Beatrice Nasmyth. Mary MacLeod Moore. Elizabeth Montizambert. Three names we likely don’t recognize today. But during WW1, countless Canadian, British and French readers read their war dispatches from London, Paris and points closer to the front. Debbie Marshall brings them back to life in Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War.
We met the three journalists briefly in Marshall’s last book (Give Your Other Vote to the Sister), when they joined Roberta MacAdams on a media tour of the military hospitals at Étaples and the lines of communication behind the front. In Firing Lines, we dig deeper into their backgrounds and how they came to report on the conflict.
The first chapters introduce each of the three pre-war. The final chapters show how their lives played out post-war. In between, we see the war progress through their dispatches. They brought the perspectives and insights of working women who care deeply about course of the war and the fighting men at the front, as well as the effects on those behind the lines and on the home front. Elizabeth wrote for the Montreal Gazette, Mary for the London Sunday Times and Saturday Night Magazine, Beatrice for the Vancouver Province.
Mary talked to women in munitions factories, asking about their motivations for working – to win the war, yes, and “another motivation, stronger than patriotism, was a desire for a decent wage and the independence that it brought.” (p 129)
Elizabeth observed that working class women, struggling to make ends meet, may accept the higher paid work at the risk of their health and that of their children. She reported on the organizing measures to look after their health and hygiene.
“How will it be after the war?” Mary wondered. “Many of the women are tasting the joys of an independent income to be spent or saved as one chooses for the first time. How will they settle down to the old life when the men return?” (p 129)
On a 1916 trip back to Alberta, Beatrice wrote:
We had seen not a few vacant homesteaders’ shacks and on some of then the simple legend tacked to the door was ‘Gone to the War.’ … I was reminded of the great stacks of soldiers’ wills I had seen in the Estates Department of the Canadian War Office in London, many of which had bequeathed homesteads in the North Country to relatives, ‘in the event of my death.’ How far apart were these two scenes, yet how closely and pathetically associated. (p 146)
Their reports also reveal the evolving views of the war. The initial rah-rah for King and Country dulls as they see and hear firsthand how the war takes its toll.
More than just reporters, the three women shaped events themselves. They worked for women’s suffrage and undertook their own war work. Beatrice organized Roberta MacAdams’ successful campaign for the Alberta legislature. (While she was working as the Alberta government representative in London and as a reporter … clear conflicts of interest by today’s standards!) Mary and her husband were supporters of Radcliffe Hall’s career following the war. Elizabeth supported her friend Cicely Hamilton.
Marshall’s research pulls back the curtain on an important WW1 story. Firing Lines is a worthy tribute to women who deserve to be remembered.
Read my interview with Debbie Marshall.