The Role of Women in France and Britain During The Great War


Professor Alison Fell, University of Leeds

18 October 2014


The contribution of women to the eventual success of the British and French war effort in 1914-18 has long been recognised, though all accounts of this complex subject stress how limited were the legal rights of women, either at home or at work. It was the plain fact of men’s conscription as the war developed which led to more and more women being drafted in to do work previously carried out by men. Before 1914, society would have found the idea of women window-cleaners, tram conductors, fire fighters or postal workers quite unacceptable, so limited was the picture of what women should or could do in a male dominated society. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, aimed at securing the vote for women. Their slogan was ‘deeds, not words!’  Two other daughters, Sylvia and Adela, left the WSPU in 1913.The WSPU was very successful, having by 1909 an annual income of £21,213, and rising. Many suffragettes (as the Daily Mail called them) refused to sign the 1911 Census, in protest.   A famous photograph shows Mrs Pankhurst being seized by police and arrested outside Buckingham Palace in May 1914 while trying to present a petition to King George V. The suffragettes and suffragists, seeking more rights for women, political, legal and domestic, were active before the war, though they sublimated their pre-war aims for the war effort as a whole. Nevertheless, the change of climate was such that women over the age of thirty achieved the vote at the end of 1918, although only if they met the minimum property qualifications, or were married to men who did. Women between 21 and 30 had to wait their turn until 1928. On 2 July that year, the Second Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed. Sadly, Emmeline Pankhurst had died on 14 June, so she never witnessed it.

Emmeline Pankhurst, leading political activist on behalf of women’s suffrage

Women at home were encouraged to support the war effort as volunteers through knitting. One advertisement, for example, published by Needlecraft Ltd, instructed women ‘how to knit and crochet articles necessary to the Health and Comfort of our Soldiers and Sailors’. These included knitted or crocheted balaclava helmets, abdominal or cholera belts, bed-socks without heels, knitted socks and mufflers, kneecaps and soldiers’ mittens. The ‘cholera belts’ dated from the German War sixty years earlier, when it was mistakenly thought that they might ward off cholera by keeping the midriff warm.  At Christmas 1914, a small brass Gift Box for all serving troops was promoted by Princess Mary, aged 17, daughter of George V and Queen Mary. This contained a pipe, an ounce of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a tinder lighter, a Christmas card and a photograph of HRH Princess Mary herself. The task of sending these was far greater than anticipated, and these boxes were still being sent in 1916.

For over-age men (too old to enlist), war service in the St John Ambulance and British Red Cross offered a chance to help wounded service personnel, and to tend convalescent centres. The YMCA offered food, drinks and entertainment behind the lines. But for women this kind of participation as much more difficult because of rigid attitudes of social exclusion. Dr Elsie Inglis was a good example of someone who was determined to overcome these obstacles. She was a qualified doctor, and set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Services, a body which had units not only in France, but as far away as Malta, Greece, Russia and Serbia. Captured while working in Serbia in 1915, Dr Inglis and several of her co-workers were imprisoned, but were eventually repatriated. Another example was that of Mabel St Clair Stobart, who ran the Women’s National Service League, taking teams of doctors and nurses to France, Belgium and Serbia.

Less fortunate was Edith Cavell, the most famous war heroine of the Great War. Edith ran a training school for nurses in Belgium, and helped some 200 soldiers to escape. She was captured, accused of treason, and of providing ‘reinforcements to Germany’s enemies,’ tried and shot by the Germans on 12 October 1915. In later propaganda, Edith Cavell was inevitably and rightly portrayed as a martyr, and as a murder victim. There were two statues in memory of Edith Cavell, one is in St Martin’s Place, London, the other was in Paris, but was destroyed later by the Nazis in 1940, under Hitler’s instructions. This showed her lying defenceless on the ground, with an anti-German message. A new bust of Edith Cavell was unveiled at Montjoie Park in Brussels on 12 October 2015, by HRH Princess Anne and Princess Astrid of Belgium.

Edith Cavell, nurse, spy and martyr

Cavell came from Norwich, the daughter of a vicar in Swardeston. Arthur Conan Doyle, an influential voice, expressed his disgust over her execution. She became ‘our Joan of Arc’ in the national press, and as a result of her death, British Army recruitment had soared. However, on the centenary of her death, it seems that Cavell had links with MI5. The former MI5 head, Stella Rimington, has said that ‘Cavell’s main objective was to get hidden allied soldiers back to Britain, but, contrary to the common perception, we have discovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies.’   This apparently included information about a German trench system, and the creation of munitions dumps, and aircraft. Details were written in ink on strips of fabric, and sewn into clothes, or hidden in shoes. She was an exceptionally well-placed spy, but the Secret Service despised her for ‘turning aside from her duty as a spy to perform acts of mercy.’

