Before I get too far into this posting, let me declare up front that this is not my usual sphere of study nor interest… However, in preparing a short (10min!) talk for some 200 7-11year old girls at a local school on women in WW1 as part of the Northwood VA Hospital project I have been working on (@northwoodArts), I’ve taken a whirlwind trip through various books and the internet to find something suitably real (and not gory) to share with the girls. And as I have been a little slack in posting recently due to travels between East Africa and the UK, this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up sharing with you…
I knew women had been quite involved in the war and that as a result, those fighting for the vote strengthened their position until in 1918, women over the age of 30 were granted the vote. They had shown themselves responsible enough to have a say in Britain’s future… I also became aware, through listening to the findings of the VA Hospital research team that women had various roles to play within the hospital. We always hear about the nurses – but how much has been said about the cook or person who swept and washed the floor or scrubbed those millions of dishes? Then there were those who entertained the men, recognising that psychological health was just as important as medical treatment to improving physical health. We hear of concerts, musical and theatre, sewing competitions which the men participated in having been taught how to embroider and so forth. Women volunteers were dashing between their shifts in the hospital and the local supply depot to roll bandages and prepare other packages to go out to hospitals, whilst others delivered milk and did the laundry. The local Girl Guide Company helped with delivering messages. And what was really an eye-opener, although it probably shouldn’t have been, was that many women also had young families they were looking after at the same time. (You can find out more about the Northwood VA Hospital at www.northwoodcommunityarts.co.uk (the findings of the research team will be exhibited at Northwood Library from 19 June with a commemoration and interpretation event on 21 June 2014. And if all goes to plan, the painting which inspired the research will make an appearance before it returns, restored, to its home at St John’s URC Northwood. It is believed to have been painted by Louisa Holdsworth-Sampson (aka Roger Hilton‘s mother and Rose Hilton‘s mother-in-law).
In many ways, the work women were undertaking in Britain (and other European countries) was very similar to what they were doing in the Africa campaigns although the emphasis might have been slightly different. Women in Africa looked after and managed farms whilst their unmarried male owners were away fighting. Women transported food and other supplies to their men-folk particularly in the early days of the war and there were women camp followers who saw the whole war through – particularly those following the German Schutztruppe and askari through the East Africa campaign. Women in Africa were known to make bandages out of different materials and to refill shells so they could fit the guns that were available. In South Africa, young girls moved off the farms into the towns and cities to work in factories for the first time whilst others knitted and fund-raised for gifts for the men. And a few took to nursing in the hospitals as part of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
And alongside all of this, men who were not fighting because of their age, health, beliefs or reserved occupation, were doing their bit in delivering the bread to hospitals, servicing vehicles, transporting patients, delivering post and all the other myriad of functions that keep a country and community operational. The Boy Scouts, too, did their bit, in Northwood challenging the recuperating soldiers to a shooting competition – which the scouts won!
The word ‘war’ tends to focus one’s attention on the fighting and battle fronts (the dark side of war) and although we shouldn’t forget that in order to try and avoid future conflicts, it’s little encounters such as giving a 10minute talk on women in war that reminds us (me) about the humanity of mankind and the continuity of life.