When war broke out in 1914, Dr Elsie Maud Inglis approached the Royal Army Medical Corps offering her skills but was told to “go home and sit still”. Instead, Elsie set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals that operated in Russia and Serbia, becoming the first woman awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle.
The women’s suffrage movement had been growing in early 20th century as women of different backgrounds campaigned for their right to public life. With war came not only the hardships of rationing and distance from loved ones, but opportunities for women to demonstrate their capabilities within spaces that had until then been dominated by men.
At home, women stepped into vacant roles working in offices and munitions factories, or made new jobs for themselves setting up and running hospitals for wounded soldiers. Others, such as Elsie, ended up at the front as nurses and ambulance drivers.
While there are countless women who should be recognised for their ordinary and extraordinary roles during World War One, here are five notable individuals whose stories highlight the ways women responded to the conflict.
An aspiring journalist, Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a male soldier in 1915, managing to infiltrate a Royal Engineers Tunnelling Company. While male war correspondents struggled to gain access to the front lines, Dorothy recognised her only opportunity for publishable stories was to get there herself.
In Paris she had befriended two British soldiers who she persuaded to give her ‘washing’ to do: each time they would bring an item of clothing until Dorothy had a full uniform. Dorothy named herself ‘Private Denis Smith’ and headed to Albert where, posing as a soldier, she helped to lay mines.
However, after months of sleeping rough in the pursuit of reaching the front Dorothy’s days as a sapper began to take their toll on her health. Afraid that anyone who treated her would get into trouble, she revealed herself to the British Authorities who were embarrassed a woman had reached the front line.
Dorothy was sent home and told not to publish anything about what she had seen. When she eventually published her book, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier it was heavily censored and not a great success.
Working as a matron training nurses, Edith Cavell was already living in Belgium when the Germans invaded in 1914. Soon after, Edith became part of a chain of people who sheltered and moved Allied soldiers and men or military age from the front to the neutral Netherlands – violating German military law.
Edith was arrested in 1915 and admitted her guilt meaning she had committed ‘war treason’ – punishable by death. Despite protests from British and German authorities who argued she had saved many lives including those of Germans, Edith was executed before a firing squad at 7am on 12 October 1915.
Edith’s death soon became a propaganda tool for the British to draw in further recruits and stir public outrage against the ‘barbarous’ enemy, particularly because of her heroic job and gender.
Ettie Rout set up the New Zealand Women’s Sisterhood at the beginning of the war, leading them to Egypt in July 1915 where they set up a soldiers’ canteen and club. Ettie was also a safe sex pioneer and devised a prophylactic kit to sell at Soldiers’ Clubs in England from 1917 – a policy later adopted and made compulsory by New Zealand’s military.
However after the war, taking what she had learnt around the soldiers and confronting the taboo subject of sex, Ettie was labelled the ‘wickedest woman in Britain’. The scandal was directed at her 1922 book, Safe Marriage: A Return to Sanity, that provided advice on how to avoid venereal disease and pregnancy. People were so shocked that in New Zealand, just publishing her name could cost you a fine of £100.
However, this did not prevent Ettie’s work – albeit controversial – from being cautiously praised within the British Medical Journal at the time.
Marion Leane Smith
Born in Australia, Marion Leane Smith was the only known Australian Aboriginal Darug woman to have served in World War One. In 1914 Marion joined the Canadian Victoria Order of Nurses in 1913. In 1917, Marion was taken to France as part of the No. 41 Ambulance Train. Having grown up in Montreal, Marion spoke French and so was put to work on the trains, “specially fitted to transport injured troops from casualty clearing stations on the front to base hospitals” in France and Belgium.
Within the terrible conditions of the trains – cramped and dark, full of disease and traumatic injuries – Marion distinguished herself as a skilled nurse and went on to serve in Italy before the end of the war. Marion then headed to Trinidad where she again showed exceptional dedication to the war effort in 1939 by bringing the Red Cross to Trinidad.
Tatiana Nikolaevna Romanova
Daughter to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the fiercely patriotic Grand Duchess Tatiana became a Red Cross nurse alongside her mother, Tsarina Alexandra, when Russia joined World War One in 1914.
Tatiana was “almost as skilful and devoted as her mother, and complained only that on account of her youth she was spared some of the more trying cases”. The Grand Duchess’ wartime efforts were important to fostering a positive image of the imperial family at a time when her mother’s German heritage was deeply unpopular.
Thrown together through the abnormal circumstances of war, Tatiana also developed a romance with a wounded soldier at her hospital, Tsarskoye Selo, who gifted Tatiana a French bulldog called Ortipo (although Ortipo later died and so the duchess was gifted a second dog).
Tatiana took her treasured pet with her to Yekaterinburg in 1918, where the imperial family were held captive and killed following the Bolshevik Revolution.