Edith Cavell confessed to helping wounded Allied soldiers to escape, mainly to the Netherlands, but insisted that he motives were purely humanitarian. The Red Cross said that she was protected by the Geneva Convention only for her work for wounded soldiers (allied or Germans) rather than helping people to flee from Belgium. Her statue outside

St Martin-in-the-Fields bears the words ‘King and Country’, to which were added (many years later, when Ramsay Macdonald was Prime Minister) her alleged final words, before execution: ‘Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’ Her original manuscript note, however, reads ‘Patriotism is not enough, It is not enough to love one’s own people, one must love all men, and hate no one…’ (**I am indebted to Richard Norton Taylor of the Guardian staff for much of the recent information on Edith Cavell – RE Blackburn, 2016)

Emilienne Moreau in 1915

There were other spies, of course, the best known one being Mata Hari, executed by the French. But there were other women fighters, such as Emilienne Moreau, who became a ‘Joan of Arc’ in the British lines at Loos.  Aged only seventeen, she was shot at by the Germans while helping orderlies.  Emilienne shot between two and ten German soldiers, using a revolver and grenades, and she was decorated with the Military Cross (MC) by General de Sailly.  Emilienne later trained as a teacher. Two maverick motorcycle enthusiasts, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were dispatch riders for a nursing organisation entitled The Women’s Emergency Corps. Aided by funds raised by writing articles for the press, these two set up their own first-aid post in a cellar not far from the Belgian front-line village of Pervyse, treating the Belgians wounded at great personal risk.  They became known as the ‘heroines of Pervyse’.

Though farmers were often not happy to employ women, and the work had little status, many women offered their services on the land from the start of the war. There was a national recruitment campaign, and many came from munitions factories to work out of doors, even though the pay was less good. A food shortage by 1917 led to the formation of the Women’s Land Army, known as the Land Girls. They had six months training, and then signed up for six months or a year, despite the physical stresses of the work; little mechanisation was available. The women had an official WLA uniform, entirely in brown, and had identifying armbands and lapel badges. These hardworking girls lived in WLA hostels or in local lodgings. Connections were formed with the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) and the Girls’ Friendly Societies. The WLA continued until late 1919, by which time some 260,000 women had worked on the land since 1914, about a tenth of them in the WLA.

Early Land Girls in the Great War

As against this familiar story, many of the posters at the outset of the war showed women encouraging men to go off and fight, or registering their dismay at the number of women and children killed or wounded in German air raids on British towns. A good example of the first was the famous green poster of 1915 headed ‘Women of Britain say GO!’ as a squad of men march, rifles over their shoulders, to their probable deaths. This was pure propaganda, of course, and recognised as such by everyone. White feathers were unashamedly waved at men thought to be cowards, and pacifists were generally despised. Two official posters read   ‘Men of Britain! Will you stand for this?’ following the violation of Belgium’s neutrality, and the German navy’s attack on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool in December 1914, when 78 women and children were killed, and 228 injured.  The first of these solicited donations to the Belgian Red Cross.

Vera Brittain (1893-1970), mother of the Liberal-Democrat politician Dame Shirley Williams, served as part of the Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment (VAD) wartime nursing service, after losing her fiancé Ronald Leighton, and a number of other male relatives and friends in the war. The Head of the VAD was Kathleen Furse. Many of the 70,000 VAD nurses came from a higher social class than the other nurses, but were below them in the hierarchy within the hospitals. The VADs had to pay for their own uniform, so had to have a private income. Vera later became famous as the author of Testament of Youth (1933) and Testament of Experience (1957) and was painted by Sir John Lavery, with a QA (elite) nurse on her right and another VAD nurse on her left. Vera said later that ‘with scientific precision, I studied the memoirs of Blunden, Sassoon and Graves. Surely, I thought, my story is as interesting as theirs?

Vera Brittain as a VAD nurse in 1915

The Duchess of Sutherland, one of many aristocratic nurses, had her own hospital in Calais, and spent much of her own money in this. Hilda Wynne was an officer’s widow, driving ambulances and supporting relief efforts in many countries. She was later decorated, and served on no fewer than four Fronts. The Welsh Davies sisters, Gwendolen and Margaret, whose inherited wealth enabled them to become important collectors of contemporary Impressionist paintings, gave their services running a café on the Front in France, while dressed in nurses’ uniforms.

Many nurses became angry over the way they were seen by the general public as ‘romantic heroines’ who ‘took the veil’ in Red Cross service. This attitude was fostered by the Newnes magazine Romance. By contrast, Genevieve Duhamalet, author of The Women of 336 Hospital (Ces Dames de l’Hopital 3360 was very realistic, saying that she had seen more than seven hindered soldiers in her hospital, of whom several had medals, but the highest ranking officer had been ‘a pain in the neck’.

Apart from the VAD the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) were established. The WAAC began in March 1917. Cleaning and clerical work was done, well-paid and attracting working-class women. Shorthand typists were paid 37 shillings and sixpence a week, clerical workers twenty-seven shillings and sixpence a week. However, domestic service could often be isolated, hard and poorly paid, as in normal civilian life. Yet women signed up, because they thought that if civilians were going to be targeted in air raids, they might as well be ‘in the thick of it’. Others signed up because WAAC jobs were better than their existing ones.

