Margaret James looks at the heroism of the women of WWI
This year marks the outbreak of one of the most horrible conflicts in human history, and – as we all know – there are plenty of other contenders for this ignominious accolade.
But most wars aren’t only about men defending the homeland and/or killing or injuring just about everyone who counts as the enemy within shooting, bombing or mutilating reach. They’re also about human heroism on a massive scale, and World War One motivated many people to find courage deep inside themselves which might otherwise have stayed locked away all their lives.
Edith Cavell, a heroine of the conflict who will hopefully feature on British currency one day soon, helped people who found themselves on both sides of the conflict and finally paid the ultimate price for her heroism. ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough,’ she said, as she faced execution by a German firing squad. ‘I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone’.
While the men fought and suffered appalling hardships on the fields of battle, women fought and suffered too, often in a wide variety of ways. When the men went off to fight, the women left behind stayed at home to run estates, farms, households, businesses and to raise families in hardship and poverty while their husbands were away. It’s hard for us in 2014 to realise just how powerless women were a mere hundred years ago – they had no parliamentary or other judicial vote, no real authority in the world of work, no autonomy within the home. The advice to ask your father was no joke back then because, without Dad’s permission, wives and children could not usually make even the most trivial of life decisions.
During the Great War, women worked in almost all the professions previously barred to them. They trained to be police officers. They laboured in dangerous places like munitions factories and mines. They worked as nurses and in a wide variety of support roles such as ambulance drivers on the front lines, often being critically or even fatally injured themselves. One lady I interviewed while I was researching my novel The Silver Locket which is set during World War One told me about her mother who worked as a rat-catcher on a farm in Yorkshire – the man who had originally been attracted to this desirable career option having joined up – and, while she enjoyed being out in the fresh air, she hated wearing a tie. Only men wore ties…
Did taking on men’s roles during this conflict help to advance the cause of female emancipation when the fighting finally ended? Well, women eventually got the vote. But, after the hostilities had ground to an exhausted halt, most of them were sent away from the factories, farms and workplaces back to the home, where most men felt they still belonged. They had demonstrated one incontrovertible truth, however – when a society is in crisis, women can contribute in positive ways just as effectively as men. The women of 1914 – 1918 laid the foundations of the women’s liberation movement which would really get into its stride fifty years later. There is still much to be done, but we women of 2014 are so lucky and we owe so much to our sisters from a hundred years ago.
If life is cheap, how much is love worth?
It’s 1914 and young Rose Courtenay has a decision to make. Please her wealthy parents by marrying the man of their choice – or play her part in the war effort?
The chance to escape proves irresistible and Rose becomes a nurse. Working in France, she meets Lieutenant Alex Denham, a dark figure from her past. He’s the last man in the world she’d get involved with – especially now he’s married.
But in wartime nothing is as it seems. Alex’s marriage is a sham and Rose is the only woman he’s ever wanted. As he recovers from his wounds, he sets out to win her trust. His gift of a silver locket is a far cry from the luxuries she’s left behind.
What value will she put on his love?