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Women in World War 1

Updated on September 29, 2014
Tribute to a Great War Nurse: one of the figures on a war memorial
Tribute to a Great War Nurse: one of the figures on a war memorial | Source

The Great War and the Role of Women

When we think of the 1st world war, we normally think of the 'lost generation' of men (most of them very young) who died in the trenches of France and other battlegrounds around the world. We might spare a thought for the wives who became widows, the girls who wept for brothers or fathers, and the women who lost sons. But WWI is seen as a man's war, with people at home never truly understanding the horrors of trench warfare.

This isn't entirely fair. Women's lives were changed beyond recognition by the Great War of 1914-18. Almost every woman did her bit, whether that meant taking on a job or managing as head of the household for the first time. More than this, many women served as nurses, seeing firsthand the horrors of war. Others were killed or injured in attacks on civilians. Women such as Edith Cavell gave their life in world war one. And it wasn't entirely unknown for a woman to serve in the trenches.

And at the end of the first world war, life was never to be the same again for a new generation of women who had lost so many men. Isn't it time you discovered more about Women in the First World War?

These Australian nurses were photographed at the end of WWI in 1918.
These Australian nurses were photographed at the end of WWI in 1918. | Source

The Nurse in World War 1

Nurses at the Front and Back Home

Historical dramas such as Downton Abbey have let modern audiences glimpse the work a young woman like Lady Sybil might have done as a nurse in an officer's hospital and convalescence home.

Many women did do valuable work nursing injured and dying men when they returned to their home countries. Even with the comforts of home, such as they were in wartime, the work was hard and no doubt traumatic.

Yet many WWI nurses worked at the Front too, close to the scene of the battles. Some of them had come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

There were also nurses at work in occupied Belgium, where British nurse Edith Cavell was put to death by the Germans for helping Allied soldiers.

Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell | Source

Famous World War One Nurses: Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell is remembered as a war hero, though she would no doubt have said she was only doing her duty as a nurse. While matron of a hospital in Belgium, a country that was occupied by the enemy German forces in the 1st world war, she helped injured Allied soldiers to escape the country.

Unfortunately she was betrayed and taken prisoner. The German authorities decided to enforce the death penalty, which their laws stated as the appropriate punishment for this crime.

Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad in October 1915.

Her Story: Edith Cavell

Fatal Decision: Edith Cavell Wwi Nurse
Fatal Decision: Edith Cavell Wwi Nurse

Find out more about this dedicated nurse and her work in both nursing and the Belgian underground system of WWI.


An Upcoming Film About Edith Cavell: The Rose of No Man's Land

Famous World War One Nurses: Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was a young Englishwoman of a wealthy family whose life was turned upside down by the war. One by one, she saw friends, her brother, and her fiancé Roland go to their deaths in the trenches.

Her auto-biography of the life of her generation, Testament of Youth, is one of the great works of World War 1. Vera Brittain is an enduring spokesperson for the young people of Britain during the Great War era and how their lives were cut short or blighted by the mass sacrifice of youth in a war dictated by old men.

The 2014 movie, also titled Testament of Youth, reveals this tragic era from the perspective of Vera as a young, intelligent woman who is powerless to stop the deaths of all the young men she loves and cares for.

Vera Brittain's Story: Testament of Youth (Film Trailer)

Women Doing War Work in WW1

Jobs for the Girls

Women also took on new types of work during the Great War era. Previously, the only women who normally held down jobs were working class girls who were not yet married. They worked as household servants and shop girls, or in other 'feminine' occupations such as nursing.

The 1st world war saw able-bodied men going off to fight, leaving the factories and farms empty. Healthy young women were needed to do their work. This included vital war work such as munitions, which was often dangerous. Other work women did spanned from farm work to working in coal mines to becoming postwomen (delivering mail) or sweeping the streets.

Like Lady Edith in Downton Abbey, women learned to drive too. In fact there was little that had done before the war by a man that was not now being done by women.

Yet this was in a world where women were not considered capable enough to vote! That too was to change after the war.

Women proved how tough and competent they were as workers during the Great War. Working class women had always had hard lives, but now even the daughters of gentlemen were helping with the war effort. Until then, they had done little but dress up and attend social events

Later, in World War 2, the country knew it could count on women to again play their part in keeping the country running.

Keeping the Country Going Back Home

American Women in WWI

The First World War and US Americans

Much of the literature about women in the first world war is about British women, along with the courageous Canadian and Australian nurses who journeyed so far from home to assist the Allied efforts.

Women of the USA also deserve tribute for the important role they played. On the home front they took on men's jobs, including farm work as the Woman's Land Army of America, so that the men could join the combat when the US entered the war in 1917. Many more made the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to serve 'over there' in medical and support roles.

Dorothy Lawrence in Uniform

Dorothy Lawrence disguised as a male solidier
Dorothy Lawrence disguised as a male solidier | Source

Did Women Fight in WW1?

Women at the Front and One Female Soldier

Dorothy Lawrence: Woman and Soldier of WW1 In general, women were not involved in combat but did essential work tending to the injured and dying in France as well as in their home countries and on hospital ships. They were not stationed in the trenches but as the war dragged on many of them were close by at casualty clearing stations. Here they would frequently have to work and sleep in basic tents, with shell fire close at hand.

However, it was during WWI that women’s branches of the armed services also began to appear. With women doing essential administrative and technical work, more men could be freed up for combat. The Women’s Royal Navy Service (known as the Wrens) was established in 1916, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1917 and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in the brand new Royal Air Force in 1918.

Dorothy Lawrence, a would-be journalist who found her path stopped at every turn because of her gender, went into the trenches in disguise. Cutting her hair, she assumed the identity of Private Denis Smith, joining the men in the trenches for 12 days until she was discovered.

Her Story: Dorothy Lawrence

Sapper Dorothy: the Only English Woman Soldier in the Royal Engineers 51st Division, 79th Tunnelling Co. During the First World War
Sapper Dorothy: the Only English Woman Soldier in the Royal Engineers 51st Division, 79th Tunnelling Co. During the First World War

Read more about this remarkable woman and her experiences as a soldier during the Great War.


Women and Front Line Warfare: Your Thoughts

Women were not allowed to fight as soldiers during WW1 and even today many nations keep their female soliders away from the front line. Do you think this is right?

See results

© 2014 Indigo Janson


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