Monday, August 25, 2014

Six Famous Medical Women of the First World War

The Great War was a conflict of horrific casualties but the death toll would have been much higher if it hadn't been for the countless dedicated medical workers who fought to save the lives of the wounded. The following six female medics gained particular fame while doing so.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm
Imperial War Museum

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were two motorcycle enthusiasts who, when the war began, worked as dispatch riders in London for a month before being chosen to travel to Belgium with a unit called the Flying Ambulance Corps. When they noticed that even moderately wounded Belgian men were dying of shock during the long ambulance rides to the hospital, the women decided to create a relief station close to the fighting where these men could recuperate before making the trip. Knocker and Chisholm were both personally decorated by King Albert of the Belgians for their efforts.

Read more about Knocker and Chisholm here.

Elsie Inglis

Elsie Inglis was a Scottish surgeon who offered her services to the British War Office when the war began. She was turned down with the following words: "My good lady, go home and sit still." Inglis did neither. With funds raised by the Scottish Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies, she created the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service, mobile units staffed and run by women that were utilized in France, Serbia, Salonika, Romania, Malta, Corsica and Russia. Inglis spent much of her time in Serbia where, because of her efforts, she became a national hero.
Read more about Inglis and the Scottish Women's Hospitals here and here.

Radiographers Helena Gleichen and Nina Hollings at work

Helena Gleichen and Nina Hollings were two British women who worked as radiographers on the Italian Front, locating pieces of shrapnel and bullets with their equipment so that surgeons could operate on wounded men more precisely. Often coming under fire, both women were decorated by the governments of Italy and Britain.

Read more about Gleichen and Hollings here.

Olive King with her ambulance.
Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

Olive King was the daughter of a wealthy Australian philanthropist who provided his daughter with funds for a truck which she converted to an ambulance. She worked with the Scottish Women's Hospitals in France and Serbia before attaching herself to the Serbian army. When a fire broke out in Salonika, Olive worked to rescue people from their burning homes, for which the Serbian government awarded her the Silver Medal for Bravery and a Gold Medal for Zealous Conduct. Towards the end of the war she opened canteens for the Serbs as they pushed their enemies out of their devastated country.

Read more about King here and here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm

Elsie and Mairi wearing the decorations awarded them by King Albert of the Belgians,
The Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II.
All photos in this post but the last were taken from The Cellar-House of Pervyse: A Tale of Uncommon Things from the Journals and Letters of The Baroness T'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm, published in London, 1917. Clicking on the individual half-tone photos will provide a clearer image.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were two motorcycle enthusiasts who, when the war began, became dispatch riders in London with the Women's Emergency Corps. After a month they were asked to join a medical unit called 'The Flying Ambulance Corps" that was headed for Belgium.

Mairi in a shell hole.
The women often came under direct fire.

While in Belgium transporting men from the battlefield to the nearest hospital -- usually miles away -- the women discovered that too many moderately wounded men were dying of shock during the trip. What these men needed immediately, the women realized, was a quiet place where they could recuperate and gather some strength before taking the arduous ambulance ride to the hospital on the muddy, slippery, shell-pocked cobblestone streets.

At the end of November, 1914, after a quick fundraising trip to Britain, Elsie and Mairi moved into a 10 by 12 foot cellar of a bombed out house in the Belgian town of Pervyse, using a second cellar as a dressing station. There they cared for the wounded, a few men at a time, before taking them to the hospital in Furnes. And with their new funds -- and what they could find in other deserted houses -- they made hot chocolate and soup (with the help of a young Belgian man) and distributed it daily to the Belgian soldiers living in the nearby trenches.

One of the cellar houses before the women converted it
The same cellar house afterwards
They also wrote home often, requesting their relatives to send them warm men's clothing. The Belgian soldiers nearby often suffered from relatively minor ailments -- bronchitis, frozen, inflamed feet -- caused by exposure to the cold. Elsie and Mairi let these sick men recuperate in the cellar house if no one else needed it more. The Belgian soldiers were extremely grateful for all the sacrifices these two British women were making on their behalf.

But if the Belgian soldiers admired the two brave women, the feeling was very mutual. Elsie commended them in the following way in a letter home, requesting supplies: "I have lived amongst the soldiers so long, and know how plucky and cheerful they are. I see them patched up, returning to their regiments unmurmuring. I wonder if even our British Tommy would fight so cheerfully as he does if he were established on twenty miles of Kent, knowing that all the rest of his country was in the hands of the Germans, not knowing where his mother, wife, or sisters were, or if he would ever see them again."


 News traveled and soon the cellar house began attracting curious visitors, everyone from the mayor of Paris to British reporters; friends and relatives of the two women read about their activities in British newspapers.

 One day they were visited by some British navy men who were astonished that the women were living in a bombed out village so obviously close to danger.

