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...