The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 188th installment in the series.
June 24, 1915: Women at War
By mid-1915 most Europeans understood that they were in the grips of an epochal cataclysm, as nation states turned modern industrial productive techniques to the task of killing men en masse and met with breathtaking success in this aim—if not the strategic ends it was meant to serve. The Great War was also destroying old ways of life, undermining institutions and traditional social structures and feeding an expectation of sweeping change in all aspects of society and culture. Nowhere was this truer than in the always fraught field of gender relations.
On June 24, 1915, the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (who’d been arrested in May 1914 for taking part in a protest demanding the vote for women, image above) gave a speech at the London Polytechnic institute that was revolutionary in its patriotic fervor. Her shocking suggestion? The notorious rabble-rouser made headlines by demanding that women be allowed to work in factories in support of the war effort. Pankhurst told her audience of mostly middle-class women and their male supporters:
Women are eating their hearts out with desire to see their services utilised in this national emergency… we realise that if this war is to be won, the whole energy of the nation and the whole capacity of the nation will have to be utilised in order to win… We here and now this afternoon offer our services to the Government, to recruit and enlist the women of the country for war service, whether that war service is the making of munitions, or whether that war service is the replacing of skilled men who have been called up, so that the business of the country may go on.
Pankhurst acknowledged that this idea was controversial, albeit perhaps a bit mockingly: “I expect I am the biggest rebel in this meeting and am one of the biggest rebels in the country.” But she also directed fierce criticism against the male establishment for its shortsightedness in leaving a huge resource untapped: “How is that men can be so behind as not to see that the fire of patriotism burns in the hearts of women quite as strong as it does in the hearts of men.” And she noted that some of the country’s leaders, including Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and the newly appointed Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, also supported the idea; in fact, following Pankhurst’s speech Lloyd George allocated £2,000 to help organize marches and demonstrations in favor of women going to work in factories (below).
In fact all the combatants had already mobilized women to help the war effort in a number of important ways. From the very beginning of the war, officials encouraged women to aid the recruitment effort by urging men to enlist, and shunning those who didn’t; one British campaign asked women to pledge “never to be seen in public with… any man who has refused to respond to his country’s call.” In Britain social coercion extended to the notorious practice of women and girls shaming “slackers” by handing out white feathers (symbolizing cowardice) to young men of military age in public.
Many women responded to these calls: Canadian soldier, Louis Keene, noted during leave in Cheshire, “The young ladies in this neighborhood have no use for a man who is not in khaki, and with customary north of England frankness tell them so.” But there’s no question that most women—even ones who encouraged their male family and friends to enlist—deeply regretted the necessity, especially when patriotic duty conflicted with the maternal bond. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recalled meeting a young U-boat officer who breezily asserted: “‘We either go to the bottom like a stone and are drowned instantly, or else we come back victorious.’ I saw such a sad look come over his mother’s face as the laughing boy said this…”
Although this practice was virtually unknown elsewhere, in Russia small numbers of women actually enlisted as soldiers, bore arms, and served at the front. In November 1914 one Russian woman, Sofia Pavlovna Iur’eva summed up their motivations as she declared her intention in a letter to the Women’s Herald, a monthly magazine:
I too burn with the desire to be useful to my dear homeland, but I do not feel called to be a nurse: I want to enlist as a volunteer in the active army… Do not think this letter is a hoax, or the whim of an unbalanced mind—no, in this I see my calling, my purpose, my happiness! I want to shed my blood for the fatherland, to give my life for my homeland!
One of the most famous female soldiers, Maria Bochkareva, known by her nickname “Yashka,” received special permission from Tsar Nicholas II to enlist, and later in the war formed an all-women’s “Battalion of Death,” whose exploits captured the popular imagination in 1917-1918 (below).
But there were other, less famous examples of women serving in the ranks of the Russian Army. In 1915, Ruth Pierce, a young American woman detained in Kiev on suspicion of being a spy, saw a female soldier whom she described in a letter home:
When we left the monastery, a group of wounded soldiers were just entering. With them was a woman in a man's uniform. Her hair was curly and short, and her chin pointed. Her feet looked ridiculously small in the heavy, high, soldier's boots, and in spite of a strut her knees knocked together in an unmistakably feminine manner. But the men treated her quite as one of themselves. One soldier, who had had his leg cut off up to the thigh, supported himself by her shoulder. I have seen several women soldiers in Kiev, and they say there are many in the Russian army.