Mary Agnes Pickles, born on 9 November 1877, of St Margaret’s Terrace, Ilkley, was an example of such a woman. She was separated from her husband, and had a surviving eight year-old daughter. Her other seven children all died prematurely and are buried in Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds.  Mary had been in domestic service, but in 1911 her daughter was in care because of Mary’s job. She (Mary) joined the WAACs as an assistant cook, and used the WAACs to improve her life. WAACs were counted as servicewomen, and had the same rights as service men. Thus, after the war, Mary, by then 41 years old, was able to emigrate to Shellmouth, Manitoba, Canada, with her daughter, where she remarried.

Munitions work was very dangerous and hard, but women contributed to this on a very large scale. The conditions were generally good, and so was health care. For many middle-class women, war work provided increase freedom and extended horizons, but for others, there was mainly grief and loss. For some working class women (the majority), new possibilities opened up. But for others, there was only survival on a small widow’s pension, or the burden of caring for a wounded relative, usually a husband. Overall, universal women’s suffrage (achieved in Britain in 1928, but not until 1944 in France) changed attitudes forever, at least in some measure. It has to be said, however, that the pre-war status quo was largely returned to in the early 1920s, and the old rules excluding women from many professions and trades were re-introduced. The census of 1921 shows that 25.4% of women in Britain were unemployed, exactly the same as in 1911.

Finally, it is necessary to say a word about prostitution on the Western Front. While Kitchener had in 1914 warned the British Expeditionary Force (The BEF) to avoid intimacy with local women, yet treating them with ‘perfect courtesy’, the reality was that towns behind the lines provide licenced brothels on a large scale, often organised by the Army. More than 150,000 British soldiers in France and Flanders were admitted to hospital with venereal disease of one kind or another. Inevitably, in this shadowy but extensive area, few statistics or personal accounts exist.

One such is recorded in the diary of Brigadier General FP Crozier, Royal Irish Rifles, who wrote the following in A Brass Hat in No-Man’s Land, published in 1930. He is referring to the time after de-mobilisation:

I am to travel to Brussels and Cologne - but before departure I talk seriously to my colonels. The men have evidently gone woman-mad’ I say, ‘The venereal sick-rate is mounting. Many women must be diseased. I hear the Germans let the diseased women out of prison the day we arrived. It was an offence for a French woman to give a German soldier venereal disease, for which she was locked up for the protection of the soldiers. As the army is now returning to England by degrees, it is essential that, so far as possible, we protect the women at home by returning their men clean. You must lecture your men on the subject, and provide every convenient and reliable means of protection and sterilisation. I will see the Mayor about the detection of the women and their treatment and segregation.’

At Brussels, it is an orgy of vice in which many British soldiers join. The high-class prostitutes of the German Army are taken over by the Allied forces - yet only one short month ago, nothing was too bad for a German, nothing too good for ourselves!  I see a British corps commander, lost in a whirl of post-battle gaiety, accosted by a woman of easy virtue, to his great annoyance, in the lift of his hotel. Her chief claim to his attention, according to her views, is that she was the wartime mistress of a German general!

‘In the halls and dining rooms, these ladies line up as they did in the days of German occupation. The women are the same, only the men and their uniforms are different, while the constant procession of couples to bedrooms aloft is as sustained and regular as in the days of German domination. And what of Cologne? There are servant girls in hotels, half-starved, lacking the ordinary necessaries of life, and even unused to simple crusts, who pick up the crumbs which fall from their masters’ tables and sell their bodies for half-loaves of bread, in order that they may take to the aged and young in their homes the staff of life.’

From Max Arthur: The Road Home: The Aftermath of the Great War told by the Men and Women who survived it (originally Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009 / Phoenix 2010, pp. 79-80

Lady Nancy Astor at her desk

It does not feel right to conclude on that note or topic. The role of women during the Great War was just one aspect of their gradual rise in political importance and influence generally. In Parliament at Westminster, the first actual woman MP was Constance Markovitz, who represented Sinn Fein. She was elected at the 1918 General Election, but did not take her seat. The first woman MP to take her seat literally and properly was Lady Nancy Astor, who won her husband’s Sutton Plymouth seat at a by-election in 1919. Nancy Astor was regarded with some suspicion initially, because of the circumstances in which she was elected. People had doubts about her ability and commitment, but she proved them quite wrong by being a very active and committed MP, and supporting the cause of women’s suffrage at a critical time. Christabel Pankhurst, most loyal of Emmeline ‘s daughters, stood for the Women’s Party in the Birmingham constituency of Smethwick I 1918, but lost to the Labour candidate by 775 votes.

© 2016 Dr Robert Blackburn, BRLSI Convenor, Literature and Humanities, from notes on Professor Fell’s talk, plus much additional material