Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War, by Elisabeth Shipton

Niamh Gallagher on the women who challenged the consensus of who could serve at the front

August 21, 2014

“My good lady, go home and sit still.” This was the response of a Royal Army Medical Corps officer to Elsie Inglis, a Scottish woman and doctor who applied to serve as a physician in the British Army during the First World War. It characterises precisely what was not done by Inglis and the other “female Tommies” discussed in Elisabeth Shipton’s compelling account of militarised women in the war of 1914 to 1918.

In the past 20 years, the important role played by women of many nationalities has been written back into the history of the Great War. The distinction drawn between the home front and the battlefront has diminished as historians have recognised the extent to which the conflict permeated all areas of society.

Soldiers stayed in their trenches because of the moral, material and industrial support given to them from home and women played an integral role in sustaining the war efforts of the belligerent nations. In considering the First World War today, one is as likely to think of a female munitions worker manufacturing shells in Chilwell or dealing with hazardous chemicals such as trinitrotoluene – a nasty by-product of which turned their skins yellow – as one is to think of a soldier in the trenches. New opportunities in the labour market were created for women as governments struggled to free up additional men for the front, and in the UK more than 1 million women replaced men in employment between 1914 and 1918. From tram drivers and bus conductors to postal workers and police patrols, women contributed to the national war effort. It is no wonder that Millicent Fawcett, a leading feminist, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (1897-1918) and co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, declared: “The war revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free.”

Shipton’s work suggests that the war may have marked a watershed for women after all, at least for those engaged in the military

Sadly, Fawcett spoke too soon, as the gains made in wartime were disregarded when the fighting men came home. Approximately 750,000 British women were made redundant in 1919. Journalists, employers and government figures who had lauded women’s patriotism and dedication to the nation now became critical of those who dared to “take the jobs” of returning veterans. The question of whether the war was a watershed for women – a view shaped in part by the extension of the franchise to British and Irish women in 1918, although they had to be at least 30 years of age with a property qualification – was at one time a hot topic for historians, who concluded that it did little to change the gendered structures that had prevailed before 1914.

Yet this assessment does not invalidate women’s wartime experiences, and here Shipton brings to life the history of an understudied cohort: women of various nationalities who felt that their place was at the front. While far less numerous than the women who assisted the war effort from the home front, their roles were important ones because they challenged the gendered consensus that frontline service was no place for women. The “suitably feminine” profession of nursing was the primary entry point into the military because it rested upon the “principle that women were life-givers, not life-takers”. Yet from here, says Shipton, women “pushed at the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable”. They edged closer to the front, whether through ambulance driving and medicine or the more unusual occupations of wartime journalism, resistance, espionage and fighting in combat.

Shipton considers prominent figures such as Edith Cavell, executed by the Germans for her role in facilitating the escape of Allied soldiers, and Maria Bochkareva, the Russian commandant of the “Women’s Battalion of Death”, the only female unit to go over the top. In addition, her accounts of less well-known women serve to greatly increase the value of this study.

Take, for instance, Mabel St Clair Stobart, a feminist in her fifties from Dorset. She felt “that if women desired to have a share in the government of the country…they ought to be capable of taking a share in the defence of their country”. She co-founded the Women’s National Service League, which aimed to provide humanitarian assistance to fighting men. When war broke out in August 1914, she travelled to Brussels in advance of the rest of her organisation to offer the League’s services to the Belgian Red Cross. She did so despite warnings that the German Army was advancing upon the Belgian capital. When Brussels was occupied and communications were severed, Stobart was unable to send word to the League to stop its members from travelling into enemy territory, and as she was only an auxiliary to the internationally recognised Red Cross, she risked being treated as an enemy of the German Empire if captured.

Brazenly, naively or admirably, Stobart tackled the situation head on. Having hired a carriage to “look as important as possible”, she set off to find the German military governor of occupied Belgium, Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, to demand that he issue her a passport so that she could return home to continue her humanitarian mission. Surprisingly, her efforts prevailed, even if her travails did not end there. She was arrested and imprisoned en route to the Dutch frontier, and effected a lucky escape from a “lynching mob” of German soldiers “keen to get their hands on English spies”, before making it back to Britain and seeking out further opportunities for frontline service.