Across Europe, women also volunteered by the tens of thousands as nurses and assistant nurses in military hospitals (there were still very few female physicians or surgeons at this time, due to their traditional exclusion from the upper ranks of the medical profession). In Britain alone, around 24,000 professional nurses volunteered to work in military hospitals from 1914-1918, while 90,000 young, mostly middle class women joined Voluntary Aid Detachments formed by the Red Cross or Order of St. John, where they served as nurses’ assistants and ambulance drivers, among many other functions (below, a VAD recruiting poster). Around 35,000 men also served in VADs.
In the chaotic early days of the war, British women volunteers played a major role in organizing nursing for wounded men on the Western Front, but inevitably their efforts eventually came under supervision by male officers and civilian officials—an outcome that obviously grated for women used to working autonomously. One volunteer nurse, Sarah Macnaughtan, noted with some bitterness that women were unceremoniously pushed out of management positions: “One sees a good deal of that sort of thing during this war. Women have been seeing what is wanted, and have done the work themselves at really enormous difficulty, and in the face of opposition, and when it is a going concern it is taken over and, in many cases, the women are turned out.”
Although conditions weren’t as bad as in the trenches, nurses and VADs often worked in circumstances that were dangerous and extremely unpleasant by any standard, and especially for young women used to the comforts of middle class English life. When working near the front lines they were exposed to shellfire and bombs from German airplanes, and they were also exposed to typhus and other diseases by patients who returned from the trenches covered in body lice. They often lived in unheated tents and worked for days at a time without rest during major battles (not to mention the emotional stress of tending to an endless procession of mutilated and dying men). As the war dragged on they contended with shortages of food and other necessities, and an alarming number of VADs died from disease or simple exhaustion during the war or shortly after it ended.
Unsurprisingly, given the risks many women who wanted to volunteer also faced opposition from male family members whose “permission” they still had to ask, in keeping with the ingrained sexism of the times. On July 19, 1915, Joseph Vassal, a French doctor serving in Gallipoli, wrote to his adored English wife expressing alarm and disapproval over her desire to go on a medical mission. Vassal employed every rhetorical trick he could in an argument liberally mixing guilt, frank self-interest, and not a little chauvinism and condescension:
Let me tell you that I do not approve, and that I don’t want you to leave Europe with a war mission. I am absolutely put out and annoyed. I don’t understand where you get such ideas. There are enough men to support the horrors of war without adding women… From an egotistical and personal point of view I could not, without great anxiety and agitation, see you exposed to grave dangers. I cannot even bear the thought of it. There are enough fighters in your family and mine. And then imagine that one day I might arrive ill or wounded at Toulon or Marseilles. You would be gone!... I beg of you to keep quiet. I am excessively annoyed at what you are trying to do.
While nursing was a traditionally female occupation, beginning in 1915 women were also encouraged to enter new, traditionally male areas of employment, most notably in manufacturing and agriculture. This was a major shift, reversing (at least temporarily) a century of conventional wisdom and cultural mores.
Throughout the Victorian era and into the 20th century, most people took it for granted that women had no place in manufacturing, as they supposedly lacked the strength and intelligence required for skilled industrial labor. Young women were permitted to operate looms in textile mills, as weaving was a traditionally female pursuit, but they were expected to leave this employment after marriage in order to raise families. Otherwise women’s employment was confined to other traditional jobs like taking in washing, mending clothes, and domestic service (as well as prostitution, though never officially acknowledged). The idea of women working in a steel mill or shipyard would have struck most 19th century Britons, men and women alike, as ludicrous as well as dangerous.
The move came in response to an impending economic and military crisis resulting from the huge manpower demands of the First World War. By June 1915 there were over 2.2 million men serving in the British Army, and enlistment would raise this to around 2.7 million by the end of the year; after conscription was introduced in 1916, the figure climbed to 3.9 million by the end of 1917, not including colonial troops from the Dominions. At the same time losses were mounting rapidly: by the end of 1915 the United Kingdom had suffered around 550,000 casualties, including over 100,000 killed on the Western Front alone. Most of the wounded were unable to reenter the labor pool (indeed, most recovered wounded returned to the front).
As a result, by mid-1915 around 2.5 million men had been removed from the pre-war labor force of 13.9 million, which included 10.6 million men and 3.3 million women; in other words, the male work force had been reduced by a quarter, and the loss would rise to nearly half by the end of the war. There was simply no alternative but to fill this crippling shortfall with women workers—even if it meant allowing them into traditionally male occupations.
