Journalist Kate Adie who has reported from war zones around the world has written this book about women’s contribution to the war effort during the First World War.
All British women played a part during the war, from Queen Mary who dug potatoes to Sergeant Major Flora Sandes who fought with the Serbian Army. Most used their hard earned skills of committee management, public speaking and organisation to overcome the prejudices of the male hierarchy in parliament and the military and in 1918 the over 30s won the vote.
The most popular war work was nursing. The military nurses had been overwhelmed by the scale of casualties and so many young women from well to do homes became Voluntary Aid Detachments and nursed in British hospitals but also in France, Malta and Mesopotamia ( Iraq ) Women doctors often set up and ran their own hospitals in spite of objections from the military.
Other work was in policing—there had been few female police officers before the war, and a general panic seemed to engulf our rulers about the “loose morals” of working class women who now had money to spend from making munitions and no husbands around to control them. So the new women police were made up of the very upper class/middle class women who had been jailed for attacking the police before the war—sort of poachers turned gamekeepers!
Adie touches on other war work such as keeping the postal service moving; many millions of cards and letters went backwards and forwards to the trenches. The Women’s Land Army who worked in the fields to prevent Britain starving as a result of the U-boat campaign, and the Women’s Institutes which were started in Canada and transferred to Britain in 1915. They also kept the railways moving although they did not drive the trains.
The First World War certainly brought some advances to women’s participation in aspects of public life which had previously been closed to them, although even one hundred years after wards equal pay, promotion inside the established church, and apart from one instance, the top political, judicial, Armed Services and business jobs are still very much for the boys.
However, I do think that women were used by the same men who a few months before the outbreak of war were insulting them, jailing them and force feeding them. For me the worst male abuse was that of Charles Penrose Fitzgerald who founded the “White Feather” campaign which encouraged the more thoughtless women to hand out white feathers to any man not in uniform.
The man may very well been out of uniform for many genuine reasons, but that did not make a difference. Adie does try to explain the reasons behind this campaign, that in a country that did not have conscription women were used as recruiting agents.
Class also played a part in the sort of war work that women did. Many upper and middle class girls like Vera Brittain became VADs , but very few, if any, worked in munitions—that was for working class women.
It was the first time that the army, the navy and the recently formed air force, had recruited women to serve alongside, albeit in “female” roles such as cooking and clerking.
The reaction of many civilians to this was of horror—they thought the women were little better than tarts; they were also not going to be allowed near the front line because—heaven forbid—they might actually have to shoot one of the enemy!
Adie says very little about women who opposed the war. Sylvia Pankhurst, unlike her mother and sister, opposed it and set up relief for poor women in the East End. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is only briefly mentioned; this was an international organisation made up of women from all countries in the conflict.
The Union of Democratic Control was another organisation which opposed the secrecy of treaties, and the ”old boy network” agreements which they believed contributed to the war; and also opposed the harsh conditions placed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty; but this organisation is not mentioned in the book.
Adie also doesn’t mention Ireland which was very politically divided about the war. Pro unionist women would have been involved with the war effort; Nationalist women such as Maude Gonne would have been opposed to it.
The book is well researched and easy to read– I never knew that Queen Mary smoked; and Adie interposes it with her family’s own memories of the war in the North East of England—her father as a boy saw a Zeppelin raid on his hometown of Sunderland.
There are interesting anecdotes—the young Agatha Christie got the idea of creating a fictional Belgian detective from knowing a group of Belgian refugees living in Torquay.
It has photographs of women in their various roles—some even in trousers, a new and shocking phenomenon in those days, and will be of interest to younger women who wondered just what their great grannies did in the war.
By Ruth Jellings
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