Female Tommies is full of similar accounts of enterprising, gutsy and occasionally naive women, drawn predominantly from contemporary memoirs and biographies. Owing to the nature of the source material, most of Shipton’s subjects are drawn from the literate and affluent white upper and middle classes. Although this restricts the book’s focus, it reflects the reality that the women who initiated and managed voluntary schemes came, in the main, from such backgrounds. Financial means, free time and access to men in positions of influence who were willing to take a risk on upsetting the gender balance were all resources that helped to bring women closer to the war zone. Nevertheless, this study is more than a catalogue of fascinating case studies. Shipton reveals how gender intersected with other categories such as class, culture and identity in these accounts, and while her book is concerned with frontline women’s experiences, other important social constructions are not ignored.

Significantly, Shipton’s work suggests that the war may have marked a watershed for women after all, at least for those engaged in the military. She argues that “the place to look for the lasting effects of the militarisation of women in the First World War is not 1919 but twenty years further on, in 1939”. For example, the famous Bletchley Park Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) who participated in decoding the secret communications of the Axis during the Second World War had their origins in the Hushwaacs, a section of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps formed in 1917 in the wake of persistent efforts by British “female Tommies” to force the War Office to form an official women’s military corps.

A century after the Great War began, and at a time when the changing roles of women in the armed forces are a focus of media attention and public debate, Female Tommies is a valuable resource for those keen to learn about individuals who helped to lay the foundations for women’s frontline participation in wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The author

Military historian and archivist Elisabeth Shipton was born in Hampshire and grew up in Oxford. “I think living in a university city had quite an effect on me and my attitude to learning. Nearly all of my friends’ parents were academics, and a great deal of pride was attached to academic achievement, which gave me a lot of personal drive.”

Her family home, she recalls, “was an extremely creative environment, and I was inspired by the fact that both my parents have built successful careers based on their own passions: music and art. We had an endless supply of books, and there was always music (mostly jazz and classical) and all sorts of art supplies.

“I definitely owe a lot to a number of teachers, and my history teachers stand out in particular. They were always so good at engaging us with stories, which in turn always helped us to remember things. A key turning point had to be when I was 14, and my history teacher Mr Gallacher was trying to help me write an empathy essay on the impact of the railways on 19th-century Britain. He asked me how I would feel if I was living then, and how I would react to events, and this basic thought process changed how I looked at history.”

She took an undergraduate degree in history with economics at the University of York; of her choice of discipline, Shipton says, “I always wanted to go to university and I thought that if I was going to be there for three years, I wanted to study the two subjects that I enjoyed the most.” More recently, she completed an MA in heritage management at the University of Birmingham.

As an undergraduate, she says, she was “definitely determined. I took a gap year during which I went travelling and worked to save up some money. So by the time I got to York I was really keen to get started. I rowed at university, which meant that I had to organise my studies around training, but this gave me a strong sense of structure and it was great to get out of the lecture hall and spend hours on the river with a close group of friends.”

Shipton began her career as an archivist aged 16. “I had only planned to spend a week working at New College, Oxford for my work experience. Two and a half years later I was still there, as a part-time assistant. It was a great place to work; university archives are very interesting and diverse, especially at such an old institution. One day you are working hard to conserve 14th-century pieces of parchment, then cataloguing fantastic illustrations by the political cartoonist James Gillray; on another you may be dealing with student records and Ucas forms.”

“At one point, when I was studying the Tudors for my history A-Level, the archivist Caroline Dalton made a point of showing me a series of manuscripts with Elizabeth I’s signature. It really took my breath away, and made history seem all the more real.”

Shipton also worked in the regimental archives of the Soldiers of Oxfordshire and the Royal Green Jackets. During these stints, she says, she worked “alongside a retired Colonel (and his two spaniels) who had been in Berlin in the 1960s before the Berlin Wall was built. I also met Colonel John Tillett of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who had been in one of the gliders that landed in June 1944 to take Pegasus Bridge. The sense of pride among these men and their desire to preserve their regimental histories was infectious.”

The difference between these types of archives, she says, is that while “New College is firmly established within the university with a stable future, the different regiments with whom I worked face a much harder challenge to preserve their history and sense of identity, as old regiments are amalgamated into new ones. In Winchester, the Royal Green Jackets archives were housed next door to the regimental museum. New recruits for the Rifles regiment are taken on tours of the museum in order to appreciate the achievements of their predecessors and the history of the British Army. At the same time the museum and the archives have to appeal to the public, and so we worked very hard to open up the collections and make them more engaging.”

Archivists, Shipton observes, need “patience, dedication and passion. Archives have to be properly documented, which requires a lot of indexing, and that can be never ending. Therefore you need to be committed and prepared to put in the time. As any researcher knows, archival databases and online catalogues are invaluable and speed up research enormously. It is important to see beyond the archives and to understand what they mean and what they represent. As well as caring for the archives, you have an obligation to make them accessible to the public and further understanding of the relevant subject areas.”