 In the middle of their conversation, several loud shells fell nearby, one right after the other. The naval men were outraged: "Do you mean to say you get this often?" they asked. "It's shameful! Someone ought to make you come away."

 "Write to The Times about it" said Elsie before calmly suggesting that they all eat the lunch the men had brought.

Elsie & Mairi
Photo via the Imperial War Museum
Portions of the above text are taken from an unfinished, unpublished chapter originally intended for inclusion in Women Heroes of World War I The following is collection of quotes I considered as chapter openers:

The whole British Army objects to our being here.
--Mairi Chisholm

There isn't a man in the Corps who does his work better or with more courage and endurance than this 18-year-old-child.
--May Sinclair, British journalist, speaking of Mairi Chisholm
Perhaps it is by [Elsie Knocker's] services and those of Miss Mairi Chisholm that the Monro Ambulance has best proved the fitness of women in the actual field.
 --May Sinclair, British journalist
So far as I know, you are actually the only women right up in the firing-line at all -- and you jolly well shouldn't be.
 --British Naval Officers speaking to Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm

Read about recent efforts to build a memorial to Elsie & Mairi here.

The Amazon UK link to a recent biography on the women, Elsie and Mairi Go to War.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Four Female Spies/Resistance workers of World War I

Part of France and most of Belgium was occupied by Germany during World War I. This situation gave rise to resistance efforts by affected Belgian and French citizens, some of whom worked for British Intelligence. Their courage foreshadowed -- and in many cases, directly inspired -- the more well known resistance activities that occurred in the same nations during the Second World War.

Marthe Cnockaert

Marthe Cnockaert was a young Belgian woman who worked for British Intelligence during the war.She volunteered at a local army hospital by day, earning a German Iron Cross for her efforts, and waited on German servicemen in her father's café by night, all the while keeping her eyes and ears open for information which she passed along to her Belgian contacts. Eventually caught and tried, her death sentence was commuted to life in prison because of her Iron Cross.

Read more about Cnockaert here.

Gabrielle Petit was a deeply troubled young Belgian who found a new, passionately patriotic lease on life when the Germans overran her country and she began to work or British Intelligence. After she was betrayed to the Germans, her feisty personality and combative behavior during her trial, imprisonment, and execution became immensely galvanizing for Belgian resisters of both world wars.

Read more about Petit here.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was a British nurse and nursing instructor who hid British soldiers in her Brussels clinic and helped them escape from occupied Belgium into the neutral Netherlands. She was caught and her subsequent execution by the Germans caused international outrage and a large but temporary surge in British enlistment numbers.

Her work directly inspired that of World War II resister, Andree de Jongh, founder of the Comet Line. 

Read more about Cavell here and here. 

Louise de Bettignies in 1905

Frenchwoman Louise de Bettignies created and operated a large espionage network in the occupied portion of France. Through her brilliant, courageous, and tireless efforts, British Intelligence was provided with invaluable information during the war. One member of British Intelligence had this to say about her work after the war: "Through [Louise de Bettignies] we learned with a precision, a regularity, and rapidity that was never surpassed by any other organization, all the movements of the enemy, the exact position of their batteries, and a thousand details that were of great help to our headquarters. Possibly, during the course of the war, experience having perfected the method of working one or two services equaled hers. Not one has ever surpassed it."

Her work directly inspired that of famed WWII SOE agent Pearl Witherington. 

Read more about De Bettignies here.

Keep reading: 

Four Female Soldiers of WWI

The nations involved in World War I mobilized their men by equating military service with patriotism. Many women took this idea to heart in a way their governments had never intended: instead of engaging in socially acceptable women's work, they found their way into the ranks of fighting men.

The following female warriors gained significant renown during the Great War.

Milunka Savic
A veteran of both Balkan Wars (1912 & 1913) as well as World War I, this Serbian warrior is widely considered to be the most highly decorated female in military history. When wounded and her gender initially discovered, it was suggested that she instead work in a nursing station. She refused and requested to be allowed to remain in the ranks of men where she had already proven herself to be a courageous warrior with excellent instincts. Her commanding officer said he'd give her his decision on the following day. She reportedly responded with the following words: "I will wait." She was allowed to remain a soldier.
Read more about Savic here.

Ecaterina Teodoroiu

Ecaterina Teodoroiu was a young woman who joined the Romanian army in an unofficial capacity to be near her brother. After he was killed, she was allowed to become an official member of the army, eventually gaining the rank of lieutenant. When she was killed during the battle of  Mărăşeşti she was widely mourned by the entire Romanian army; they had come to admire the passionate patriotism that had driven Teodoroiu to achieve what no other Romanian woman had. After the war she was reburied in a state funeral and multiple monuments were built in her honor.

Read more about Teodoroiu here.

Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes was a British woman who in 1914 accompanied an Anglo-American team of doctors, nurses, and medical volunteers to Serbia. One thing led to another and Sandes became a valued member of the Serbian army, eventually earning the rank of captain. After being wounded by a Bulgarian grenade, Sandes made a recuperation/fundraising trip to England where she gave speeches in her uniform, becoming an enormous inspiration to British women who, at the time, didn't even have the right to vote.

Read more about Sandes here.

Maria Bochkareva

Maria Bochkareva was a Russian peasant who was on the point of suicide during the summer of 1914. The war gave her a new lease on life and she obtained official permission from the Tsar to join the Russian Imperial Army. Highly decorated for bravery and wounded in action several times, Bochkareva became disgusted with the democratic principles that were integrated into the army following the February Revolution. The Provisional Government, attempting to motivate the Russian army into one more successful offensive, asked Bochkareva to organize a shock battalion of women who would fight to the death. While the resulting Women's Battalion of Death proved itself in battle, it didn't achieve its original goal of motivating the Russian army. It did, however, galvanize suffragists all over the world.

Read more about Bochkareva and the Women's Battalion of Death here and here. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Olive King, her ambulance, and a fire in Salonika

Olive King and her ambulance
Australian War Memorial
P0 1352.002 

"On the afternoon of August 18, 1917, a fire broke out in Salonika, which was now swarming with soldiers from Serbia, France, Britain, and Italy, as well as colonial troops from India, Indochina, and North Africa. Olive, seeing the fire from a distance and longing to have a closer look, was thrilled when she was ordered to assist. Driving into the city she found it a place of utter confusion as panic-stricken people fled with whatever goods they could rescue from the terrifying roar of the flames.
Olive, at times only yards away from the fire, worked all night rescuing people and their possessions. Moments after one Serbian family climbed into her ambulance, their house caved in with a deafening crash. Olive kept saying to herself that it was all 'too dreadful...too frightening to be really happening.'"
Excerpt from "Olive King: Adventurous Ambulance Driver" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Harriet Boyd Hawes and the Smith College Relief Unit

The Smith College Relief Unit, Harriet Boyd Hawes in front, 2nd from left.
Sophie Smith Collection, Smith College

Word counts being what they are, I had to exclude a few great stories from Women Heroes of World War I. Harriet Boyd Hawes was an exceptional American who, before the U.S. entry into World War I, worked tirelessly to save the lives of survivors of the Great Serbian retreat. She then returned to the United States to organize what became known as the Smith College Relief Unit, pictured above. The following is an excerpt from the unpublished chapter:

...Harriet was very pleased when President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Central Powers in the spring of 1917. In April 1917, she spoke by invitation at a luncheon of the Smith College Club of Boston. She used her opportunity to suggest a new idea: sending a privately-funded relief unit to France composed of Smith College alumnae. She praised Smith College for having many notable traditions but added that “no tradition can be better than that of united public service.”

What would be the purpose of the Smith College Relief Unit? Harriet was still in touch with French relief organizations who alerted her to recent occurrences in the north of France, in the areas of the Oise, Ainse, and the Somme. A few months earlier in February, 1917, the Germans, who had been occupying those areas for two and one-half years, suddenly decided to retreat. But before doing so, they forced most able-bodied French people to evacuate with them, destroying as much as possible beforehand and leaving only the elderly and the women with small children. Why? One German explained it this way to one of the people they were forcing to march with them: “You are to work. The aged, the women, and the children are to be an embarrassment to the French who are coming and will encounter nothing but ruins and people incapable of doing anything for their own nourishment. For nothing will remain of your houses; they will be blown up.”

The Smith College Relief Unit would take money and supplies to the devastated areas and provide food, supplies, and materials with which to help the locals to rebuild their lives. Although the Germans were gone, the Smith College Unit would still be taking quite a risk. France and Germany were still at war and the Grécourt area was considered a war zone: the Germans might return at any moment.

But thoughts of danger were far from the minds of those who had just heard Harriet speak. By the end of the luncheon Harriet had raised $4,000 dollars. She continued to raise money – eventually totaling more than 30,000 -- for the unit that was soon officially affiliated with the American Fund for the French Wounded. She was hesitant to become the unit’s first director, as she felt that perhaps a younger woman should do that, but agreed in the end.

They were to be assigned as a relief center for approximately 11 villages adjoining the area of Grécourt – the name of an ancient French estate that was now a village where they would set up their base. The French army and the government had requested this site for the Smith Unit because it was one of the most devastated areas and also because it had been the best wheat-growing district in France; the government hoped to get the wheat fields back in working conditions in order to relief the current French bread shortage. Their mission would be to assist the civilians who had been devastated by the occupation and destructive retreat of the Germans.

