Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War

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… one of the interesting things I learnt in the war was that women who drive cars are much less easy to control than the other women. Whether this is because being able to manage a car gives them greater self-dependence, or whether only very independent women volunteered to drive cars, I don’t know … As the war went on, however, I learnt to respect them immensely because they were not only independent but also indefatigable. (Katharine Furse, Hearts and Pomegranates p 309, quoted in Female Tommies at p 65)

Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War is a good starting place to explore the five Ws of the indefatigable women on the Allied side of the war. They fought the enemy and the prejudices of the men and institutions on their own side.

Elisabeth Shipton begins with an overview of historical context. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a movement for women’s equality through education, occupation and suffrage in Europe, North America and Australasia. The war brought an opportunity for women to realize their potential, use their skills and prove their abilities. By fighting for their country, they could demonstrate their citizenship and win the vote.

The men in power were on to them, though. By keeping women away from the front, employing them as civilians or on contract, or limiting the activities of their voluntary organizations, governments could say that women were not in military service. Women were not fulfilling the same responsibilities as men. But as the war went on, the need for more men at the front could not be met by enlistment or conscription. Women were needed in support roles behind the lines to free up more men.

Shipton compares how the UK and US set up women’s auxiliary units in 1917. She also contrasts the treatment of women in the medical units in several Allied countries. It took most countries until 1916 to admit that they could benefit from using women doctors.

Chapters are dedicated to nurses, doctors, medical aid workers, spies, journalists, warriors and so on. One chapter sorts out the differences between the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the national Red Cross Societies, ambulance units, and the myriad of privately-funded aid organizations. (In some other books, the groups are not easily distinguished or the author assumes the reader knows the differences.)

Shipton also introduces many individual women who were leading the way. Edith Cavell, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, Maria Bochkareva, Elsie Inglis, Flora Sandes and others are worth more in depth reading. For those with limited reading time, Shipton’s highlights give a good flavour of their lives and personalities.

She has a keen sense of embellished autobiographies. More importantly, she shows how women’s war stories were fictionalized by others. Writing about resistance and espionage:

Whether these women were driven by a need for justice, a sense of patriotism, political activism or a desire for money or fame, the social and sexual mores of the time affected the way in which their contributions were recorded for posterity. Shaped by judgemental attitude towards female morality, many of the women were remembered either as innocent saints or untrustworthy whores. The very ability of women to blend into civilian life, to pass unnoticed as members of the resistance or as part of an espionage network while doing genuine humanitarian work as nurses, makes their contribution to the war incalculable. (p 135)

WW1 saw the militarization of women on an unparalleled scale, albeit in different modes depending on the country and the sector. Their gains were not always sustained after the war. Shipton concludes that the lasting effect was in evidence 20 years later … the women had laid the foundation for a greater role in WW2.

The book ties together many loose threads from others I’ve been reading. Shipton sets out her premises, delivers the information clearly and offers an interesting analysis based on thorough research. Perhaps I should have read Female Tommies earlier in this venture.

Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

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