Have you watched the new film Wonder Woman? Now read about five amazing real women during World War One!
The First World War began July 1914 and ended on 11 November 1918. Women were not equal to men at the start of the twentieth century and had few rights and little political standing. They didn’t achieve equal voting rights until 1928 (although certain women could vote from 1918). It was unusual for married women to work, the main career open to most women was marriage and family.
It is against this backdrop that during the First World War women stood up and made a difference. Women all over the country stepped out of traditional roles and expectations.
Here are the stories are five remarkable women:
Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, Norfolk on 4th December 1865. By all accounts she was a bright, happy and vivacious girl. She worked as a governess until she received a small legacy that she spent travelling Europe. It was in Europe that she came into contact with the free hospital run by Dr Wolfenburg. She was so affected by this that she donated some of her money to the hospital.
Following her trip, she returned to work and went to Brussels to work for the Francois family for five years. In 1895 she returned to nurse her father during a brief illness and it was here that her future was decided. In 1896 at the age of 30 she was accepted at the London Hospital for training to be a nurse.
Between this time and the outbreak of the war in 1914 Edith became an experience nurse eventually coming to run the pioneering nurses’ training college in Brussels. When war was announced Edith was visiting her mother in Norfolk but immediately returned to Brussels to help with the war effort.
The nurses training college became a red cross hospital and Edith made it clear to all her charges that their first priority was care of the wounded regardless of nationality. They treated all injured during the war including German soldiers.
Eventually Brussels fell to the Germans and 60 English nurses returned home. Edith and her chief assistant, Miss Wilkins, refused to leave.
Now in occupied territory the nurses’ college became central in the underground to help allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines escape to neutral territory. She kept this secret from the other nurses so as not to incriminate them. Over 200 men escaped with help from Edith Cavell.
In 1915 two members of the operation were arrested and they soon came for Edith. In interrogation she was told the others had confessed and she told them of her involvement. She was sentence to death along with four others.
On her final evening an English Chaplain was allowed to visit her so she could receive the Final Sacrament. Her words are now immortalized:
“Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realized that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
She was shot on 12th October 1915.
Following her death there was international outrage. In England war recruitment numbers doubled for 8 weeks following the announcement of her death. Soon the United States joined the side of the allies.
After the war her remains were exhumed from Belgium and returned to England. First to Westminster Abbey and then to Norfolk Cathedral where she was interred.
A statue to Edith Cavell stands in St Martin’s Place, London.
Maria Bochkareva was born in 1889 in Novgorod Oblast, Russia. She left home at fifteen after her alcoholic father physically abused her. Unfortunately Maria went through two violent marriages. She worked as a labourer in construction and eventually a foreman.
In 1914 she left her second husband and joined the Russian Army 25th Reserve Battalion. She was laughed at by the men of the unit but soon earned their respect as she fought by their side. In three years she was wounded twice and received medals for bravery three times.
In 1917 she convinced the Russian leader, Alexander Kerensky, to allow her to form a women’s battalion. At first 2,000 women flocked to her banner but this was eventually reduced to 250 committed women. The women’s battalion fought the in trenches and went over the top just like the men in the army.
On October 25th 1917 the women’s battalion defended the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik revolution. They were either killed or capture by the Bolshevik forces. The British Military Attaché in Petrograd worked to secure their release. Maria was one of those women and she fled the country. She went first to the United States and then to Britain as she campaigned against the Bolsheviks.
In 1919 she returned to Tomsk but was eventually captured and interrogated at Krasnoiarsk. She was sentenced to execution and was killed by firing squad on 16th May 1920.
Elsie Maud Inglis
Elsie Maud Inglis was born in India in 1864. She entered the newly created Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1982 and qualified as a physician and surgeon in 1892.
Prior to the war Elsie first worked with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and was a part of the suffragette movement. She set up her own maternity hospital run entirely by women.
After the outbreak of the war Elsie proposed the creation of women’s medical units of the Western Front. The response from the War Office was “My good lady, go home and sit still”.
Unperturbed, Elsie went instead to the French Government who took her up on her offer. She set up an Auxiliary Hosptial at Abbaye de Royaumont in 1914 and a further hospital in 1917 at Villers Cotterets.
Elsie sent units to Serbia and Russia. She travelled herself to Serbia using her work in improving hygiene standards to reduce a typhus epidemic. Eventually she was captured in Serbia and sent home. Once back in Britain she immediately started to raise funds for a Scottish Women’s Hospital in Russia. She left for Odessa in 1916.
She led her team until 1917 when she became unwell from the long hours and conditions. She died aged 53 the day after she returned to England.
Mary O’Connell Bianconi
Mary O’Connell Bianconi was born in Ireland in 1896. She was known by her nickname Molly. In 1915 she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and was sent to a hospital in Yorkshire for accelerated nurse training. She also attended a motor vehicle maintenance course in 1916. During this time, it was fairly rare for men to have such knowledge and extraordinary for a woman to do so.
After her nurse and motor vehicle training Molly joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs). She was sent to France in August 1917 to drive ambulances. In 1918 she was deployed to St. Omer on the front. It was here that Molly and her colleagues rescued the wounded on the battlefield at their own risk during the retreat of Allied forces.
Molly was awarded the Military Medal for her actions during the retreat. She and her fellow FANY drivers was awarded a citation for bravery along with the medal. She was also mentioned by name in the dispatches of General Herbert Plumer for bravery in the field. Very few women were honoured with both distinctions during the war and Molly was one of the first.
After the war Molly married Captain Arthur Stanley Watson of Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment. She ran a hotel for almost 10 years from her home as a shooting and fishing lodge.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Molly once again stepped up. She re-joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She became a Junior Commander in the Auxiliary Territorial Service for the entire of the war. The women of the ATS were not allowed to serve on the battlefield but instead engaged in support activities including anti-aircraft gun crew and radar operations.
She returned to running the hotel after the end of the Second World War but soon retired to write a biography of her great grandfather. Molly died in Guilford, Surrey in August 1968.
Elizabeth Knocker and Mairi Chisholm
Elizabeth “Elsie” Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were two women brought together by their determination to care for the wounded in Belgium during the Frist World War.
While working as an ambulance driver Elsie noted that most men died of shock being transported from the trenches to the hospital behind the lines. Together with fellow driver Mairi, she commandeered a house 5 yards from the trenches. They set up a medical centre in the cellar. This became known as Cellar House.
It was noted that those who were treated at Cellar House had a better chance of survival. Sir Bertrand Dawson, the chief medical officer of the British forces, gained official recognition of the house by the Allied Council as a nursing station. This meant getting medical equipment and supplies became much easier.
Cellar House ran for almost four years. They saw an estimated 23,000 wounded come through their doors. It was only in 1918 that a gas attack finally forced them to leave the station.
In 1915 both women were recognised by the King of Belgium who awarded them to Chevaliers de l’Ordre of Leopold II medal.
Do you have a favourite from this list of amazing women? If you know another story of an amazing woman please let me know below!