Women and WW1 Africa

It seemed fitting to post this around the time that Women’s Day is being promoted.

Most of the focus of war has been on men, and quite rightly – they’ve historically been the ones to leave their families, take up arms and put their lives on the line. Social mores have tended to promote this side of war as their actions generally make for a ‘good story’. And to be honest, it has really only been a few men (relatively speaking) who, until recently, made it into the history books for whatever reason. As those of us working on the campaigns in Africa know, so many men – of all micro-nationalities – have been ignored and airbrushed out of the histories to date.

Things are changing across all fronts as I noted in a recent commissioned article.

Before looking at some of what we know about women and WW1 Africa, acknowledgement should be given to Wangari Maathai – it was through her phenomenal book The Challenge for Africa, that I came upon the all-inclusive term ‘micro-nation’. She is the product of the generation which survived or was born post-WW1.

Many women were left at home, in Britain, South Africa, India and the other countries which participated. They did what they could to support those in the field – knitting and sending parcels. Those in the territories directly affected by war, were caught up in some way – labour at home or in the field, nursing, and for some fighting if the opportunity arose. These stories are starting to come to light through family historians digging away at their past, whilst feminist, cultural and social historians, anthropologists and sociologists burrow away in archives, read between the lines of oral accounts and critically analyse literature in an attempt to construct experiences which have laid buried for decades. These same approaches are being taken to bring to light the other forgotten (unremembered) histories of men and animals.

The English speaking world is limited by the few books and accounts published by women of their time in Africa, whilst those who can read German are more fortunate. A number of the German women who were in East Africa have written their accounts. All that is currently known to have been written is available on the GWAA bibliography. I’m yet to find accounts by Belgian and Portuguese women and the search continues for all micro-nation accounts – male and female.


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