In August, 1917, 17 volunteers -- representing 14 different graduating classes of Smith College -- sailed for France. While waiting in Paris, finalizing arrangements for their trip to Grécourt, they noticed that the men in Paris were either missing limbs or wearing military uniforms. Most of the women wore mourning clothes. A completely depressed attitude hung over the city and the general attitude of the Parisians was that it was just a matter of time before Germany won the war; that America had joined too late.

Six of the initial 17 unit members reached Grécourt in September, settled themselves into what remained of the old chateau, and got to work. They visited families in the various destroyed villages, listened to their sad stories of dead and lost sons and daughters, helping the villagers build temporary housing while distributing food, clothing, and furniture, some of it provided by outside sources and some of it what they had personally gathered...

Quoted excerpts from The Ladies of Grécourt.

More on the Smith College Relief Unit: 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Madeline Zabriskie Doty and the German Spies

Madeline Zabrisky Doty during the war
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
When Madeleine visited a friend at the American embassy in Berlin, he warned her to leave, that her presence would make trouble for them at the embassy. "I shall...break no rules, cause no trouble," she replied, "but I'm in search of the truth, and as a free American citizen I mean to talk to every one I can from the Kaiser to Liebknecht [a vocal peace activist and cofounder, after the war, with Rosa Luxemburg, of the German Communist party]. Her friend, joking that he thought the Kaiser would be safer than Karl Liebknecht, warned her again that she would be watched constantly.

He was right. "The funny thing about German spies," Madeleine wrote, "is that they dress for the part. They are as unmistakable as Sherlock Holmes. They nearly always wear gray clothes, a soft gray hat, are pale-faced, shifty-eyed, smooth-shaven, or have only a slight moustache, and carry canes."

One night, Madeleine and a new companion, a German woman who was a Social Democrat, gave the spies a chase all through Berlin. "We jumped from one car to another. It proved an exciting game. Once we went up to a gray-clad man, and asked him if he wasn't tired. But spies grow angry when spoken to. German officials have no sense of humor. If they had, I wonder if there would have been a war."
But constantly being followed eventually took its toll. Madeline wrote "I feel exactly as though I am in prison. I acquire the habit of looking out of the corner of my eye and over my shoulder. These spies are as annoying to their countrymen as to me. The people detest them. They grow restless under such suppression. Free conversation is impossible, except behind closed doors..."
Excerpt from "Madeline Zabrisky Doty: 'Germany is no place for a woman'" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Mary Roberts Rinehart: Mystery Writer in No-Man's-Land

Mary Roberts Rinehart in 1915
Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers, 1831-1970,
SC 1958.03
Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh
"After passing an area where there had been extremely heavy fighting and where a major was now posted, flat on his stomach, with a machine gun pointed toward the German lines, the journalists and their hosts came to the most dangerous part of the trip. They were to walk straight out into no-man's-land upon a slippery four-foot-wide path made of sandbags, covered with twigs, that rose out of the midst of the water.

Their destination was the 'shaking, rocking' tower of a ruined church, now being used as a Belgian observation post, 400 yards from the Belgian front lines and only 600 feet away from the Germans. The journalists had been given only one warning: 'If a fusee goes up, stand perfectly still. If you move they will fire.' But the Germans wouldn't need a fusee to see them that night; the moon was very bright. Mary suddenly regretted her decision to wear a khaki-colored coat. 'I shone like a star,' she recorded in her diary. She felt that 'a thousand rifles' were 'picking her out.'

After a moment's fearful hesitation Mary stepped out onto the pathway and walked out to the tower..."
Excerpt from "Mary Roberts Rinehart: Mystery Writer on the Western Front" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Henriette Moriamé, the British soldiers, and the German Hussars

Henriette Moriamé
Courtesy of Vincent Boez

"Louise's friend and neighbor Henriette Moriamé brought the six wounded British soldiers to her large home while Louise busied herself finding food for them in the deserted village while watching for signs of the impending German invasion. German airplanes flew back and forth over the village while a troop of German cavalry could be seen from a distance on the top of the hill, approaching into the valley village. Finally, at noon, a regiment of Death's Head Hussars -- a particular branch of the German cavalry -- entered the village in triumph..."
"When the Germans saw the British uniforms that the women had washed and spread on the lawn to dry in front of Henriette's home, they demanded entrance..."

Excerpt from "Louise Thuliez: Because I am a Frenchwoman" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Emilienne Moreau: grieving but undefeated

Emilienne began to receive a series of awards and medals from key people in the British military and government, including King George: she had suddenly became a living symbol of the French-British alliance. But she had also become a symbol of hope for the French, who were overwhelmed by the enormous number of French soldiers who had been killed by this point. When the French newspapers published photographs of Emilienne winning the Military Cross while dressed in black (in mourning for her brother), it was as if she were suddenly representing all the women of France: grieving yet undefeated...
Excerpt from "Emilienne Moreau: The Teen Who Became a National Symbol" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Emilienne Moreau takes note of German defenses

Emilienne noticed Loos children playing in the rubble every day, obviously not attending school—without teachers and with few children remaining in the town, the schools were closed. She began to teach some of them in one of the village’s abandoned homes. Because there was so little fuel to keep them warm, Emilienne and her students would regularly visit the slag heaps of coal pit number 15. During each trip, while collecting remnants of coal, Emilienne would make a mental note of German defenses—such as nests of machine guns—on the coal pit. She realized that if the Allies returned Loos might become an area of intense fighting. 

