Between the Wilfred Owen poems, the haunting trench photography and the classic final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, we all know how important it is to remember World War One, but it’s easy to forget that women also risked their lives during the conflict. Yet, whether as nurses, spies or secret soldiers, many women did put themselves in the firing line.
A pioneering Scottish doctor and suffragist, Elsie Inglis wanted to bring female medics to the Western Front; her idea was rejected by the War Office, who told her to ‘go home and sit still’. However, she raised enough money to launch the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) Unit, which sent nurses to Corsica, France, Malta, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. Whilst in Serbia, Elsie and her team were captured by the enemy and were released after tense negotiations.
In 1916, she was the first woman to be awarded Serbia’s Order of the White Eagle in recognition of her work. Sadly she didn’t live to see the end of the war, as she died of cancer in 1917. The Imperial War Museum holds several artefacts related to the SWH, including uniforms, and a painting by one of its orderlies, artist Norah Neilson-Gray. The SWH will be remembered in a Glasgow libraries exhibition next year, funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Other WWI medical marvels include Edith Cavell, the British nurse shot for helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium, and Marthe Cnockaert, a Belgian nurse working undercover as a spy for the Allies. Front line ambulance drivers Lady Dorothie Feilding, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker also made an impact. Chisholm and Knocker broke away from the Munro Flying Ambulance Corps to set up their own dressing station; all three were awarded British and Belgian medals for bravery. Meanwhile, in Russia and Siberia, Elsa Brändström (a.k.a. the ‘Angel of Siberia’) nursed prisoners of war.
The Secret Fighters
Dorothy Lawrence famously spent ten days on the Western Front in Albert, France, under the name Denis Smith. In Paris she made friends with ‘khaki accomplices’ – soldiers who helped her build a disguise and forge her papers – then she cycled to Albert and joined the British Expeditionary Force’s 179 Tunnelling Company, 51st Division of the Royal Engineers, having struck up a friendship with Sapper Tommy Dunn. However, the grim conditions in the trenches made her ill, and she gave herself up to senior officers.
Though Dorothy was banned from talking about her experiences during the war, in 1919 she finally published a book – Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Tragically she was sent to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in 1925 and spent the rest of her life institutionalised. Dorothy’s story inspired a play, Over the Top: The true-life tale of Dorothy Lawrence, by the Heroine Project Presents, which tours south west England from March-April 2016.
Dorothy’s war experience wasn’t unique, as women across Europe wanted to fight. Flora Sandes and Milunka Savić both joined the Serbian army; Sandes became a sergeant major, whilst Savić became a sergeant and earned high-profile medals such as the Croix de Guerre. Olga Krasilnikov, Natalie Tychmini and Zoya Smirnow all disguised themselves as men and fought for the Russian Army. Russia was more accepting of women joining men in battle – it had two princesses serving as pilots, and Maria Bochkareva was allowed to form the Women’s Battalion of Death, with 2,000 recruits. Emmeline Pankhurst called Bochkareva ‘the greatest woman of the century’.
The feistiest pensioner of WWI, 78-year-old Madame Marie-Thérèse Faverger-Tack stayed at home in Niewkapelle, Belgium, even when the Allies fought the war just beyond her garden. She sheltered and fed troops and visited them in the trenches, earning herself nicknames like ‘The Lady of the Trenches’ and ‘Mother of the Soldiers’.
Madame Tack, who lived with her dog, parrot and a donkey called Paula, eventually had to be evacuated from her house as the war escalated, but she later returned to repair the damage. Madame Tack is just one of the women featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Museum at the Yser, in Diksmuide, Belgium, from April-December 2016, as part of Her Side of the War.
Whilst many men became official war artists, women like Anna Airy and Flora Lion were only commissioned to paint home front factory scenes. However, artistic women serving near the front, such as ambulance driver Olive Mudie-Cooke, painted and drew in between work shifts. Several female war correspondents, including Mary Roberts Rinehart in Belgium and Bessie Beatty in Russia, reported back on front line activity. Yet again, disguise got some of the best results: Mary Boyle O’Reilly reached Belgium dressed as a peasant and was the only English-speaking reporter to see the burning of Leuven in 1914.
Women took on highly dangerous risks between 1914-1918, often on their own initiative and with little thanks. It’s about time we gave them credit for their achievements.