Don't Write First World War Women Out of History

tags: World War I



Kate Adie, a former BBC chief news correspondent, is the author of Fighting on the Home Front.

The spy and the nurse. Two women have lingered since the first world war. Mata Hari had been a circus performer and exotic dancer, and therefore satisfied traditional prejudices when she was accused of espionage and shot by the French. Edith Cavell was a brave and pious nurse whom the Germans arrested for helping British soldiers escape occupied Belgium. She too was executed and became a near-martyr. Both fitted acceptable and conventional roles for women in wartime.

Though most wars before the 20th century had been men-only events, the first world war should have given women a much greater claim to be remembered for the part they played, not least because it produced more published material from those women directly affected by its course.

Women were, for the first time in Britain, part of the government's war machine: the munitions industry depended on nearly a million of them; thousands upon thousands of injured soldiers were nursed and cared for by myriad women's organisations; the country's meagre welfare systems were buttressed by countless voluntary groups of well-organised, dedicated members who raised money, distributed supplies, visited families and staffed scores of canteens at ports and stations for exhausted troops. Others drove ambulances in France under fire and put on concert parties to the sound of artillery. On the home front, 80,000 were in uniform in non-combatant roles in the new Women's Services, and several million were undertaking work hitherto thought unsuitable or impossible for a woman – welders, train cleaners, policewomen, taxi-drivers....



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