Women’s role in war ex­am­ined at LFT


PORT DOVER — Mil­lions of sol­diers died hor­ri­ble deaths in the First World War.

How­ever, one of the most fa­mous deaths – one which gal­va­nized a Com­mon­wealth – in­volved a civil­ian.

She was Edith Cavell, 49, a Bri­tish nurse who was ar­rested in Bel­gium on charges of es­pi­onage. Cavell was ex­e­cuted by a Ger­man fir­ing squad in 1915.

She was known to treat the wounded re­gard­less of who they were. How­ever, the Ger­mans lost pa­tience with her af­ter ev­i­dence emerged that she helped 200 Al­lied sol­diers es­cape Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Bel­gium.

De­spite in­ter­na­tional pleas for clemency, a mil­i­tary court found Cavell guilty and sen­tenced her to death. The Ger­mans re­buffed all en­treaties on Cavell’s be­half, cit­ing the need to make an ex­am­ple of her.

“You didn’t have to be a Hol­ly­wood pub­li­cist to know that this wouldn’t look very good – Edith stand­ing there in her nurse’s uni­form be­ing shot by a Ger­man fir­ing squad,” Jen­nifer Robson of Toronto, a writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, said at the Light­house Fes­ti­val The­atre in Port Dover this week.

“If they had just thrown her in jail for the rest of the war, ev­ery- one would’ve for­got­ten about her in a few min­utes.”

In­stead of be­ing for­got­ten, Cavell left a mar­tyr’s legacy. Mon­u­ments were raised to her in Great Bri­tain and across the Com­mon­wealth. Streets and parks around the world bear her name to this day.

Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, the Ger­mans had a knack for blun­der­ing dur­ing wartime. Hitler’s in­va­sion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is an­other ex­am­ple. Al­lied pro­pa­ganda in the First World War suc­cess­fully painted Ger­mans as bar­baric on the strength of Cavell’s ex­e­cu­tion.

It was the Al­lies’ turn to ex­e­cute a woman in 1917 when the no­to­ri­ous dancer and en­ter­tainer, Mata Hari, died in front of a fir­ing squad in France. Born Mar­garetha Geertru­ida Zelle in 1876, Mata Hari was also charged with es­pi­onage. In this case, the crime was shar­ing sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion with the en­emy.

Mata Hari’s ex­e­cu­tion was less con­tro­ver­sial than Cavell’s. Robson said Mata Hari was play­ing both ends against the mid­dle at a crit­i­cal point in the war and paid the price.

Robson, of Toronto, was the guest speaker Thurs­day dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion at LFT ti­tled Women on the Home­front. She is the daugh­ter of noted Cana­dian pro­fes­sor Stu­art Robson and the author of five his­tor­i­cal nov­els. Ti­tles in­clude Some­where in France, Af­ter the War is Over, and Moon­light Over Paris.

In her pre­sen­ta­tion, Robson ex­plained how the First and Sec­ond World Wars changed most ev­ery­thing re­lated to west­ern civ­i­liza­tion, in­clud­ing the role of women. Events, Robson said, thrust women into a host of un­fa­mil­iar roles due to the mil­lions of men drafted into the mil­i­tary.

What­ever men could do women proved their equals. Es­pe­cially note­wor­thy, Robson said, were the com­bat roles women as­sumed in the Soviet Union. Many Rus­sian women proved lethal as tank commanders, bomber pi­lots and snipers.

“You name a job and women were do­ing it, of­ten at poor pay in ap­palling con­di­tions with lit­tle recog­ni­tion,” Robson said. “Af­ter­ward, they were sent home. They were told to be grate­ful that peace had re­turned.”

Thurs­day’s event was or­ga­nized by the Nor­folk County Pub­lic Li­brary. Nearly 60 peo­ple at­tended. Bev Slater, pro­gram man­ager of the lo­cal li­brary sys­tem, says Robson was in­vited be­cause of her roots in south­ern On­tario, her in­ter­est in his­tory, and the pop­u­lar­ity of her nov­els.

Thurs­day’s event also fea­tured a per­for­mance by lo­cal singer Tia Mc­graff and her part­ner Tommy Parham on gui­tar. Songs in­cluded One Tin Sol­dier, Imag­ine, It’s a Long Way to Tip­per­ary, and Pack Up Your Trou­bles In Your Old Kit Bag.


His­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist Jen­nifer Robson, of Toronto, was the guest speaker this week at a Women on the Home­front event in Port Dover. Spon­sor of the pre­sen­ta­tion was the Nor­folk County Pub­lic Li­brary.

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