Of the traditionally male-dominated field of military history, Shipton acknowledges, “research and writing on a particular genre is always going to be dominated by those who have the most personal experience. But as Female Tommies shows, the demographics of warfare are changing over time, albeit gradually, and so too is the gender balance of military historians.

“I think that as a woman writing in a male-dominated discipline, you face a significant challenge in getting it right and you are under a greater level of scrutiny. You need to engage those readers who would otherwise default to a male author. As a military historian, in addition to looking at military strategy, I aim to examine the impact of war socially and economically, beyond the battlefield.

“Among other female military historians, I would say that Frances Stonor Saunders stands out for her book Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman about the mercenary John Hawkwood who in the 14th century became embroiled in the wars and politics of France and Italy. So does Sarah Helm, who wrote A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE. A number of the female agents trained by Atkins didn’t return from their missions, and so Atkins tried to find out what happened to them. Helm expertly pulls together the numerous strands of a very complicated puzzle in Europe during the Second World War.”

Asked if there was anything in her own family’s history that led her to explore the subjects covered in Female Tommies, Shipton says, “My grandparents were caught up in the Second World War, and their parents in the First World War. My grandmother had been a member of the WAAF in the 1940s and I assumed that likewise there had been women’s services in the Great War. However, I found out that in Britain, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was not founded until the beginning of 1917.

“I became interested in what women had typically done in the earlier years of the war: why did it take two and a half years for them to be given a military role, and how did they get to that position? My great-grandmother had been in a Voluntary Aid Detachment and we have all her letters, postcards and photographs. As I began to research the military role of women, I think my underlying thought was, if it was me 100 years ago, what would I be doing? There are a few individuals like Flora Sandes who fought in the Serbian Army and Dorothy Lawrence who disguised herself as Royal Engineer and served on the Western Front for nearly two weeks before discovery, but I wanted to know how representative these women were of the female population in general.”

Shipton has also worked as a filming and locations researcher for BBC TV and radio productions.

For academics, she says, “working with the media can be an extremely positive experience. When I worked as the researcher for the BBC Radio 4 documentary At War with Wellington, I was very fortunate that our two presenters, Peter and Dan Snow, were full of enthusiasm and wanted to get it right.

“At the time, Peter was writing his own book, To War with Wellington, and he was always sharing information so we had many discussions about the battles and different topics that we covered. Therefore it was very much a collaborative effort.”

Shipton adds: “I think what is really exciting for the future is digital storytelling. Using a combination of interactive websites and e-books, there is the opportunity to present history on a whole range of levels and allow the viewer to chose how much they want to know about a particular subject and show them where they can find out more. It is still early days, but there is huge potential there to appeal to a much larger audience.”

Asked to name a favourite work on the First World War written by a woman, Shipton names Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front. “She was an established fiction author and an avid writer. After school she had trained as a nurse and married a doctor. When war broke out in Europe, she was in her late thirties and mother to a daughter and three boys.

“Given her responsibilities she turned down an offer to go across the Atlantic and report on the war. Afterwards she deeply regretted her decision and pestered her editor, George Lorimer, to give her another chance. At the beginning of 1915 Rinehart was sent to Europe on behalf of the Saturday Evening Post. Female war correspondents were a rarity and Rinehart faced a significant challenge, as journalists were banned from the Western Front.

“However, she was armed with a letter of introduction from her editor to Lord Northcliffe, the media magnate who believed that the war should be reported on. Under cover, travelling officially as a member of the Red Cross, she made her way to both France and Belgium and wrote down everything that she saw. She toured the hospitals in order to report back to the American Red Cross what supplies were needed. Incredibly, she secured interviews with Winston Churchill, the King and Queen of Belgium and the French General Foch.

“Without fear, she persuaded the Belgians to show her the rear trenches and brazenly persuaded the lieutenant she was with to take her to the front, where she wandered into No-Man’s Land. Kings, Queens and Pawns is an account of her time in Europe and a compilation of her articles. It provides a fascinating insight into the early stages of the war from a female perspective, but also shows how at the time, men didn’t really know how to react to this rather presumptuous woman travelling around behind the front lines in a war zone.”

Karen Shook

Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War

By Elisabeth Shipton
The History Press, 256pp, £18.99 and £15.82
ISBN 9780752491431 and 50957489 (e-book)
Published 1 July 2014

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