Matters came to a head during the “Shell Scandal” in the spring of 1915, when British publishing tycoon Lord Northcliffe used his newspapers to accuse the government of throwing away the lives of British soldiers because it failed to produce enough artillery shells, leading to bloody defeats at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge. Facing growing public scrutiny of his management of the war, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith dismissed his Liberal cabinet and formed a new coalition government including Lloyd George, an opposition Radical who would organize munitions production. Lloyd George headed a new Ministry of Munitions, which would oversee the British government’s own munitions factories and was also granted far-reaching power to intervene in private industry by Parliament with the Munitions of War Act, passed July 2, 1915.
The last obstacle to women joining the industrial workforce was potential opposition from the male-dominated British trade unions, which had long sought to protect the privileged position of skilled workers by strict controls on who could hold what job. Historically, this specifically included preventing women on the shop floor, as the unions feared (probably correctly) that factory owners would pay women less for the same work and use this competition to drive down wages. In fact, the oft-repeated notion that women were physically and mentally “incapable” of skilled industrial labor was at least partly an economic gambit to protect men’s wages by exploiting sexist views.
Lloyd George, industrialists, and women activists like Pankhurst finally overcame trade union opposition with a series of compromises that reserved the most skilled (and therefore highest-paying) jobs for men, who were also later excused from conscription to maintain production, and also guaranteed that men who left for the front would be able to return to their jobs when the war was over. In other words, women’s employment was a temporary measure only.
Nonetheless women’s employment made a lasting impression on British attitudes towards women in the workplace. By 1918 the British labor force was composed of 8.1 million men and 4.9 million women, meaning women’s share of total employment rose from 24% at the beginning of the war to 38% by the end. Within these figures, over the same period the number of women employed in the munitions industry jumped from 212,000 in 1914 to 900,000 in 1918, while the number employed by private engineering firms rose from 170,000 to 597,000. The trend was hardly confined to Britain: in Germany, the proportion of women as a share of the total workforce increased from 22% in 1913 to 35% in 1918.
War of the Sexes
The surge in female employment had immediate effects on cultural mores, for example the idea that a male companion was required for travel, as diarist Vera Brittain noted in the first half of 1915: “No one, this time, suggested going with me to London; already the free-and-easy movements of girl war-workers had begun to modify convention.” But this was just the tip of the iceberg: women’s introduction to the workplace also began to change the balance of power between the sexes in other areas—including sex itself.
Brittain, who became a VAD and started nursing on June 27, 1915, described how the experience of working with wounded men afforded her a very different perspective than other young women of her age:
Throughout my two decades of life, I had never looked upon the nude body of an adult male… I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even today—thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should known nothing of men but their faces and clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy—beset many of my female contemporaries, both married and single. In the early days of the War the majority of soldier-patients belonged to a first-rate physical type which neither wounds nor sickness, unless mortal, could permanently impair, and from the constant handling of their lean, muscular bodies, I came to understand the essential cleanliness, the innate nobility, of sexual love on its physical side. Although there was much to shock in Army hospital service, much to terrify, much, even, to disgust, this day-by-day contact with male anatomy was never part of the shame.
According to Macnaughtan, also a nurse volunteer, the experience was fairly common: “Dr. Munro told me that last night he met a German prisoner quite naked being marched in, proudly holding his head up. Lots of the men fight naked in the trenches. In hospital we meet delightful German youths.”
The war also produced changes in attitudes about marriage, at least in Britain, as parents showed greater understanding of impulsive, romantic decisions made in the maelstrom of war. This benefited young middle class women like Brittain, who could now have more say in who they married. When Brittain announced her engagement to the poet Roland Leighton in 1915, her parents didn’t object despite his relative lack of “means,” a consideration which had previously trumped virtually every other characteristic, including personality:
… the War… had already begun to create a change of heart in parents brought up in the Victorian belief that the financial aspect of marriage mattered more than any other. The War has little enough to its credit, but it did break the tradition that venereal disease or sexual brutality in a husband was amply compensated by an elegant bank-balance.
On the other hand, Brittain shared the fear of other women that the war was separating them from their male loved ones not only spatially but spiritually as well:
To this constant anxiety for Roland’s life was added, as the end of the fighting moved ever further into an incalculable future, a new fear that the War would come between us—as indeed, with time, the War always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward… Quite early I realised this possibility of a permanent impediment to understanding. “Sometimes,” I wrote, “I have feared that even if he gets through, what he has experienced out there may change his ideas and tastes utterly.”
At a lower level of emotional involvement, some women were more apt to show men kindness, and even romantic attention, out of simple pity for soldiers going to the trenches. In August 1915 Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old girl living in East Prussia, noted in her diary:
In the evening we all sit on the Wegners’ bench in front of the house singing songs with the soldiers or listening to their stories from the Front. Sometimes the soldiers flirt with Gretel’s elder sisters, but in a nice way, and the sisters put up with it because we all know that the regiment has to go to the Front in a few days’ time and the soldiers will probably be killed.
