

Then defence secretary Gavin Williamson announced in 2018 that for the first time women would be allowed to apply for all roles in the Army, including close combat roles.

Ms Smith said she had wanted to join the Army from childhood. She went on to prove herself as an athlete, winning a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University, and working in the energy sector before entering Sandhurst in September 2020.

Second Lieutenant Emily Smith of B Company (Crown Copyright/PA)

She serves with 2 Rifles, who are based at Thiepval Barracks close to Lisburn, Co Antrim, and is currently on Exercise Olive Grove in Jordan.

“I can’t even remember the first time that I wanted to be in the Army. My mum has a story of the Army visiting our school and me coming back and saying, ‘I’ve just had the best day of my life’ and my twin sister saying she’d had the worst day of her life,” she told the PA news agency.

She is thought to have been the 10th woman to have gone through the Infantry Battle School in Brecon, Wales.

“I am really really proud even to be in that bracket, breaking the stigma. Once you have had one woman go through, everyone is a little more used to it. My experience at Brecon was great. I didn’t have any issues with being female. I think that shows we are making huge progress in the right direction and it is becoming more of the norm,” she said.

“There is a good group of girls who keep in touch and support each other which is nice, there are people to talk to.

“I’m the third Rifles officer. Natalie Waddington and Augusta Kato went through before me and they were both amazingly supportive, and both strong women. To be in the same bracket as them makes me very proud.”

Rifleman Taylor Lewis (Rebecca Black/PA)

She described having received strong support from the Rifles.

“If you do the same job they don’t really care where you come from or who you are, I think that was one of the reasons why I was so comfortable with choosing the Rifles, they made me feel very comfortable from the start,” she said.

“The thing about being a woman is if you are one woman or two women in 60, you do stand out so that has got its pros and cons, you can’t make a mistake but also if you do something it does often get noticed.”

Exercise Olive Grove has seen 2 Rifles training with the Jordanian Armed Forces, including their female soldiers.

Female soldiers and officers with 2 Rifles take part in Exercise Olive Grove in Jordan (Crown Copyright/PA)

“It’s an interesting one because not only are you dealing with being women but also the Jordanian way of life,” Ms Smith said.

“We have been showing them our way of approach to buildings and clearing rooms. It gives them a go of trying our way of doing things and they have been showing us their way of doing things.

“To be a part of this and see what the Jordanian women are doing is brilliant. It makes me realise how lucky I am to be in the British Army where people are supportive and although you have those people who don’t agree with it or you might come up against a bit of resistance, the resistance that these girls have to go through, and they still get the stuff done. I’ve been inspired by it all.”

Another female officer on Exercise Olive Grove is Second Lieutenant Scarlett Knight, 18, from Gloucestershire.

She is on a gap year commission before going on to study for a law degree.

“It’s a year of experience, it differs from person to person, you go and do the reserve commission at Sandhurst, everyone has to do that to do the gap year, then it depends on which regiment you go to,” she said.

“Jordan has to be the highlight so far, it’s amazing how different it is being in the field, in a different country. I think you get the basis of what the army really is.

“I would really like to return after my degree but it’s too early to say what capacity I’d like to come back in.”

She described the experience of being in a position of command at such a young age as an interesting one.

“I’m the second youngest person in my entire platoon. It’s odd, I think you just have to put it out of your mind, you have to be another officer but it’s also about being honest, when you don’t understand, you don’t understand,” she said.

“My sergeant, and all the officers, are brilliant for when I just turn around and ask what does that mean. They treat you like any other officer. As long as you don’t make it an issue then it’s not. You get the jokes, about being only 18, but it has not been a problem.”

2 Rifles B Company Officer Commanding Major Mark Hayward said seeing the rule change come to fruition has been fantastic.

“It’s long been talked about, this is my first time exposure to working alongside a female officer but you very quickly realise at the end of the day it’s another soldier in a uniform,” he said.

“As soon as people appreciate that and not try to make special allowances or treat people differently we have managed to get a much wider workforce and actually what women do bring to the team is another way of looking at it that traditionally white male English soldiers may not have been able to.

“We’ve really seen that out here, working alongside female officers, we’re a much better team for it.”

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