‘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.
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