Other flirtations were apparently more ardent, though equally fleeting. While convalescing at a hospital in provincial England in June 1915, the Irish soldier Edward Roe was invited to tea hosted by two elderly ladies of the local gentry:
For the past twenty minutes I have been watching the antics of two pretty maids in dainty bibs and frilled caps. They squeezed their heads out of one small window and have been blowing kisses in our direction without cessation… Madam noticed me glance several times in the direction of the maids… Alas, poor maids, they could not withdraw in time. Madam asks me to pray excuse her for a couple of minutes and made for the house. I presume that the maids got a scolding whilst I was sampling the varied brands of confectionery during Madam’s absence.
Human nature being what it is, some men took advantage of the chaotic situation to the detriment of their female partners, aided by limited communications and frequent movement, which made it easier to conceal deception. One Canadian officer, J.A. Currie, recalled one soldier who forged romantic connections with several British women but finally got caught in his web of lies:
In an unfortunate moment he had taken a trip to Paisley and wife No. 1 had pounced on him while he was visiting wife No. 2 and there was a scene… So I suggested to Wife No. 1 that she leave him alone till after the war if he gave her an assignment of his pay of twenty dollars a month. Like a sensible Scotch woman she saw the wisdom of Solomon in my suggestion and accepted it. Wife No. 2 received the separation allowance and the King got the services of a first class soldier and all three interests were satisfied.
While bigamy (or indeed polygamy) was clearly not acceptable, some wives were willing to accept the fact that their husbands would probably sleep with other women, provided it didn’t become “serious.” The poet Robert Graves, who as an officer was responsible for reading and censoring soldiers’ letters home, recalled one striking example on June 6, 1915: “I had a letter to censor the other day, written by a lance-corporal to his wife. He said that the French girls were nice to sleep with, so she mustn’t worry on his account, but that he far preferred sleeping with her and missed her a great deal.”
Of course some women inevitably became pregnant outside of marriage—and then had to deal with the consequences alone, as the man responsible was at the front and quite possibly dead. This often meant turning to illegal abortion. In his novel Young Woman of 1914, the German novelist Arnold Zweig described the plight of Lenore Wahl, an upper class Jewish girl who found herself pregnant by Werner Bertin, a Jewish artisan’s son, in the first half of 1915:
She could not fight for her family’s consent to the marriage in the face of abuse for her misconduct, or by a process of blackmail. But how could she go away and have the child without any money? And where should she go? And how avoid notice? In a little place like Potsdam? What parents would forgive their daughter such a scandal?... “If you don’t survive the war, I should give up. A child would only make things worse.” At present, she said in a level voice, it was no more than a little scrap of flesh that could be clipped off like a fingernail. In times like these one must always be ready to make a move without much luggage.
As always throughout human history, during the Great War some women turned to the “oldest profession” to make ends meet, and this proportion probably increased as shortages grew over the course of the conflict. Although there are few firsthand accounts left by prostitutes themselves, male observers left some impressions which may give a limited idea of their difficult lives. Philip Gibbs, an English war correspondent, talked to several French women who resorted to prostitution because of the war. One explained:
“It is difficult to live. I was a singing girl at Montmartre. My lover is at the war. There is no one left. It is the same with all of us. In a little while we shall starve to death. Mais, pourquoi pas? A singing girl’s death does not matter to France, and will not spoil the joy of her victory!”… The other girl leaned forward and spoke with polite and earnest inquiry. “Monsieur would like a little love?” I shook my head.
However other prostitutes seemed well-practiced, especially in the official state-sanctioned brothels established by the French government for soldiers on leave from the Western Front (above, official rates for various brothel services). One Irish soldier, Edward Casey, left a description of his businesslike encounter with a French prostitute which quickly dispels any romantic illusions about the transaction. After standing in line, he first met the elderly “madam” of the house, who inspected his genitals for evidence of venereal disease:
Opening my fly, pulling out my thing, I noticed her hands were dirty. I must have passed the examination. She held up five fingers and said “francs”. A young girl came, led me by the hand and to a very small room… My Whore was in a hurry, taking off a kind of slip and… lay without any clothes on [and] said, “Hurry! Others are waiting.”… [I felt her] pulling me on top of her, and guiding my stifun [stiff one] into her. She began to move her body in a circular motion, and with[out] making a move I ejaculated. I got the shock of my life: I was finished before I had started. Finished, the girl washed my business [and] said, “You were very quick and very good.” I was hustled out the door and on to the street.