Friday, 24 May 2013

Women and the Great War Centenary

Amy Frances Turner (courtesy of Judy Burge)

I feel that by the time we reach August next year I might be all centenaried-out.  Already there is so much publicity, advance announcements of planned TV programmes, authors rushing to make sure they make the deadline with their latest books, and various institutions nationwide preparing their own events to mark the date.  Although so much emphasis seems to have fallen on 1914, the centenary commemorations, like the war, will go on for four years, and the fall-out for much longer. By the time we get to 1919 the whole caboodle will, I expect, simply be taken over by the 90th anniversary of the Second World War.  One of the main initiatives is in the hands of the Imperial War Museum who are hoping to gather a database of those who served, with the help of the general public - Lives of the First World War. Do sign up to receive latest news about the project and find out how you can contribute.

However ... I already have some doubts about the way in which the contribution of women will be represented. After all, many women belonged to civilian organisations that were not under military control, or were formed to give aid to military personnel other than those from Britain and the Commonwealth. They include munitions workers; members of War Hospital Supply Depots who produced almost all the dressings and surgical requisites used by the B.E.F.; the majority of VADs who worked in hospitals under control of the Joint War Committee; members of the French Red Cross, the Scottish Women's Hospital, the Serbian Relief Fund, Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, the YMCA and YWCA, and so many more - the list is a very long one. Hundreds of thousands of British women played an active part in the Great War, often on the Home Front, but are certainly not counted among the '8 Million' participants suggested by the IWM.

The IWM have been keepers of a 'Women's Work Collection' since 1919 when Priscilla, Lady Norman and Agnes Conway first began to gather photos, information and evidence of the contribution of women to the war. They hold thousands of photographs of women who either died during their war service, or were honoured for the part they played.  At present I'm indexing, just for my own information and pleasure, a thousand photos of women who were awarded the DBE, CBE, OBE, MBE, or the Medal of the Order of the British Empire during, or shortly after, the Great War. The range is vast, from titled ladies - aristocrats out of the very top drawer - right down to the most humble of munitions and factory workers. In this last category many were 'rewarded' after having been blinded or disabled during the course of their work, which probably took the place of any formal pension or disability benefit.

Part of the IWM's project is now up and running - it's called 'Faces of the First World War' and they are adding a new photo each day and inviting further comment or information. As of today there are 457 photos to view. Of those, just a single one is of a woman, a munitions worker who died as the result of TNT poisoning. I know that this omission isn't because they're short of wonderful photos of inspirational women - they're not. I know it isn't because they have ignored women over decades - they haven't. So why such a reluctance to put women in their proper place in relation to the Great War? Maybe it's because the person or team entrusted with this task are, like many others, only interested in Infantry, Artillery, guns, tactics, strategy - men's things.

The gap needs to be filled - it can't be that difficult. But if this is an example of things to come, women of the Great War, our women, will be poorly served.

Jane Croasdell


  1. I'm concerned too, Sue. Here in Canada it seems that few people are really interested in the contributions of women workers or the nurses of the first world war. Hope that changes before August 2014! Best, Debbie

  2. Heh, the last part. A few weeks ago, I opined on Twitter over the difficulty of discovering the day-to-day lives of VAD nurses and the running of VAD hospitals. I can find a plethora of information about everything to do with male participants down to the very last detail, but women participants? The information is here and there. Granted, I'm an American without physical access to the IWM, but still! I browse Osprey and Pen & Sword--my main resources for WWI--and find little focused on women in the war. The Osprey books will have half a chapter or a section about the uniforms and general duties; I ought to be grateful for that at least...

    Though, here's hoping that when the celebrations in the UK do focus on women, they don't only trot out Vera Brittain and Testament of Youth as the definitive wartime experience of women. I want to hear about the Land Army Girls, the Munitionettes, the women in the Food Ministry, etc.

  3. The few things that are written about women and war service so often seem to be academic texts which cover aspects other than simple, basic information and facts and figures about the various organisations. I hope that there will be more interest as the Centenary approaches, but I don't really know who will drive that, and how much knowledge there is out there to help it along. I have tried to add some bits and pieces to my website here:

    I need at least 48 hours in a day to try and increase my output!

  4. Sue, I definitely appreciate the work you can and do do! I've saved so much information for reference, I'm afraid to press "print" on my printer. :D