‘There was a lot of opin­ion about what women should do’

Char­lotte Czyzyk from the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum un­cov­ers the fas­ci­nat­ing and sur­pris­ing roles of women dur­ing the First World War.

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - 59 -

In to­tal, around six mil­lion UK men served in the armed forces dur­ing the First World War. But while women weren’t per­mit­ted to en­gage in ac­tive com­bat, over 100,000 of them joined aux­il­iary branches of Bri­tain’s armed forces dur­ing the war. Mean­while, Queen Alexan­dra’s Im­pe­rial Mil­i­tary Nurs­ing Ser­vice had over 10,000 nurses, while al­most a mil­lion women were em­ployed in some as­pect of mu­ni­tions work.

In 1914, there was a lot of opin­ion about what women should and shouldn’t do, and I’ve found it fas­ci­nat­ing to dis­cover the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries of women who fought against the prej­u­dices of the time. Elsie Maud Inglis was an amaz­ing Scot­tish lady who was a qual­i­fied sur­geon and sup­porter of the women’s suf­frage cam­paign. When war broke out, Elsie of­fered her ser­vices to the Royal Army Med­i­cal Corps, but was told to ‘go home and sit still’. Un­de­terred, she set up the Scot­tish Women’s Hospi­tals, which treated troops in Ser­bia and Rus­sia. She was the first woman to be awarded the Or­der of the White Ea­gle, the high­est hon­our given by Ser­bia. Elsie and her med­i­cal team were evac­u­ated fol­low­ing the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion in 1917. She died from can­cer the day af­ter she re­turned to Eng­land.

There is al­ways light and shade in war. I’ve read an ac­count about an aris­to­cratic woman, Lady An­gela Selina Bianca Forbes, that made me laugh out loud. She set up a can­teen for wounded troops who ar­rived by train in Boulogne. In her mem­oir, she re­counts how she and her team sup­plied 10,000 men with cups of tea in half an hour along­side a fran­tic con­veyor belt of fry­ing 800 eggs be­tween 4am and 6am for the clam­our­ing crowds at the win­dow.

On the other hand, there’s a par­tic­u­larly sad story of a mu­ni­tions worker called Char­lotte Mead. She died in 1916 of TNT poi­son­ing from the fac­tory chem­i­cals, leav­ing be­hind four young chil­dren. Af­ter her death, her hus­band wrote to the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum to share their story. He was serv­ing in France and was left to bring up the chil­dren, a com­plete role re­ver­sal from the con­ven­tions of the time.

Read­ing these sto­ries puts a hu­man stamp on his­tory and I’m con­stantly hum­bled by the lev­els of re­silience and de­ter­mi­na­tion they showed. So many lives were turned up­side down, but the fact that they en­dured the hard­ship and put the pieces back to­gether is in­cred­i­ble. They were or­di­nary peo­ple just like us, caught up in ex­tra­or­di­nary times. I hope that their legacy will live on for many years to come. ◆ To find out more about Char­lotte’s work, visit livesoft­he­first­world­war.org

Mu­ni­tions worker Char­lotte Mead

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