She was right...

Excerpt from "Emilienne Moreau: The Teen Who Became a National Symbol" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lieutenant Ecaterina Teodoroiu and the Romanian army

Ecaterina Teodoroiu
Courtesy of the National Military Museum, Bucharest, Romania
During the spring of 1917, the Romanian military leadership took serious steps to reorganize and retrain its remaining forces. Ecaterina took advantage of all the training available to her, eager to prove herself worthy of her new rank. Now the commander of a troop, she was given the authority to instruct other soldiers, often substituting for her own commander when he wasn’t available to teach.

            The Romanian army emerged from its period of reorganization ready to fight more effectively. Their subsequent victory during the Battle of Mărăşti greatly surprised the Germans and Austrians and gave the Romanian army a new sense of confidence as they prepared for another battle, one that would be fought at Mărăşeşti. As the units in Ecaterina's division -- kept in reserve until the final days of the battle -- marched towards Mărăşeşti, they were impatient to face the enemy...

Excerpt from "Ecaterina Teodoroiu: Lieutenant Girl" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Civilian Ecaterina Teodoroiu helps Romanian defenses

Bridge over the Jiu River, 1916
Courtesy of the National Military Museum, Bucharest, Romania
At nine o’clock that morning, the Germans had reached the bridge over the Jiu River that led into Târgu Jiu. There were only 150 Romanian soldiers in the local garrison, not nearly enough to repel the Germans. Reinforcements were promised, but time was running out. The Germans were getting closer.

            Suddenly, civilians from Târgu Jiu appeared: old men, women, and children eager to defend their city, carrying whatever weapons they could find. “To Jiu! To the bridge!” they cried. “We must defend the bridge! We will not let the enemy enter our town!”

            Many who witnessed the fierce civilian defense of the bridge that day were especially impressed with the city’s women and girls, who, despite the obvious danger, fired weapons, transported ammunition, and tended the wounded. One eyewitness noticed in particular a young woman who was guiding some Romanian troops to the bridge. Then she joined the other scouts—her orders and encouragements heard amidst the roar of the guns—who were taking an enthusiastic and active role in the defense of the bridge, firing weapons on the enemy. The young woman's name was Ecaterina Teodoriou.

Excerpt from "Ecaterina Teodoriou: Lieutenant Girl" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Flora Sandes: British woman, Serbian soldier

Flora Sandes
On the snowy night of November 15, 1916, a British woman in a Serbian army uniform found a spot on the slope of a steep, mountainous incline where she could sleep for the night. The Serbians were in the process of pushing the Bulgarians back from this corner of Serbia, which the Bulgarians had seized a year before. But the Bulgarians still had control of two strongholds, one of them at the top of this peak. The woman was waiting below with the rest of her regiment, approximately 500 men. It had totaled 2,000 only three months before...

            She and the rest of the regiment were suddenly awakened at dawn by the sound of rifle fire and the very audible voices of Bulgarians shouting “Hourra! Hourra!” A group of them were driving a different regiment of Serbs down the mountain. Flora and the men with her charged up to attack whoever had been left to guard the top.

            Suddenly, out of the mist, Bulgarians appeared directly in front of Flora and the rest of the regiment. The Bulgarians ducked behind some rocks and threw grenades into the midst of the Serbs. Flora suddenly felt as if a house had fallen on her. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t get up. She was conscious that the rest of the regiment was retreating...
Excerpts from "Flora Sandes: 'Remember You're a Soldier' " from Women Heroes of World War I.

American Journalst Bessie Beatty interviews members of the Women's Battalion of Death

Bessie Beatty in Russia (from The Red Heart of Russia).
Members of the Women's Battalion of Death
One American war correspondent, Bessie Beatty, stayed with the women in their barracks for a week while they awaited their orders to the front. She asked some why they had joined the Battalion of Death. Beatty discovered that many of them had joined because they felt that their country’s very existence was at stake and that “nothing but a great human sacrifice could save” it. Some were trying to escape personal issues: “My reasons are so many that I would rather not tell them,” one of them told Beatty. Others had lost their entire families in the war: “What else is left for me?” asked one Cossack girl. Two of the women had been Red Cross nurses and had seen too many Russians die at the hands of the Germans; they felt it would be tragic for Russia to be defeated after so much loss.
Excerpt from "Maria Bochkareva and the Women's Battalion of Death" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Maria Bochkareva: Recruiting speech for the Women's Battalion of Death

Maria Bochkareva
“Men and women citizens! Our mother is perishing. Our mother is Russia. I want to help save her. I want women whose hearts are loyal, whose souls are pure, whose aims are high. With such women setting an example of self-sacrifice you men will realize your duty in this grave hour! Women, do you know what I have called you here for? Do you realize clearly the task lying ahead of you? Do you know what war is? War! Look into your hearts, examine your souls and see if you can stand the great test.”

