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Meet the unsung heroines of World War I


Behind the frontline of the Great War were an army of women playing a pivotal role in history. Meet the unsung heroines of WWI.

Few events in human history have changed the world as quickly and as completely as the First World War. The conflict lasted 52 brutal months and involved over 100 countries. During that relentless stretch of slaughter, which saw 37 million human beings killed or wounded, the ideals of Edwardian Britain were ripped apart. An estimated two million women replaced absent men in the workplace, the remnants of a feudal society petered into history (into the void came the ideologies of fascism and communism) and the technological advances brought about from war seeped into every aspect of life from offices to farms, hospitals and factories.

While men fought a war of attrition in the trenches, the world became modern, and women were at the epicentre of change. The Representation of the People Act was passed in February 1918, allowing property-owning women over the age of 30 to vote, and in November of the same year – themonth the war ended – the Eligibility of Women Act allowed women to be elected to parliament. And while many women returned, some begrudgingly, to a life of domesticity once peace had been declared in Europe, the Great War showed in stark terms how women were equal to men in bravery, ingenuity and capacity to work. So in the centenary year of World War One we celebrate the women who lived, fought and died in the war, and changed the way the world viewed women.

Betty Stevenson (1896-1918), YMCA Volunteer known as 'The Happy Warrior'

As one of many women working unpaid for the YMCA, 19-year-old Betty Stevenson, a wealthy middle-class girl from Harrogate, Yorkshire, was determined to follow men into war. She moved to training camps near Paris where the YMCA provided rest huts and moral support for troops, before they returned to the frontline. Pre-war, the YMCA was an organisation run ‘for young men by young men’ but as the men who staffed these huts were enlisted, the job fell to women.

The YMCA Women’s Auxiliary was formed in 1914 as war broke out. By 1918, over 40,000 ‘ladies of the red triangle’ had served in the Auxiliary, all unpaid and required to cover their own expenses (it was a distinctly middle-class pursuit; Churchill’s wife Clementine was also a committed volunteer). A keen letter writer, it is largely down to Betty’s correspondence home, that we know so much about her. Educated at her childhood home in Clifton, York, Betty was dispatched to boarding school in Haslemere, Surrey at 14. Her work ethic was notable from as young as 15, when she wrote in a school essay dated June, 1911: “It makes a great difference to your life, if you have a vocation or not. If you have, it makes you feel as though you had some object or aim in your life or work.”

At 16, Betty travelled to London with her parents, both YMCA supporters, to bring refugee families camped out at Alexandra Palace back to Harrogate. Her initiative and hard work with Henry Brice – who organised the transport for the mission – would later help her secure a driving job with the YMCA. After Betty’s death, Brice said: “If I ever had an impossible task, I would have put Betty to do it. And [even] if she failed, you would have found her head erect and smiling.”

A YMCA Shelter on the Strand in London built in 1918

Her work during the war consisted of driving vehicles to and from the stores to the huts, transporting food to the troops. She also took relatives to the hospitals behind the lines to men who were wounded or dying. In one of her letters home in May 1917 she is amused that people stare at her “because they’ve never seen a girl driving”.

In one account of a regular day, the omnipresent danger of war is evident as Betty writes: “I had a puncture on the way and had to change the wheel. In the middle of it I heard shooting just behind me. I fell over backwards and discovered a Lewis gun class going on behind some bushes – machine gun ditto on the other side – and bombing in the middle. I nearly died of fright.”

As the situation in France deteriorated, Betty was sent to stay near Paris-Plage but she volunteered to drive back every evening to feed fleeing refugees. One morning, shortly after her 21st birthday, when driving out of the camp, Betty was caught in one of the many air raids and killed on 30 May 1918.

After her death, Betty was given a soldier’s funeral and awarded the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme (the French equivalent of the Victoria Cross) for her services to war. The epitaph on her grave in Étaples Military Cemetery reads: ‘The Happy Warrior’.

A letter notifying Betty’s parents of her death, dated 31 May 1918, from YMCA General Adam Scott:

"Dear Mr and Mrs Stevenson […] I scarcely know how to begin to write you. [Betty] was the darling of the whole base staff, and was so loved by everybody that we are all dazed by her loss… Owing to a car breakdown, a group of workers were later than usual in starting for Les Iris, where we had been sending all our ladies to sleep recently for greater safety. A very early raid sent us all to the cellars, and after it was over we put the party of ladies in two cars to send them out of the danger zone. We were held up half-way, and then a second raid came over, forcing us to shelter under the banks by the side of the road. Everything went well until an enemy plane, just as the raid was finishing, dropped several bombs in open country near us… one bomb killed Betty instantaneously… I was by her side within a minute of the bomb falling, but nothing could be done."

