War Girls: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose by Women in the First World War

 

Ruth Sillers, Professional London-based actress, singer, and broadcaster

 

July 2018

 

This event was a commemoration and celebration of the remarkable, often deeply moving and largely unsung experiences of women in the Greta war of 1914-1918, told in their own words, through poetry, journals and letters. Women from all walks of life and society set down their impressions and thoughts, and expressed many different points of view, from campaigning for peace to working on the Home Front and in the services. In her CD, which is commercially available (via Crimson Cat Audio Books) Ruth has drawn on the writings of established poets and novelists, but, more widely, on the records of ordinary women living in extraordinary times. These extract show not only personal hardship and suffering, but also the joy and excitement of a new society emerging from the war, as women were given new challenges, freedoms and possibilities unknown to earlier generations. 

 

Ruth began by referring to the Poets’ Collection, at ‘historic Craiglockhart’, Midlothian in Scotland, which the Middlesbrough born novelist Pat Barker used as the background for her celebrated ‘Regeneration ‘trilogy of novels dealing with the Great War. There posters were shown; one was ‘The Kitchen is the Key to Victory: Eat Less Bread’; another read ‘ These Women Are Doing Their Act: Learn to Make a Contribution’ and the third was ‘Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps: Enrol Today’. Mention was made of the clarion anti-war call from ‘women of the world’ in August 1914, then, after all the initial bloodshed, the International Peace Conference at The Hague in 1915.  Images were shown of men marching, smiling (optimistically) in a photo graph of August 1914 - ‘Joining the Colours’, followed by the inevitable White Feather, directed at men who were unwilling to be volunteers.  On 24 April 2018, the first statue of a woman linked to World War One was erected in Parliament Square, London.

 

Ruth the read The Jingo Woman, a poem by Helen Hamilton, then The Wykhamist, a poem by Nora Griffiths, accompanied by a photograph of a public schoolboy from Winchester College, Hampshire, enlisting in the war. There was a reference here to Chawton House, Hampshire, with its important Jane Austen connections, now a Centre for Women’s Literature. Another photograph was shown, this time of a female guard on the Metropolitan Railway, from the Collection of the London Transport Museum.  Other photographic images followed: Women porters at Marylebone Station; the Women’s Fire Brigade; women road tar spreaders; the Butcher boy/girl; a woman conductor on a London bus; the Chief of the Women’s Police; a female trolley driver at Liverpool Street Station; An advertisement for women chauffeurs (with an advertisement for a lady chauffeur’s coat, from Dunhill’s, 2 Conduit Street, W1); a woman ambulance driver (BA 394/Blighty): women in Munitions, 1916; a poster ‘These woman are Doing Their Bit/Learn to Make Munitions’; two photographs of ‘Munitionettes’ ( women working with men in a munitions factory); and A Land Army Girl from 1915.

 

Then came The Broken Soldier, a poem by Kathleen Tynan, with a photograph of a bread queue  (commonplace during the war - an everyday event in the cities and towns of Britain); food rationing and war propaganda; a poem by Aelfrida Tillyard, entitled Invitation Au Festin - with telling photograph of the Ritz Restaurant, London in 1917, showing how life for the very rich simply continued as it had always done; Eleanour Norton’s Poem In A Restaurant, 1917, emphasised this. 

Muriel Dayrell Browning’s A Zeppelin Shot Down, was accompanied by photos of a Zeppelin Over St Paul’s Cathedral 4 September 1916, one showing clearing away on the ground after a Zeppelin Raid, and one of the Minories Zeppelin Raid, October 1915; a mother and son inspecting the ruins of their London home after an air raid; and the GPO, St Martin-le-Grand, London.

 

Lilian Baylis, the Lady of the Old Vic, whose rivalry with the actress Sybil Thorndike was so well known at this time, cried out after an air raid: ‘Would all those who wish to leave theatre please do so at once… Weare going on!!!’

 

Mary Wedderburn Cannan’s poem Lamplight was read, accompanied by images of British war graves in France, planned and organised, of course, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One showed ‘A Prisoner of the Great War - A Soldier of the Great War - A Prisoner of the Great War’, next to one another, all anonymous. (These cemeteries are to be seen all over Europe, commemorating both Allied soldiers and Central Powers soldiers.)

 

Armistice Day in London, by Alice Connor, nee Kedge, was read, to mark 11/11/1918, and a photo shown of the celebrations on that momentous day.  A photo of Peggy Marten, VAD nurse at Bethnal Green Military Hospital, London, was shown. She said ‘Here we are, at the end of the war. But not at the end of grief.’ An extract from Virginia Woolf’s 1918 Diary, followed: ‘We are, once more, a nation of individuals’: then came The Cenotaph, by Charlotte Mew, the most distinguished of the women poets to emerge from The Great War period, the Cenotaph in Whitehall was unveiled in September 1919. An image of the First World War memorial at the Royal Exchange, London, was shown, together with War Poppies, another photograph. The session concluded with Sara Teasdale’s poem: There Will Come Soft Rains.

 

Ruth emphasised, in conclusion, that the emancipation of women during the Great War helped to give them the vote, and thus increased their political power for good, even though all women over 21 did not receive the vote until 1928.They experienced independence on so many levels, and could not be ‘confined’ in the same way again after 1918. 

 

This is a complete list of the poems and prose pieces Ruth read during this presentation:

International Manifesto of Women – Manchester Guardian, 1914 

Joining the Colours, by Katherine Tynan

The Jingo Woman, By Helen Hamilton

The Wykhamist, by Nora Griffiths

War Girls, by Jessie Pope

Meeting the Great Emergency, by Sylvia Pankhurst

Women Worker, February 1916

Munition Wages, by Madeline Ida Bedford

Work on a Farm - Home Service Corps Review

The Broken Soldier, by Katherine Tynan

Rationing, by Alice Connor, nee Kedge

Invitation au Festin, by Aelfrida Tillyard

In a Restaurant, 1917, by Eleanour Norton

A Zeppelin Shot Down, by Muriel Dayrell Browning

Zeppelins, by Nancy Cunard

Lilian Baylis: The Lady of the Old Vic, by Richard Findlater

Lamplight, by Mary Wedderburn Cannan

Armistice Day in London, by Alice Connor, nee Kedge

Armistice Day, by Peggy Marten

Diary 1918, by Virginia Woolf

The Cenotaph, by Charlotte Mew

There Will Come Soft Rains, by Sara Teasdale

 

Copyright Ruth Sillers and Dr Robert Blackburn (BRLSI Convenor) 2018