WWI: Fifty two months, fifty two posts – 31 – Women and the War

The first book I ever owned about the roles women played in WWI was The Virago Book of Women and the Great War, edited by Joyce Marlow. In her introduction she begins with a quote from Mable Potter Daggett, an American journalist who, before the USA entered the war, travelled across the Atlantic to report on the female experience in war-torn Europe:

I think we may write it down in history that on August 4, 1914, the door of the Doll’s House opened – For the shot that fired in Serbia summoned men to their most ancient occupation – and women to every other.

Further into the introduction she says:

Mabel Potter Daggett’s comment about their being summoned to every other occupation is not far short of the mark. In 1917 a British government publication required twenty-six tightly printed foolscap pages to list ‘Processes in which Women are successfully employed’. Apart from holding multifarious jobs in munition factories, the successfully employed women include brick-makers, tram and omnibus conductors and drivers, acetylene makers, letterpress-machine workers, newspaper subeditors, chauffeuses, ticket inspectors, barrel makers, carpenters, circular-saw feeders, railway porters, carriage cleaners, van drivers, optical-instrument makers, lift operators, hedgers and ditchers, stokers, coke barrowers, orchard gardeners, grooms, tanners and foresters.

– Page 2, The Virago Book of Women and the Great War 1914-1918

Of course this list misses the most well know roles that women undertook in WWI, those within the nursing services, the Women’s Emergency Corps, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women’s Royal Air Force and the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

However although many of these roles took women close to the front line (and many civilian women remained living on the front line for the entirety of the war) there were very few women who actually fought on the front line. The Russian army famously had their Women’s Battalion of Death (you can find good articles on them here and here) but I’d like to introduce you to the only British woman who fought on the front line for the Allies;

Flora Sandes

Born on 22nd January 1876, Flora – a woman who saw life as a series of adventures to be seized and enjoyed – was 38 when WWI broke out. Having already lived in London, Cairo, and various places across North America and Canada, she was back in London and had learned to drive and trained as a nurse by 1914. Immediately joining the St John’s Ambulance unit she travelled to Serbia with her unit and after a year transferred to the Serbian Red Cross. This meant working with a Serbian Infantry Regiment on the front line and it did not take long for her to take advantage of the fact that  Serbia had one of the few armies which allowed women to enlist. 

Rising swiftly through the ranks to Sergeant-Major she wrote and published “An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army” in order raise funds for, and the profile of, the Serbian cause:

The e-book version of this can be found on Amazon here

She was seriously injured on 3rd November 1916 fighting on the Macedonian front in a Bulgar counter-attack on Hill No.1212 which was being held by her Battalion. During her recovery she sent a letter to the Daily Mail to set the record straight on what had happened. This letter, which was published in the paper on 5 April 1917, was included in The Virago Book of Women and the Great War on pages 283 – 4:

I daresay you’ve heard that I got knocked out by a Bulgar hand-bomb, so I never got into Monastir after all; but I’ve had a very good run for my money all the same, as I had three months’ incessant fighting without a scratch.

The newspaper account of the fighting was all off the line. The fighting was a sight that day, but, unfortunately, I only saw the start of it. There was deep snow on the ground, the bugle was blowing the charge, and we were going up the steep hillside while the Bulgars, hidden by the early morning mist at the top, were firing down on us. The Bulgars had counter-attacked at dawn and driven our men back, and everybody was mixed up. There were no trenches or anything like that.

My company were peacefully sleeping in the snow behind a rock, as we were Battalion Reserve that night, when we were called up at dawn as reinforcements. Battalion Reserve is a rotten job. You get all the shell fire that’s going, and you never kow what’s going on in front until you are suddenly roused out and plunged into the thick of I, as you’re only a few hundred yards back and you sleep with your rifle in your hand.

There’s first a shout of “Company forward,” and everyone’s off like a streak. When we arrived on the scene the men were rallying for a counter-attack. The bugler had got ‘cold feet’ and an officer had taken the bugle and was standing up against the skyline, where everyone could see him, a mark for every bullet, blowing for all he was worth. He wasn’t blowing a bit the right notes, but everyone knew what it meant. We knew the position had to be retaken at any cost, as it meant the fall of Monastir if we could.

We went anyhow we liked, taking cover as we could. An officer and about a dozen men and myself got to the top, when some bombers dodged behind the rocks and hurled bombs at us at close range and scattered us.

I was left alone, as I couldn’t move, but the officer crawled back right up to the enemy’s lines and dragged me back over the snow by my hands to where two of my ‘non-coms.’ were waiting for him, and then they rolled me up in a piece of tent and half-dragged, half-carried me down the steep hillside to a safe place.

The Serbs are fine comrades. We thought once we should all get taken, but they wouldn’t leave me! I’ve had ever so many cards from them asking when I’m coming back, but as I have twenty-four wounds and a broken arm the doctors seem to think I’ll have to wait a bit yet. 

For her actions under fire the Serbian government awarded her the King George Star – an award given for conspicuous gallantry in the field.

Flora returned to her battalion as soon as she was healed and continued to serve for the rest of the war, finally being demobilised in 1922.

You can find a very good overview of Flora’s life on the historic-uk website here, and informative timeline on the IWM Lives of the First World War page here, and Louise Miller has written an excellent biography “A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes” if you wish to delve more deeply.

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