Flora Sandes, (1876-1956), The only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in WWI

Fearless and unstoppable, Private Sandes was 39 when she became the only Western woman to fight on the frontline in war-torn Serbia. For the Yorkshire-born girl who grew up with a passion for riding, shooting and driving, it was the stuff of childhood dreams.

The youngest of eight children, Flora was raised by liberal parents in Marlesford, Suffolk, where she shunned the traditional pastimes of other girls – sewing and painting – and instead learned to hunt and shoot. By the time war broke out in 1914, she was extraordinarily adept with weaponry.

Seizing the first opportunity to travel to Serbia, Flora went as part of a small nursing outfit, later joining the Serbian Red Cross and was eventually permitted to join the 2nd Infantry Regiment as a medical dresser.

Rare for a woman at the time, Flora held more than one driving licence

Initially admired for her English heritage after England declared allegiance with Serbia, Flora quickly gained respect for her courage, cheerfulness and sympathy in the face of adversity. When one day Flora removed her Red Cross badge from her arm and declared she would be joining the 2nd Regiment as a private, her colonel is said to have removed his own regimental badge and fastened it to her shoulder strap.

Flora fought in every 2nd Infantry Regiment battle until she was wounded by a grenade in November 1916, resulting in a shrapnel tear from her knee to her shoulder. She was later awarded the Serbian Order of the Kara-George, a rare decoration for exceptional bravery in the field and re-joined the men in the trenches as soon as she was fit. She finally left the army in 1922.

In the Second World War Flora again demonstrated her bravery, refusing to leave her Belgrade home ahead of the Nazi invasion. Instead, at the age of 65, she pulled on her uniform and marched forth to fight the Germans. But the Nazis overcame the Yugoslav army and Sandes was thrown in jail for 11 days. She had to report to the Gestapo every week for the rest of the war.

In 1946, following the death of her husband Yurie Yudenitch, a Belarussian colonel 12 years her junior (they married when she was 51 in 1927), Flora returned to Suffolk where it’s reported she endlessly complained of boredom. She died in 1956, aged 80, one of the most celebrated heroines of her time. Fittingly, she’d renewed her passport just before her death – dreaming of adventure to the very last.

(Above) Flora received the Serbian order of the Kara-George for bravery

Flora’s account of her first battle, an extract from A Fine Brother: The Life Of Captain Flora Sandes by Louise Miller (Alma Books, £25):

"We rode all that morning, and as the Commander of the battalion, Captain Stoyadinovitch did not speak anything but Serbian nor did any other of the officers or men, it looked as if I should soon pick it up… While we were riding up a very steep hill where Captain S had to go for orders, [her horse] Diana’s saddle slipped round, and by the time some of the soldiers had fixed it again for me I found he had got his orders and disappeared. I asked some of the soldiers which way he had gone, and they pointed across some fields; so I went after him as fast as Diana could gallop. I met three officers that I knew, also running in the same direction, and all the men seemed to be going the same way too. The officers hesitated about letting me come, and said, ‘Certainly not on Diana,’ who was white and would make an easy mark for the enemy; so I jumped off and threw my reins to a soldier. ‘Well, can you run fast?’ ‘What, away from the Bulgars?’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘No, towards them.’ ‘Yes, of course I can.’ ‘Well, come on then,’ and off we went."

Lena Ashwell (1872-1957), actress and manager

Among the trenches and bloodied battlefields of war there was one woman who was determined that men on the frontline should not go without fun and entertainment.

British actress Lena Ashwell was born in 1872 and grew up in Canada before studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London where she became an ardent member of the pre-war suffrage campaign. She was one of the first people to suggest that artists could be employed to boost the morale of soldiers, eventually setting up her own company of actors, singers and entertainers who travelled the world to perform for troops.

When war was declared on 4 August 1914, 42-year-old Lena collaborated with peers to form the Women’s Emergency Corp. The group created a register of all women willing to contribute to the war effort and their relative skills. By 4 September, 10,000 women had signed up.

All too aware of the plight of actors, who were struggling to find work in war-torn Britain, Lena proposed that their services be used on the front; in YMCA camps, hospitals, ships and in firing-line zones. Her plans were initially met with resistance but eventually she pulled together over 600 performers willing to travel to war zones to entertain. Between 1915 and 1919, the actors, musicians and entertainers gave three performances a day across France, Belgium, Malta, Egypt and Palestine.

This was not a glamorous life. Performers often had to wade through mud, lugging heavy equipment, performing on a pile of suitcases or a bloodspattered room in a horse hospital. Nonetheless their audience would eagerly await their performance.

