Appreciation of WWI Heroines on International Women’s Day: “My dear lady, go home and sit still!”

So infamously said a war office official to Dr Elsie Inglis, who did not go home and sit still, but instead founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

I love the attention that historical figures get on International Women’s Day. I love the appreciation that women involved in the First World War now receive — so different from thirty, twenty, even ten years ago (when the wikipedia articles I’m linking to didn’t even exist. And no, I didn’t write them). I read with interest this article on Huffington Post about women rockin’ the boat during WWI, now making the rounds on twitter. No going home. No sitting still. I’m really glad of the well-served attention Elsie Inglis is finally receiving, including a residence in Belgrade being names after her. But it made me wonder, is that the most commonly used quote regarding women and the First World War?

Asked to name women who contributed to the war effort and you get the same list of names. Vera Brittain. Edith Cavell. Elsie Inglis. Flora Sandes. Marie Chisholm and Elsie Knocker. The same people over and over again. It’s in danger of becoming a cliche.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these women are kick-ass. And I do find it slightly ironic that many of them are part of a story of the war far removed from the usual tale of mud and blood in the trenches of the Western Front. Elsie Inglis and Flora Sandes have become canonized as part of the women’s roles in wartime story, yet the Balkan front is so far from being recognized as part of the great war that most people have never even heard of Salonika. How can these women be IN Britian’s war story, but not OF it?

Let’s widen the story. Let’s include everyone! Everywhere! And let’s talk about some new women. There were a lot of women making waves during the first world war. These articles do include a few others as well as the usual suspects. Here are some of my favourites:

Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton
Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton

Isabel Emslie Hutton
Another woman doctor who received a similar response to her initial offer of her services to the war office. Dr Hutton (Emslie was her maiden name) joined the SWH, served in France, Greece, and Serbia, made advances in the treatment of malaria on top of running a surgical word and later, and entire hospital. After the war she went on aid missions to the war-torn Crimea and malarial Albania, and when she returned home she fought for the right of women doctors to continue practicing after marriage, pioneered developments in modern psychiatry, and wrote a sex manual that went through ten editions and was in print for over forty years.

Olive King
Olive King

Olive King
An Australian adventurer and poet Olive King was accidentally arrested in Belgium as a spy before joining the SWH where she made friends with Hutton and drove an ambulance before enlisting as a driver in the Serbian Army. She was made Sergeant, awarded for her bravery during the great fire of Salonika, and founded a canteen organisation to aid the Serbian army and the starving population at tail end of the war.

Elsie Corbett and her brother, from Red Cross in Serbia
Elsie Corbett and her brother, from Red Cross in Serbia

Elsie Corbett
A socialite through-and-through, during the First World War Corbett did her socialising on the Balkan front. Being too young to volunteer for France, Corbett joined a hospital in Serbia because both she and her father enjoyed how the prospect scandalised their more conventional friends. She worked as a VAD until she was taken prisoner by the invading Austro-Hungarian army. After repatriation, she and her partner Kathleen Dillion joined the SWH as drivers where they caused no small amount of scandal with everything from their inability to cook to their inability to be follow discipline. After their triumphant advance on Belgrade, Corbett and Dillion retired to a life of leisure, travelling to visit their wartime friends who scattered around the world, and establishing a donkey sanctuary and abolishing the pub (hey, no one’s perfect) in Dillion’s native village in Oxfordshire.

Katharine Harley's funeral, © IWM (Q 32783)
Katherine Harley’s funeral, © IWM (Q 32783)

Katherine Harley
Revered and reviled in turns by all who worked with her (including the three women mentioned above), Harley was a formidable lady. When she found she couldn’t keep the SWH transport unit under her thumb, she went to Monastir (which was still being heavily shelled) to do relief work, where she was killed by shrapnel in March 1917. Her death cause a huge stir in Britain and especially among the community in Salonika, where her funeral because a spectacle of officials and royalty. A Serbian minister gave a speech including the words: “Noble daughter of a great nation, though not a sister of ours by birth, still dear to us as a true sister…” There’s a memorial to her in the military cemetery at Salonika to this day.

I could go on. There’s more interesting women where they came from. There’s also more interesting women from every front. Let’s not stop there!

“Why should these young men have the war to themselves? Didn’t women have their war as well?” The enduring popularity of Vera Brittain’s TESTAMENT OF YOUTH

I am pretty excited about seeing “Testament of Youth.” Partly because I’ve spent the last six months immersed in a First World War romance, and partly because, my god, have you seen these clothes?
That kiss!
That kiss!
This is despite the fact that, somewhat controversially, I’ve always thought Vera Brittain was overrated. With hindsight, I can see this is the kind of dismissiveness a music snob reserves for the most popular band in their pet genre. There are other women writers of the First World War. Better writers. More authentic accounts. Does TESTAMENT OF YOUTH deserve to be the seminal female account of the First World War? Does Vera Brittain deserve to be so popular?
Still, there are passages from TESTAMENT OF YOUTH that have stuck with me even though I read it nearly ten years ago. I picked up my copy, saw how well annotated it was, and then I remembered a paper I wrote during my MA. Inspired by Janet Watson’s book, FIGHTING DIFFERENT WARS, in which she compares the contemporary wartime diaries and letters with retrospective published accounts of, among others, Vera Brittain, I set out to address the issue of Brittain’s popularity by comparing the critical reception and publishing history of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH to two other war books: NOT SO QUIET by Helen Zenna Smith (a pseudonym) and WE THAT WERE YOUNG by Irene Rathbone. Rathbone’s book, a semi-autobiographical novel, was also used by Watson in her study. NOT SO QUIET was my own, somewhat flawed, addition.
My copy of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH. I had one or two observations...
My copy of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH. I had one or two observations…

To anyone who enjoyed TESTAMENT OF YOUTH but hasn’t read NOT SO QUIET… Please do so immediately. It’s gripping, chilling, repulsive, and absolutely brilliant. But it’s probably not fair to compare it to TESTAMENT OF YOUTH because it’s, um, fiction. Sure, it’s based on a diary of an ambulance driver (now lost). Sure, all autobiographical accounts are fictionalised, to some extend, in the attempt to impose a narrative on memories. But I know better than anyone that it’s not fair to compare nonfiction to fictional story-telling because, unfortunately, in history you can’t just make shit up.

According to Janet Watson, Vera Brittain re-remembered her wartime experiences in order to fit them into the context of the narrative of her male writer counterparts: the so-called ’soldier’s story.’  According to me in 2006, Brittain deliberately wrote her story to appeal to an entire generation of Britons; not just volunteer VAD nurses like herself, but also the soldiers, and the general public. She succeeded.

How cynical, how manipulative, thought the idealist (naive) aspiring historian. What clever marketing, thinks the experienced publishing professional.
Still, one thing that disturbs me when reviewing my research, is the way that Brittain’s own experiences of war were subsumed into the experiences and loss of the men in her life. Recognition of women in the First World War was a problem in history a generation ago. That has changed, over the last ten years especially. But, with the increasing fetishisation of the First World War, ‘remembrance,’ and all things lovely and vintage, I wonder if it is changing in a way that actually recognises women’s contributions and importance, or whether people simply wish to idealise women’s roles and sacrifice in a way that trivialises their experiences and loss. I mean, my god, have you seen those clothes?