My novels are set in WWII and, during a recent interview, I was asked if war excited me. War doesn’t excite me, I am a pacifist, however, WWI, WWII, and the years inbetween, were the most important in history for women – and that excites me. The greatest change for women and society happened during the First World War. When tens of thousands of men were sent overseas to fight, women had to do their jobs.
Women on the Front Line
There was only one female soldier in WW1. Flora Sandes, a vicar’s daughter from Yorkshire, joined St. John’s Ambulance as a volunteer. She swapped her first aid bandages for a rifle during fierce fighting in Serbia and was accepted into the Second Infantry Regiment of the First Serbian Army, as a Private. In 1916, during the Serbian advance on Bitola (Monastir), Sandes was seriously wounded by a grenade in hand-to-hand combat. She received the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karađorđe's Star - the equivalent of the Military Cross. By the end of the war, she was mentioned twice in Dispatches for exceptional bravery – and later promoted to Captain.
Captain Flora Sandes
Another woman to go to the front was battlefield surgeon Elsie Inglis, who worked for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. She was a formidable woman, talented surgeon, compassionate doctor and militant suffragette. Dr Inglis was a pioneer who fought the prejudice of male-dominated Victorian society, where women were expected to become wives and mothers and leave doctoring to the menfolk. In 1914 the Army did not permit women doctors, so she set up a medical unit in France and sent 14 teams of women volunteers to give medical help on the battlefields. In 1915 she went to Serbia where Serbs were fighting Germans and Austrians. She faced many hardships, dangerous battles, freezing weather and being arrested as a spy. From Serbia, Elsie went to Russia to work as a war doctor. She returned home to Scotland in November 1917 because she had cancer. She died shortly afterwards.
Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, also a battlefield surgeon, set up Endell Street Military Hospital in London with Dr Flora Murray – both were suffragettes. Run entirely by women the hospital treated more than 24,000 soldiers between 1915 and 1918. The daily admittance rate was around 80 casualties, and surgeons performed as many as 20 operations in one day.
The Endell Street Military Hospital opened in May 1915
Women on the Home Front
As fathers, husbands and sons, who did essential work in power stations, shipyards and munitions factories were sent overseas to fight, mothers, wives and daughters, replaced them. Middle class girls abandoned their social calendars to drive ambulances – often during air raids, originally by Zeppelins – and the invisible in society, working class women, were suddenly seen as a valuable work force.
Women worked across the economy – from postal workers to police patrols – and tram drivers to train cleaners. Cleaning a steam train’s boiler meant wearing trousers – another first. Women worked as window-cleaners, milkmen, butchers, delivery drivers - and they shovelled coke.
A young woman delivering a sack of coke
To keep up production, women worked 12-hour shifts, for 13 days without a break. Conditions were hard and could be dangerous. Filling shells with TNT often caused explosions, and chemicals turned girls’ skin yellow. They were nicknamed Canary Girls.
Women preparing projectile heads at Cunard Shell Works, Merseyside, 1917
Work on the land was backbreaking. Land Girls worked from dawn until dusk, in all weathers, and without the help of horses. Heavy horses that pulled the ploughs had been sent to France to pull field artillery.
On a lighter note, because it’s the 2014 World Cup
“We make shells and we’re also terrific at scoring goals.” Professional players had been called up, so women took over the football pitches. This team from the AEC Munitions factory in east London played seriously, attracted large crowds and held the Munitionettes’ Cup Final at St. James’ Park in Newcastle.
The AEC Munitions Factory Eleven
The AEC played for charity, to help wounded men coming home from the war. They wore their frilly munitions mobcaps with pride – and at a time when many women still wore skirts to the ground – they were wore shorts and showed their knees.
ANIMALS IN WWI
In 1914, soldiers fought on foot or horseback. Eight million horses were killed on the Western Front, about the same number as human casualties. A baboon named Jackie served in South Africa, and on the battlefields of France dogs were used as sentries and messengers. Mercy dogs with medical supplies strapped to them were trained to find wounded and dying soldiers. A Mercy dog would keep a fatally injured soldier company by lying next to him until he died.
The British Army used more than one hundred thousand pigeons to carry messages. When the war ended, homing pigeons became a protected species. Killing or wounding them was punishable by six months in prison, or a £100 fine.
A portable pigeon loft in WWI
The First World War was a time of military innovation. By 1917, the British Armed Forces were fighting with tanks and aeroplanes – and battlefield communications were by radio.
Women - Recognised at last
Women did the same work as men but for less than half the pay. Men, often in charge of the female workforce, usually disagreed with equality for women. In engineering skilled work was broken into smaller individual tasks so women did not challenge men’s skilled status. However, on February 6, 1918, the Representation of the People Act giving the vote to women over thirty received Royal Approval. It was the beginning of equality for women.
WSPU founders Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst
After WWI men’s attitudes towards women began to change. Men had the vote at 21, the suffragists at 30, but as voters, they could exercise direct influence on parliament – and they did. It took many years before men recognised women as equals. Some still don’t.
One of the biggest improvements in the lives of women during the First World War was health. Women lived longer and had healthier lives. After the war infant mortality was reduced by two thirds – and smaller households and earnings rising faster than food prices meant there was more food to go around. However, many women were forced from their jobs once the men returned and had to go back to domestic life. Many women had earned the right to vote, but such things as higher education, going to university, having a career as a lawyer, doctor, or MP, were still overwhelmingly the preserve of men.
The Great War. The war to end all wars
And it may well have been, if a Gefreiter (corporal) in the Bavarian Army named Adolf Hitler hadn’t been so lucky. In 1916, Hitler was wounded in the left thigh at the Somme when a shell exploded in his dugout, and in 1918, he was blinded in a mustard-gas attack. Hundreds of young men faced a lifetime in darkness after they were blinded by mustard gas, but Hitler got away with it. How different the world would have been if Hitler hadn’t had the luck of the devil.
Lest We Forget On August 4, 2014, it is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, one of the costliest conflicts in history. The war started and ended in Africa. The first shot fired by a British soldier came from a Ghanaian in the Gold Coast Regiment on August 7, 1914. And the last German troop to surrender was in present day Tanzania on November 25, 1918.
The tragic and horrific statistics of the First World War are hard to take in. The total number of military and civilian casualties was over 37 million. Over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded make it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
The total number of deaths is estimated at 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. The Allies lost 6 million military personnel, and the Central Powers lost 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead. Around two-thirds of military deaths in World War I were in battle, unlike the conflicts that took place in the 19th century when the majority of deaths were due to disease.
The young men who went off to war in 1914 left behind an old world. Those lucky enough to return in 1918 came home to a new world, a modern world, a world that was full of changes. Soldiers like my grandfather, who survived although he was shot through the knee in 1918, had a new society to come to terms with. Sadly, some men never managed it. It is because of the brave servicemen of the First and Second World War who gave their lives for us, that we are able to enjoy freedom today. It is for this reason that our generation, and future generations, must never forget the sacrifices that so many millions made for us.
They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning