In this guest Blog for Women’s History Month, Dr Julie Moore from the University of Hertfordshire and the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centre ‘Everyday Lives in War‘, talks about the ways in which community researchers are engaging with some of the less well-known stories of women’s everyday experiences during the First World War, and calls for community researchers to put themselves on the record. Continue reading Finding the ‘women like us’ in the First World War
In this post, New Generation Thinker Dr Sam Goodman (Bournemouth University) reflects on the role female nurses played in WW1, and on how the reality is embellished in historical dramas such as Downton Abbey.
In this time of renewed focus on the First World War, both in a commemorative and also a cultural sense, we are confronted regularly with the experience and imagery of suffering. Arguably, TV and film productions that dramatize the war have a responsibility to depict its various horrors, from the squalor of the dugouts through to the trauma of violent injury in battle, and very few shy away from doing so. Of equal importance as these male perspectives on war in the trenches though is the female experience of conflict. In many ways, the roles played by women in the First World War offer more varied accounts than their male counterparts, as they include the stories of those women in Britain either employed in industry or waiting for return of a loved one, or those overseas working in a range of capacities in support of the military. Of all of these roles, one of the most recurrent is that of the nurse. The nurse and her experiences are a staple of popular fiction, and have proved evident in recent televisual productions such as The Crimson Field and Downton Abbey, as well as the film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth.
The representation of nursing in these productions typically follows a similar narrative pattern – a young and headstrong woman desires greatly to contribute to the war effort often in defiance of her parents’ wishes, her class status, or some other obstacle. She overcomes initial resistance and gets her wish but her ideals and illusions are shattered by the brutal reality of modern warfare, leaving her emotionally scarred but ultimately changed for the better as a result of her experiences. This is certainly the case with a character like Sybil Crawley from Downton Abbey, whose growing consciousness of the difference between her parents’ values and her own manifests itself successively in daring fashion choices, romance with the family chauffeur, and then a decision to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1916. Sybil’s actions cause all manner of narrative tension but her compassion and dedication to helping others ultimately convinces her parents that nursing is a respectable occupation befitting her social standing. Sybil’s experience appears to deliberately echo Vera Brittain’s journey in Testament of Youth, though does not, as in Brittain’s case, result in a life-long support for pacifism.
Whilst Downton is entirely fictitious and some liberties are taken with the events in Brittain’s memoir in the adaptation, the image of the ‘daring’ or ‘rebellious’ nurse that these texts project is not one created with dramatic licence. The history of nursing had always owed a great deal to the efforts of driven and determined women. At the beginning of the First World War, a professional, organised nursing service was still a relatively recent development within the world of the armed forces, and had only just begun to gain the respectability it would later acquire. A generation earlier and a professional, trained nursing service was a novelty, and a near practical unknown. Until the late nineteenth-century, nursing was mainly the work of religious orders or organisations, or relied on the voluntary actions of individuals; in the Crimean War of 1853-56, women such as Mary Seacole and, of course, Florence Nightingale would be celebrated for their charitable actions, conducted without any organisational support, and little interest from the military command they were aiding. Subsequently to the Crimea, nurses such as Nightingale and Ethel Gordon Fenwick would be instrumental in developing rigorous and professionalised training programmes and a national register for nurses within the United Kingdom. These schools later became affiliated with hospitals and, as a result of the efforts of Fenwick and others, as well as influential royal support, nursing grew into the organised body on which the modern service is based. With the founding of the Army Nursing Service (ANS) in 1881, the Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in 1902, the British Army’s First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in 1907, and the VAD in 1909 nursing became more widely known and respected, and these services would provide crucial medical care when war came in 1914.
Of course the romanticised ideal of the Edwardian woman escaping the strictures of the household for a life of emancipation and liberation in the service of nursing owes a good deal to the recruitment drives mounted throughout the war. The image of the nurse created by the war was one of selflessness and sacrifice, determined to provide care no matter what the personal risks may be, a perception fuelled by the public feeling over the execution of Edith Cavell for espionage in 1915. Of course far more Edwardian women were already in work before the outbreak of war than most people assume, and the virtuous image of wartime nursing was ruthlessly satirised in Blackadder Goes Forth (1986) in which Miranda Richardson’s Nurse Mary Fletcher-Brown smokes, drinks and dryly declares that ‘it’s good to have someone healthy to talk to for a change’. However, for some women, service in VAD, QAIMNS, or FANY did nonetheless equip them with skills and experience, and instil confidence that they otherwise would not have had opportunity to acquire. Any fictional focus on these experiences, even if they do bend the truth a little for dramatic effect, plays an important part in remedying the notion that the First World War took place only in the trenches.
In this guest blog, Carrie Dunn explores Professor Laura Doan’s research into ideas around the First World War being sexually liberating.
A focus for Laura Doan’s research is women whose lives and behaviours might now be interpreted as ‘lesbian’ but were not identified as such at the time. Her new book – ‘Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War, 1914-18’ – draws attention to the fluidity and interconnectedness of sexuality and gender in the early years of the 20th century as well as the limits of categories of sexual identity.
Professor at Manchester University, she began looking at the topic after her previous research on women’s fashion in the 1920s and the development of a lesbian culture.
“As I began to do a lot of research and extend my ideas, I started to worry that I thought I knew more about these women and how they understood themselves than was possible at the time,” says Professor Doan. “It was proclaimed that during World War One, all men became more like soldiers, and women became more like men: hyperbolic, of course, but I use that as a starting point to talk about anxieties about gender roles.
“People like to say the war obliterated Victorian gender norms. What I say is that’s not a very good way to think about it. Instead, I suggest it stretched the meanings of gender. I talk about the elasticity of gender. It’s like a rubber band, it stretches, it gets flabby, it’s not a complete rethinking.”
Doan suggests that the idea that the First World War was sexually liberating is a rather simplistic one. “If you read some textbooks on the social and cultural history of the war, it is very common to come across references that World War One was a liberating moment for homosexual cultures, and that the war created homosocial communities, communities of men and communities of women, and it gave women a lot of freedom, and this led to unprecedented levels of experimentation, also promiscuity, and a greater concern about morals,” she says.
However, she takes pains to point out that gender and sexuality as we understand it in the 21st century were often completely alien concepts 100 years ago.
“I began to realise that the way we go about thinking about sexuality in the past needs to be rethought, because what I discovered is people then did not think at all about sexuality in the way we think about it now,” she explains. “That was my big discovery. Today it’s second nature for us to imagine that people think of themselves as a certain something, and that there are these categories [of sexual orientation]. Almost no-one makes sense of sexuality like that in the First World War. If we really want to understand what’s happening to sexuality in the early part of the 20th century, we have to make that whole world strange to ourselves.”
Doan’s efforts to do that – what she describes as installing “a circuitry of a totally different way of thought” – were assisted by the award of an AHRC fellowship, giving her time to complete her research and her book. She suggests that people do not begin to identify their sexual orientation in terms familiar to us today until the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. That means that during the First World War, there was little understanding or acknowledgement of homosexuality or homosexual activity. If a woman gave the slightest indication that they knew anything about sex or sexuality, she was already “tainted” as “immoral” by that very admission.
The war, then, Doan argues, was not the sexually liberating event that some have perceived it to be. “That discourse is confined to elite and bohemian artistic cultures, such as the Bloomsbury group, or people who’ve gone to public school, but ordinary people would never think of that,” she says. “They might think that person seems a bit odd or eccentric or maybe immoral.”
This theme of sexuality being understood as “immoral” runs throughout Doan’s research. “During the First World War, for women to even acknowledge that they understood anything about sexuality, that troubled their respectability,” says Doan. “If a woman was accused of anything [such as what we now term as lesbianism], for her to even acknowledge that she understands the thing she’s being accused of already taints her, especially in the middle and upper middle classes.”
One of the case studies Doan focuses on is Violet Douglas-Pennant, head of the Women’s RAF, who was ordered to step down from her post without being given a reason. “It’s often understood in LGBT history that she was accused of being a lesbian,” says Doan. “In 1918, when she was fired, all she knew was that someone had said she was ‘an immoral woman’. That was never acknowledged [by the Air Ministry or by Douglas-Pennant] – that would have troubled her respectability.”
Doan looked through the ministry’s private papers to find out whether any of the officials had written down what had been said about Douglas-Pennant. “When I was in the archives in Glasgow, I opened up an envelope and out came all these white feathers, sent to the Air Minister to goad him to come clean about why he had really fired Douglas-Pennant,” she recalls. “The feathers were waltzing around the archive room as I tried to grab at them, and it felt like a neat little metaphor for the research. If I knew for sure what she was I could have just grabbed that feather and put it right into my chapter, but every time I tried to reach the feather it floated away. That’s how history works. It’s not a thing I can hold in my hand.”
You can view Laura Doan’s research online.
Along the lines of evacuation, wounded men encountered men and women serving in caring roles. In this guest post, Dr Jessica Meyer explores what the organisation and staffing of medical establishments in war meant for gender and gender roles.
For women, wartime medicine could, at one level, mean greater opportunity. For doctors like Elsie Inglis, who led the Scottish Women’s Hospital, the desperate need for medical professionals at or near the front line provided the opportunity to demonstrate hard-won skills. Doctors such as Inglis and her staff had the opportunity to prove that they were equal to their male colleagues in terms of their courage and resourcefulness as well as their skills. For professional nurses, the war provided an even greater opportunity to lay claim to a professional identity through recognised service with both the military nursing services and the British Red Cross. For unskilled middle class women, volunteering with the Voluntary Aid Detachments and social caregiving units such as the YMCA or train greeting committees was a socially sanctioned form of war service which took them beyond the confines of domesticity. They could learn new skills, experience adventure, and even travel abroad. Finally, for working class women, general service with the British Red Cross provided a form of war service that was safer, if considerably less well reimbursed, than munitions work.
Yet women’s experiences of medical caregiving in the war was not simply a story of female liberation and the establishment of professional female identities. Indeed, the struggle to establish such an identity was, in some ways, severely limited by the war. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were not employed by the British military but served instead with allied nations, including the French, Belgian and Serbian militaries. After the war, many continued in medicine until marriage, but without the recognition that was accorded to their male colleagues of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
For professional nurses, the war presented an opportunity and a challenge. The service of volunteers, who were valorised not simply as nurses but as volunteer nurses, threatened military nurses’ claims to a specifically professional identity. If nursing was something that could be done effectively voluntarily, then why accord special recognition to those who undertook it as a career? The power of this challenge is reflected in the fact that cultural memory of First World War nursing is often dominated by the eloquent voices of VADs such Vera Brittain rather than the more restrained professionalism of military nurses.
A similar conflict can be seen in the opportunity for women to train in medical roles previously reserved for men, such as anaesthetists and pharmacists. On the one hand this provided professional opportunities for women to gain previously unavailable expertise. On the other hand, these roles were under the authority of the always male surgeon or hospital Commandant. At the same time, the increasing number of women in medical care strengthened pre-existing cultural links between caregiving and femininity. In a society where the marriage bar in most professions would exist for another half a century, this served to depress the status of medical care as much as it improved female emancipation. It is arguable that the relatively low financial value accorded to hospital carers today can be traced in part to the rise of female dominance of hospital care during the First World War.
And what of the men engaged in caregiving roles? For medical officers, the influx of civilian professionals served to enhance the professional identity of a service that had, before the war, struggled to define its status within the military. The actions of men such as Noel Chavasse, one of two medical officers to win not only a VC but also a bar, helped the officer ranks of the corps lay claim to a heroic wartime identity despite being non-combatant.
Stretcher bearers similarly were able to define their work as heroic. Forced to face the terrors of the front line and come under attack without even carrying a weapon, stretcher bearer heroism was built on the image of immense stoicism in the face of danger. In a conflict where endurance was increasingly key to definitions of the soldier hero, their work under fire was increasingly a source of admiration for their combatant comrades.
Medical orderlies, by comparison, had a far harder struggle in defining themselves as masculine. Tent orderlies serving overseas with field ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations could and did come under shellfire. Many also volunteered as stretcher bearers, using the role to lay claim to the qualities of endurance and self-sacrifice that attached themselves to their colleagues. Those serving in Base and, even more so in Home hospitals, found themselves labelled as ‘Slackers in Khaki’ and mocked as the diminutive ‘orderlim’. This was an identity that orderlies never appear to have fully shaken off. The manpower crisis meant that men were increasingly ‘combed out’ for combatant duty to be replaced by men too unfit for front line service. These men were unable to fulfil definitions of heroism which privileged physical fitness, but having lost that fitness through war service, their masculinity was less open to direct question.
In 1919 the RAMC was recruiting for men who wished to ‘learn a useful occupation which may help you in civilian life’, recognition that such service could help men achieve the appropriate masculine identity of provider as well as that of military hero. While caregiving may have become an increasingly feminine occupation, particularly in diluted hospitals, by the end of the war the RAMC serviceman was able to define not only his wartime but his postwar role as appropriately masculine.
In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen explores how war changed the lives of women on the home front not just in terms of their daily work, but in the clothes they wore to do it.
One day in early 1915 in the pit village of Horden, County Durham, 22 year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Holmes set off to post a letter for her father-in-law. She was on her way home from work, and the Post Office was on the way. This seemingly innocuous errand ended with her being mobbed by children.
Why did Lizzie inadvertently become the centre of attention that day? Lizzie was wearing men’s work clothes. Her heavy shirt, leather trousers and boots was the standard gear of all above-ground pit workers. Along with a number of her friends and neighbours, Lizzie had taken a labouring job at the local pit operating the coke ovens. For the first time, the children were confronted with a woman wearing an outfit that they had previously only associated with their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers. For one brief moment, Lizzie reminded all who saw her that the war had changed fundamentally changed British industry as they knew it. Women were taking men’s jobs in all industries, including in the male-dominated coal industry.
That the simple act of wearing men’s work clothes was evidently so shocking seems odd to modern audiences. But in 1915, trousers were an exclusively male garment. That doesn’t mean that women did not periodically wear trousers albeit in very limited contexts. Women’s fashion had toyed with the idea of trousers for at least three decades before Lizzie set off on her errand. A small number of Victorian and Edwardian ladies adopted baggy trousers and “bifurcated skirts” (long culottes) as part of their campaign against the restrictive fashions of the time. In spite of their efforts, trouser-wearing was not widely adopted until the late 1920s and 1930s when masculine tailoring became a staple of haute couture. Even the sportiest Edwardian lady pilots and racing-car drivers preferred to tie their long skirts modestly around their ankles.
Male impersonators were also a regular feature on British music hall circuits where performers like Vesta Tilley drew large audiences. These women performed risqué songs while dressed as young men. Part of the thrill was that audience could see their legs! Lower-class women had, of course, been wearing work trousers for centuries. During the Victorian era, leather trousers were associated with the “pit brow lasses” of Lancashire. Women who chose to wear “men’s clothes” outside of these contexts risked a more negative response from their communities. Cross-dressing was a moral issue. By the early twentieth century, dressing in masculine clothes was gradually being associated with lesbianism. Trousers were associated with clear contexts: politicised fashion and distinct regional trades. They were not associated with respectable miner’s wives, at least not in the Durham area. The fact that it was Lizzie, a woman who may have already attracted negative comments from her community, probably added to the children’s response. She was an extrovert and in her own words, “a bit rough and ready”. She had tattoos, liked a drink, and on at least one occasion ended up in a fight, an event which she enjoyed describing when she was interviewed in her mid-80s.
Lizzie revelled in the notoriety of being proclaimed “the first woman in Horden to wear trousers!”. We will never know if this title was truly deserved. However, her story demonstrates how the First World War expanded the employment opportunities available to women. Lizzie was offered the opportunity to work in a trade that had previously been barred to her as a married woman in a County Durham village. The Northern Coalfield was almost exclusively male. The 1911 census shows how shocking the arrival of female coke oven workers would have been in Horden: officially there were only 13 female coke workers recorded in the entire Durham area. While this figure was definitely an under-estimate, it explains why the children were so surprised!
Lizzie’s time in the coal industry was short-lived. Like most women who joined heavy industry during the First World War, Lizzie saw her wartime job as a temporary expedient. She expected to leave the job once her miner husband came home from the front. The majority of married women never entered the labour market during the war, believing that their place was at home with their families. The Government, trade unions and employers similarly saw women’s employment only as temporary. The end of the war saw the mass withdrawal of women from the labour market. Some went voluntarily like Lizzie. Many others were summarily dismissed. Some trade unions began lobbying for a ban on the employment of married women, concerned that the war had all too readily demonstrated that women were able to compete with their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to return to more “gender appropriate” trades like domestic service. Lizzie spent the rest of her working life as a charwoman, raising her family and caring for her wounded husband Jimmy.
Lizzie was interviewed in 1976 as part of the Peterlee Development Project, a collaboration between the artist Stuart Brisley, Peterlee Council and the Artists Placement Group. Some of the materials from this are now available on through Durham County Records Office and their People Past and Present Archive.
What was women’s experience of the First World War? Is it possible to generalise at all? An AHRC-funded network has been investigating these and other questions.
The network is taking the lead in recording women’s activism after the First World War, drawing together scholars from diverse disciplines and employing a comparative and transnational perspective. Find out more on the AHRC website.
In this guest blog, Roger Deeks tells us what he found out from fieldwork at the site of a WW1 munitions factory carried out nearly 100 years after they produced shells for the First World War.
The history of munitions supply is one of the most compelling stories of the First World War. A revolution in shell production allied to the more effective use and development of artillery was central to the ultimate British success on the Western Front. The development of indirect fire, meteorology, creeping barrages and aerial coordination were key components in what has become known as the ‘learning curve’ of the British Army. However the scale of bombardment that led to the British firing over one million shells per week in the concluding months of the War was achieved through a monumental shift in shell production in Britain. The creation of the Ministry on Munitions in 1915, galvanising shell production through the creation of new factories, transformed Britain. To staff the munitions factories the home front was mobilised on an unprecedented scale, with women taking on hazardous work that had been traditionally a male preserve. The history of munition production stretches over two of the themes of the BBC World War One at Home stories; about Women and how war transformed their status, and Working for the War, the production boom that fuelled the frontline.
As an AHRC-funded adviser to the BBC I had the opportunity to advise on munition stories in a number of locations and in one particular case this involved fieldwork. This was in Coventry, central to munitions in the First World War, and whose workers were both praised and castigated by the wartime government. The fitting of fuses and explosives into shells had traditionally been carried out at Woolwich Arsenal but such was the scale of demand a huge number of factories known as a National Filling Factories were built around the country. I was particularly interested to be involved in the story of National Filling Factory No. 10, Whitmore Park, Coventry or White and Poppe’s, as it was better known locally. Some preliminary research threw up a lot of information about the company who operated the filling factory on behalf of the Ministry. In 1899 working from a site lower down Drake Street, just off Lockhurst Lane, two engineers, Alfred James White and Peter August Poppe, engine and gearbox manufacturers, had seized the opportunity to grow as part of the development of the automotive industry. As precision engineers their work was ideally situated to address munitions production and they first diversified into shell manufacture during the Boer War. Returning to their traditional manufacturing base the company was ideally placed to respond to the demands for massive high quality shell production in the First World War and the company expanded onto a massive 66 acre site part of which is still in existence.
I met Siobhán Harrison, BBC journalist producing the World War One at Home programmes, in Coventry at Drake Street on a wet November day, equipped with plans kindly provided by the Herbert Museum & Art Gallery in Coventry to see what remained of the original factory and local people remembered of it. From the archaeological perspective the visit was illuminating; what became clear was that Whitmore Park was much more than a factory. Despite continual use and change on the site, a return to munitions during the Second World War and becoming part of Jaguar and other automotive components manufacture, much of the layout remained the same. The site was served with railways, sidings into sheds and the shell filling buildings were constructed to minimise the risk of a chain reaction of explosions. The core buildings were off ‘Swallow Road’ and the munitions buildings, now demolished had become the home of Swallow Sidecars which became SS Cars, then Jaguar and later used by Dunlop Aviation Division.
We were delighted to be provided with more information from the site staff from their own recollections and maps. What became clear was that the site was much more than a factory; by 1918 there were 12,000 staff recruited from far and wide, the majority of who lived adjacent to the factory in dormitories and factory houses. This in turn required a vast infrastructure; cinema, shops, swimming baths and allotments. Scattered amongst the buildings, many being demolished, were several of these buildings, the baths and the bank; relics of the first factory on the site. The munitions workers had a factory magazine; The Limit. Foleshill Park and other areas around the factory had ‘munitions cottages’ that were used long after the War ended.
A day’s work provided only a few minutes commentary on the White and Poppe story, but made us both aware of the impact munitions had on the landscape and people of Coventry and its legacy.
BBC Newcastle, like other stations, has been sharing local stories each morning. One story which has caught the attention of many listeners is the history of women’s football in the North East. Blyth Spartans Ladies FC, like many other teams, was made up of women munition workers (like the ones in this blog’s header). They had been taught to play by navy lads on the beach and in two years they were never beaten. Their centre forward Bella Reay scored 133 goals in one season and went on to play for England.
In Lancashire, BBC Radio Lancashire invited local listeners to re-evaluate their view of ‘war horses’, often best known from the book by Michael Morpurgo (or the film and play based on that book).
Lathom Park was used for horse training throughout the war. It’s thought up to 300,000 animals could have passed through it in that time, on their way to the front.
And finally, the AHRC’s own Dr Philip Pothen (Head of Communications) himself appeared across the BBC. Philip was interviewed by local radio stations across the country, speaking about the AHRC’s involvement in the project, and how researchers would be working in those areas to highlight the local stories. More on this to come on this blog…
BBC News Magazine and BBC Scotland has been exploring the tale of Carl Lody, a German spy who reported on British warships in the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh. Lody, who used the alias Charles Inglis, was executed at the formidable Tower of London in 1914.
On Twitter at #ww1athome, people are sharing and posting stories like the one above. BBC Shropshire’s Genevieve Tudor posted a picture of a local women’s network who organised the collection of eggs for the frontline in Much Wenlock. Comedian Johnny Vegas joined the conversation, tweeting his approval, and suggesting that the woman on the left reminded him of his paternal grandmother.
In the East Midlands, it is the history of the University of Leicester that is explored by a current medical student. Soldiers injured on the front were transported to the a hospital on the site, the former County Lunatic Asylum repurposed after the outbreak.. After the war, the University was established there as a living memorial.
Across the BBC, stories from the home front were shared on local radio and news programmes to mark the launch of the World War One at Home programme. Some selected highlights of yesterday’s broadcasts included:
Professor Jane Chapman appearing on the BBC Look East to discuss the legacy of the war not only for women in the workplace, but as the birthplace of the modern twentieth century as we now understand it.
Jenny Agutter narrating the story of a child, Joan Burbidge, who corresponded with a ‘Chocolate Soldier’. After writing her name on a box of chocolates posted to British soldiers in France, Bombadier Edward Hassall exchanged letters with Joan throughout the war, although the pen pals never met.
Making traditional clothes for uniforms on BBC Radio Wales. Welsh homespun cloth used for Welsh Army Corps uniforms which was made at mills in Carmathenshire. As the war progressed, demand for the ‘brethyn llwyd’ (grey cloth) outstripped supply.
Fergus Keeling, BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Radio, marked the launch of the programme in Northern Ireland by saying that the stories “shed light on familiar places we know and love, places right on our doorsteps”.