One of Maria Bochkareva's recruiting speeches, included in "Maria Bochkareva and the Women's Battalion of Death" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Women's Battalion of Death charges the enemy lines

Members of the Battalion of Death during a physical drill

"On July 9, the 525th Regiment of the Russian army crouched in the trenches. Looking across 800 feet of no-man’s-land, they could see movement in the German trenches. They were awaiting orders to charge. Their mission? To capture specific territory held by the enemy in the forests of Novospasskii and Begushinskii along with some nearby villages. The regiment had waited through a tense night. At three o’clock in the morning, the order to advance finally came. But no one moved. The officers begged their men to act, but they refused. The debate between the officers and their men dragged on for hours, but nothing was decided. The ideal time for an attack was quickly passing.

Suddenly a large group of women in soldier’s uniform, accompanied by 75 male officers and 300 fighting men, leapt from the Russian trenches and charged toward the German line, all of them running straight into a hail of enemy bullets..."

Opening paragraphs from "Maria Bochkareva and the Women's Battalion of Death" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shirley Millard: American Nurse in France

American nurses on their way to France
Copyright Steve Hooper
...When Shirley and the unit arrived in France, they were told they were to be rushed to an emergency hospital that had been set up quickly close to the French defense line on the grounds of a chateau. “We are all thrilled to have such luck,” Shirley wrote in her diary. “Real war at last.” They arrived just as darkness was beginning to fall. Covering the grounds of the chateau, outside the hospital barracks, were what appeared to be sleeping men. Shirley soon discovered that these were the wounded who had been transported from the battle and left alone on the grounds until someone could help them or, in many instances, discover whether they were alive or dead. Many of these men had already been waiting for hours—often, days—on the battlefield and received only whatever simple treatment could be given to them in rudimentary dressing stations directly behind the trenches. They had to wait there until nightfall when it would be safer to drive to better-equipped hospitals like the one Shirley had been assigned to.

            She never forgot the first moment she entered the hospital barracks and went on duty: “Inside, all was confusion, disorder and excitement. Only dim flickers from candles illumined the chaos. Nurses, doctors, orderlies, beds everywhere; yet not nearly enough to take care of the influx of wounded.

            “Stretcher bearers perspired under their loads until the aisles of every ward were packed. And still the grounds outside were full to overflowing. In the darkness under the trees orderlies stumbled about, giving a hurried drink to parched lips that had cried for water for twenty-four hours."
Excerpt from "Shirley Millard: Nurse Armed with Enthusiasm" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Lady Helena Gleichen: British Radiographer on the Italian Front

It was November 1916. The Italians had already lost tens of thousands of men during their battles with the Austrians along the Isonzo River, the main area of the Italian front. But the recent sixth Battle of the Isonzo—otherwise known as the Battle of Gorizia—had been different. Although just as costly as the previous battles in terms of the loss of Italian lives, this conflict had provided the surviving Italians with an enormous boost in morale: they had finally been able to take Gorizia, a city within the border of Austria-Hungary that was home to many ethnic Italians. Capturing this territory was part of the reason the Italians had entered the war.

            The enormous number of Italian casualties from that battle had kept radiographers Lady Helena Gleichen and Nina Hollings frantically busy as they tried to assist the surgeons in locating deadly pieces of metal embedded within the bodies of wounded men.

            But the fighting continued, so the women were still working hard several months later as they attempted to cross the Isonzo River on their way to a hospital on the other side. They were stopped by Carabinieri (Italian police) who told them that the bridge was being shelled and was too dangerous to cross. As the women waited in their transport, chatting with others who were also waiting by the riverbank, an orderly suddenly came running through the crowd shouting: “Badly wounded men at the head of the bridge—is there an ambulance?” Someone needed to be willing to turn around and take the wounded men away from the river to the nearest field hospital.

            The women turned to the ambulance driver standing next to them. He shook his head: his transport was already full. There were no other suitable transports available in the crowd except for the women’s car. Without further hesitation, they quickly emptied it of their precious X-ray equipment, asking a soldier to watch over it while they were gone. The shells headed for the bridge were increasing. Nina went to see if she could help with another wounded man waiting near the river as Helena tried to turn their car around. She managed to do so just as eight wounded men—two of them serious “stretcher cases”—were shoved into the back of the car.