In the Harfleur valley in Normandy, she watched Ivor Novello perform Keep The Home Fires Burning to a roomful of soldiers. “When he sang it, the men seemed to drink it in,” she said. “And as we drove away one could hear the refrain.” After the war, Lena continued to manage theatres until her last performance in 1929.

A letter sent to Lena from the soldier son of her school friend, December 1916:

"It was bitterly cold, and the performers were blue in spite of an oil stove. This in no way interfered with the party’s spirit. I wish you could have heard the way the coughs and sniffles died away when the tenor sang Somewhere A Voice Is Calling in his clear voice, and the violinist held them in the same way. There is no doubt music means more than can be realised, even to men who have never troubled about it before, when it comes under these circumstances as a beautiful thought from home."

From Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask (£25, University of Hertfordshire Press)

Florence Cordell (1895-1992), bus conductor

At the age of 31, in 1916, Florence Cordell became one of Britain’s first female bus conductors. Before the war she made 16 shillings a week crafting luxury lampshades, but as war broke out, there was little need for such items. At 4ft 11 she fell below the regulation height for conductors (5ft), but she managed to secure a job as her husband worked as a conductor before going to war.

Florence and the female applicants were required to pass a medical examination and an intelligence test (to prove their ‘arithmetic’ skills). It was a coveted position. Work on the buses meant reasonably high wages and a great amount of personal freedom. Nearly half of the women, who tended to be working class, had previously worked in domestic service, a comparatively ill-paid and monotonous job, so they relished the opportunities the buses afforded – although conductors still worked seven days a week, with only every third Sunday off.

The ‘conductorettes’ wore boots, long skirts and jackets – a cumbersome uniform on the often hot and overcrowded buses – Florence described them as “a blinking nuisance”. Working initially as a standby conductor, she earned 12 shillings a week. Although later, aboard the number 27 bus – which ran between Highgate and Twickenham – her pay rose to a lucrative £2-£3 (she also took part in a countrywide strike to ensure the women were paid the same as their male predecessors).

Popular among passengers, Florence had a reputation for mischievousness – injured and disabled servicemen on her route travelled free, and she would hand out old tickets for them to use if a “swine of an inspector” got on.

Florence and her fellow conductors kept London moving throughout the Great War, and their contribution – and that of other working women – to the war effort was officially acknowledged by the government in granting women the vote in 1918. However, she and her fellow female bus conductors, were replaced by the men when they returned from war.

The eldest of seven brothers and a sister, Florence passed away in May 1992, aged 97. Her memory lives on at the London Transport Museum, where her image is used to illustrate the story of these incredible women.

A 1916 job ad calling for female bus conductors

Edith Cavell (1865-1915), Nurse

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These are some of the final words spoken by Nurse Edith Cavell to Reverend Stirling Gahan in 1915 as she took her final communion just hours before she was shot by German firing squad aged 50.

Her death at the hands of the German army caused international outrage; a woman and nurse executed was taken as a clear sign of Germany’s barbarism. Yet, the Germans argued that if they spared Edith’s life because she was a woman, it would encourage every female loyal to the allied forces to take up arms against them.

Edith Cavell was born in 1865 in Norfolk where her father was an Anglican vicar. She had a gift for languages and moved to Belgium aged 25 as a governess. In 1895, aged 30, her father became ill and she returned to England to train as a nurse. Her knowledge of Belgium, the French language and her nursing experience, led to her becoming matron of Brussels’ new nursing academy, the Berkendael Medical Institute in 1907. She launched Belgium’s first nursing journal three years later, and began training nurses for hospitals and schools.

The German forces occupied Brussels on 20 August 1914. Edith’s hospital was taken over by the Red Cross and a deluge of injured soldiers poured in. Edith treated all soldiers equally despite their nationality, trying to ease pain and suffering for all.

Even so, she joined a network helping allied soldiers escape to neutral ground. It is estimated that she sheltered up to 200 soldiers in her nursing school, and, in violation of German military law, provided them with false documents, food, clothes and guides to get to the Dutch border.

On 3 August 1915, Edith was court-martialed for harbouring enemy soldiers. She spent 10 weeks in Brussels’ Saint-Gilles prison and was brought out at dawn on the 12 October and shot. Physical evidence against Edith was scant, save a tatty postcard sent to her by a British soldier thanking her. But she eventually confessed, as she was told she would save the lives of her network comrades by doing so.

After the war, in 1919, her remains were laid to rest at Norwich Cathedral. A statue in London’s St Martin’s Place, commemorates her incredible humanity, bravery and faith.

Imperial War Museum has launched a permanent digital memorial Lives Of The First World War, livesofthefirstworldwar.org; Goodbye Piccadilly From Home Front To Western Front is now showing at London’s Transport Museum



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