Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War

… 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.


An Interview with “A Fine Brother” Author, Louise Miller

I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Louise Miller, author of A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes, has kindly agreed to chat about her work.

What first interested you in Flora Sandes?

Louise Miller: I stumbled across Flora’s name purely by accident. I had an interest in the First World War for years and read extensively on military history. Nothing I saw had divested me of the impression that all the significant roles had been filled by men. I assumed that women had only played a peripheral and not terribly interesting part, doing things like “keeping the home fires burning”, stuffing shells and doing traditional “women’s” work like nursing. Then I read a passing reference in a newspaper to a British woman who had fought in the war and I had one of these thunderstruck moments where I knew almost instantly that this would be a turning point for me. It look some time but via Google searches I found out that the woman was Flora. And through my research into Flora’s life, I began to read about all the Allied women who had worked in Serbia & the Balkans during WW1. I also realised that much of what I had thought about the work and role of women during the war was shamefully wrong. Continue reading


A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes

The First World War held out the prospect of great adventure abroad for thousands more British women who were keen to “do their bit” for a suitably patriotic cause, just like their brothers. It provided them a chance for them to live and travel independently and work in fields that had hitherto been restricted to men, while its fluid circumstances gave unheard-of opportunities to women with courage and initiative. … Paradoxically, [the British, French and Belgian] desire to “protect” women who did not want to be protected meant that many ended up working in some of the most dangerous sectors of the war. Many would pay with their lives, among them twenty-one British women in Serbia alone. (p 37)

Flora Sandes was a fine brother, the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in WW1. Louise Miller does a fine job of telling her story.

Flora “was the epitome of the independent, forthright and determined ‘new woman’, with an interest in fast cars, gruelling physical challenges and, above all, travel.” (p 17) She had a comfortable upbringing (her father was a pastor). “By the time she reached adulthood, Flora showed scant desire to lead the respectable and leisured life that was expected of a woman of her background.” (p 29) Continue reading