            Racing through the twisted road back into Gorizia, Helena and the wounded passed some men on mules and horses who shouted, “You can’t pass this way! The road is being shelled!” But one of the seriously wounded men was bleeding so badly he would die if he didn’t receive immediate medical care. What could Helena do?

Opening paragraphs from "Helena Gleichen: X-Ray Expert on the Italian Front" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Olive King, her ambulance, and the Bulgarians

Olive King and her ambulance
Australian War Memorial P0 1352.002 
Olive’s unit eventually erected a field tent hospital close to enemy lines in Gevgeli, a town on the border of Greece and Serbia. The hospital had 300 beds but was treating nearly 700 patients. Olive and the other staff members worked for 16 to 20 hours a day in difficult conditions, including short rations and freezing weather. One day the unit received an urgent message: Bulgarian troops, who had a reputation for brutality, were headed in their direction. The Bulgarians had just pushed back a corps of French and British soldiers and the Serbian army, which the medics had come to support, was retreating from its own country. Thirty women, assisted by 40 Royal Engineers (who had been stranded in the area), were given less than 24 frantic hours’ notice to dismantle the entire hospital unit before the area would be overrun by the enemy.

            While 13 French ambulance drivers who had been supporting the hospital decided to take a slow retreat down a rickety trek, most of the staff and patients were able to evacuate aboard the trains that were leaving Gevgeli. Olive and two other female drivers didn’t join them; they couldn’t bear to leave their cars to the Bulgarians or to destroy them to prevent this from happening. Trains that clearly had room enough for the ambulances pulled into the station, one after another, but the women were always told that while there was room for them, there was no room for their ambulances. Finally, the last train leaving Gevgeli pulled into the station. The Bulgarians were now less than half a mile away...

Excerpt from Olive King: "Adventurous Ambulance Driver" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Elsie Inglis: Awaiting the Enemy

Dr. Elsie Inglis refused to retreat. Not this time. She was in Kruševac, Serbia, at one of the hospitals she had created. She had recently been persuaded to leave critically ill patients during a retreat, and although they had been left in the hands of a competent Serbian doctor, Elsie’s decision still haunted her.

            Now, she witnessed the final retreat that would be forever after known in Serbia as the Great Retreat. The promised help from Serbia’s allies was clearly not going to come. There was no longer any hope of holding the country from its enemies, who were now invading landlocked Serbia from all of its borders but the southwestern one. The Serbian army was about to do the only thing left: take a dangerous winter journey on foot with the few supplies they could muster through the Albanian mountains to the southwest. Many civilians, including staff from Elsie’s hospital, accompanied them.

            On November 6, 1915, Elsie and the others who had chosen to remain in the hospital in Kruševac felt a great explosion. It shattered the windows in the hospital and in the house where the medical staff lived. A train loaded with ammunition had been blown up by the retreating Serbs, who couldn’t take it with them across the mountains, to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy. The Germans retaliated by bombarding the retreating Serbians. The Germans would be in Kruševac the following day. Dr. Elsie Inglis was determined to be there when they arrived. . .
Opening paragraphs from "Elsie Inglis: Surgeon and Hospital Founder" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Louise de Bettignies: A Message for British Intelligence

Louise de Bettignies in 1905
Beginning in August 1914, streams of French and Belgian refugees who had managed to escape the German invasion began to flood into Great Britain. But they weren’t the only ones landing on British soil. German spies often tried to mix in with the refugees. In order to weed them out, the British government quickly set up a system whereby, on first entering the country, refugees had to answer a series of questions from a panel of British officers and officials. They were not only attempting to prevent German spies from entering the country, they also wanted to know what was happening in the German-occupied areas.

One day, early in 1915, a petite woman in her late 30s was on a boat approaching Folkestone, a frequent entry point on the coast of England. Though she understood the importance of the process that would await her there, she was concerned that it might slow her down, and she had a desperately urgent message to deliver.

She had been roused out of bed at 11:00 pm the night before by a man with terrible news. A French family had learned, through a German officer they had been forced to house, that the Germans were digging tunnels under a portion of the British trenches, which they planned to fill with explosives.

The woman immediately left Lille for England. She traveled all night across Belgium and made the dangerous crossing into the neutral Netherlands, where she was able to radio a warning message to British intelligence. But just to make sure it had been received, she boarded a boat bound for England.

When the ship arrived and the woman stepped onto the pontoon boat that connected to the shore, she was greeted by an English officer. He knew who she was and why she was there. “Madame,” he said, “before your foot touches the ground, please accept the congratulations and the thanks of the British army that you have saved!” The British army had received the message, and the German plan had been thwarted.

The woman's name was Louise de Bettignies.

Opening paragraphs from "Louise de Bettignies: Intelligence Organizer Extraordinaire" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Martha Cnockaert: Belgian Spy

Marthe Cnockaert in 1914
In the autumn of 1915, around midnight, Marthe was walking as usual toward Number 63. She had a message to deliver: 1,000 German troops were all staying under one roof, at the Rousselaere brewery. She was just about to tap on the window when she heard footsteps behind her. Had she been followed? Perhaps it was another agent who used the same “mail bag” as she. Hiding back in the shadows, Marthe watched a dark form approach the window and heard a familiar series of taps. A hand reached from inside into the darkness. Suddenly, the shadowy figure pulled something from its belt and a gun was fired toward the outstretched hand. There was a sob, a scream, and then a thud. The dark figure opened the window higher and crawled inside. Marthe quickly slid past the window and reached her bedroom 10 minutes later, in a trembling sweat.
Excerpt from "Martha Cnockaert: Nurse for the Germans, Spy for the Belgians" from Women Heroes of World War I

Gabrielle Petit: Feisty Belgian Patriot

On August 2, 1915, after training in England, Gabrielle was ready. Her alias was to be “Miss Legrand.” Her “letter box”—the person to whom she would drop off her collected information—was Mrs. Collet-Sauvage. Gabrielle would be responsible for reporting the size, location, type, and movements of enemy troops, trains, and munitions along with road conditions and bridge widths, primarily in the area of her native city of Tournai, in south central Belgium. She also distributed copies of the illegal underground newspaper La Libre Belgique (“Free Belgium”) and assisted Belgians who were trying to leave the country.

Traveling from place to place, Gabrielle often changed her appearance in order to collect information. Her frequent job changes earlier in her life now served her well as she disguised herself as a door-to-door hat saleswoman, a newspaper seller, a beggar, a fisherman, a nanny, a barmaid, and a bakery delivery woman.

She took notes regarding her observations on very thin paper with corrosive invisible ink, which she delivered to her letter box, Mrs. Collet-Sauvage. Special couriers would then visit Mrs. Collet-Sauvage periodically and make sure that the British got the information.

Gabrielle had found her calling, apparently what she had been born to do. “At no time was I happier,” she wrote to members of her family. Not only did she love the sense of adventure she received from her activities but working as an agent had filled her with a new patriotism. “My country!” she wrote in a letter, “I did not think enough of it, I almost ignored it. I did not see that I loved her. But since they torment her, the monsters, I see her everywhere. I breathe her in the streets of the city, in the shadow of our palace . . . she lives in me, I live in her. I will die for her singing.”

Excerpt from "Gabrielle Petit: Feisty Patriot" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Emilienne Moreau: The rescue station and the Germans

The Moreau home was quickly transformed into a makeshift rescue and first aid station. The doctor in charge taught Emilienne how to clean and bandage wounds. She sometimes also helped severely wounded Scottish soldiers reach the rescue station.

On the following day Emilienne saw some German soldiers enter the cellar of the house that was directly opposite the Moreau house. Then she saw them take aim through the bars of the cellar window. Their target? A visibly wounded Scottish soldier who was struggling toward the Moreau rescue station. Emilienne became enraged...

Emilienne Moreau and the Battle of Loos

It was October 1915. Neither the Germans nor the British and French had gained a significant advantage over the other on the Western Front. Military leaders on both sides of the gridlock tried to create the plan, a "Big Push" that would lead to a decisive victory and end the war.

None of these leaders realized that a teenage girl would be forever associated with a battle that would emerge from one of these plans. The name of that girl was Emilienne Moreau.
Emilienne had been 16 years old when the Germans invaded France in August 1914...

Friday, January 31, 2014

Louise Thuliez: The Germans arrive

Louise Thuliez
Courtesy of Vincent Boez

"On the night of July 31, 1915, Louise was in Brussels at the home of Philippe Baucq, a Belgian architect heavily involved in resistance with whom Louise had begun working a few months earlier. She had been staying in the city but as they had much to discuss, Philippe invited her to stay the night with his family. She called at the Baucq household at 10:45 p.m. The whole family -- including two girls, ages 11 and 14 -- was busy folding freshly printed copies of the illegal underground newspaper La Libre Belgique.

At about 11:30, Mrs. Baucq showed Louise to her upstairs room. Meanwhile, Philippe opened the door to let his dog out. Louise suddenly heard it barking furiously. A group of men was shouting. It was the Germans!"

Excerpt from "Because I am a Frenchwoman" from Women Heroes of World War I.

Louise Thuliez: in grave danger

Louise Thuliez
Courtesy of Vincent Boez

Although each rescue operation was slightly different, Louise and Henriette eventually established a somewhat regular routine: the first step was to gain the trust of the French villagers who were hiding the British soldiers from the Germans. This was not always easy. Once some villagers, convinced the women were responsible for the arrest of some hidden British soldiers, dug two graves for them, determined to kill them when they saw them next...

Excerpt from: "Because I am a Frenchwoman" from Women Heroes of World War I