WOMEN IN PUBLIC SERVICE: 16 STORIES OF REMARKABLE FIRST WORLD WAR WOMEN

by Tara Finn, Historian, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Women have always worked. The idea that women did not participate in the labour market prior to
the First World War is a modern fallacy. At the turn of the twentieth century 32 per cent of British
women were in paid employment.

The First World War is commonly considered to be the turning point for women’s work. Ultimately, although there were shifts in how women were employed, many of the changes were temporary. This article looks at 16 women who worked in public service during the period of the First World War.

1. Countess Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

In 1916 in Ireland, the suspension of Home Rule until after the war was still a contentious issue.  Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) played an active part (second in Command at St Stephen’s Green) in the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Uprising.

Those who fought at the Green only surrendered when they were shown the surrender order signed by the leader of the Easter insurrection, Patrick Pearse. Ironically, the British officer Captain Wheeler who accepted their surrender, was her distant relative.

The Countess was not the only women arrested after the rebellion but she was the only one court-martialled or held in solitary confinement.  When brought before the court martial she was sentenced to death, although she did not regret her actions.  The officer commanding the court martial procedure, General Maxwell commuted her sentence to life in prison because she was female. She was released from prison in 1917 as part of a general amnesty.

In 1918, she was jailed for her part in anti-conscription activities. While in prison, she stood successfully as a candidate for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, making history as the first female MP to be elected to the House of Commons. She refused to take up her seat however, because it meant swearing an oath of allegiance to the king.

Watch film footage of Countess Markievicz (from a French language newsreel), filmed during the East Clare by-election of Mary 1917, issued at the time of her arrest on 17 May 1918.

2. Dame Nellie Robinson (1880 – 1972)

Dame Georgina Ellen Robinson, popularly known as ‘Nellie’ was born in Antigua and is better known for her lifetime work as an educator.  However, during the First World War she made an important, but lesser known contribution.  During the war she was the only black woman on the Mobilization Committee in Antigua, which encouraged local men to join the war effort.

As well as donating goods, many of the islands of the West Indies contributed men to the war effort, balancing local needs – including self-defence – with those of the war effort.  Many men travelled at their own expense to Britain and Canada to enlist.  The manpower contribution of Antigua and Barbuda for the British West Indies Regiment was 104 troops and 6 officers.

In her role on the Mobilization Committee, Dame Nellie Robinson also successfully campaigned for better living conditions for the recruits taking the long sea voyage across the Atlantic to Britain, in ships which had frequently had to be adapted for military purposes.

3. Elzira Dantas Machado (1865-1942)

In 1916 Elzira Dantas Machado (the wife of the President of the Republic at the time, Bernardino Machado) along with Ana de Castro Osório founded the association ‘Cruzada das Mulheres Portuguesas’ (the Portuguese Women’s Crusade). The organisation supported Portuguese soldiers in France and in the African colonies and their families.

One strand of their work was supporting prisoners of war held in Germany. The members collected clothes, tobacco, newspapers and books. The PWC also assisted families in organising the packages to send to prisoners (often packages would not reach their destination if not packaged correctly and according to the requirements) as well as helping the families financially. From 1917 to 1918 around 7,000 Portuguese soldiers were taken prisoner by the German Army.  Portuguese women worked with the Red Cross to keep a record of the Portuguese prisoners of war (the Red Cross was one of the few institutions allowed to have direct contact with prisoners).

In 1917, after Machado had been president for only two years, the government was overthrown by a military coup. The president and his wife, along with their 19 children, were forced to flee abroad to France, where their daughter Maria Francisca died from the 1918 flu pandemic.

4. Ettie Rout (1877-1936)

During the Gallipoli campaign, Ettie established the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood and invited women of 30 – 50 to travel to Egypt to look after the soldiers.   On arrival she was immediately concerned by the high rate of venereal disease amongst the soldiers.  Official estimates held the proportion of troops who contracted VD as 20% but it was thought it could be double.

Ettie regarded the disease as a medical problem rather than a moral one.  She recommended the issue of free prophylactic kits and the inspection of brothels.  She created a prophylactic kit containing calomel ointment, condoms and potassium permanganate crystals which she sold to soldiers at the NZ Medical Club.

Ettie Rout, safe sex campaigner. Image Source: Archives New Zealand (Reference: WA 10/3/2, ZMR 1/1/40)

When her attempts to get brothels inspected were not adopted, she took on this role herself.  In Paris she became a one-woman sexual welfare service for soldiers. As troop trains arrived from the front, Ettie would stand on the platform, greeting soldiers with a kiss on the cheek providing details of brothels that she had personally inspected. Ultimately her suggestion was adopted of distributing the prophylactic kits freely to NZ soldiers going on leave from the end of 1917.

For her work, the French awarded her the Reconnaissance Française medal.

5. Hilda Sikora (1889–1974)

The daughter of an Austrian explorer, Hilda Sikora was born in 1889 in Madagascar. She had no formal schooling, but through self-teaching reached a high level of entomological competence.

She was employed from 1915 as an illustrator and draughtswoman of arthropod anatomy at the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg (Germany). Because of the recent recognition of the louse as the vector of typhus Stanislaus von Prowazek suggested that she study the anatomy and biology of body and head lice, about which only little was known. She soon became a leading expert in this field and published a beautifully illustrated monograph.

This was an important time for the research of typhus, as although it had recently been found that lice were the vector for typhus (and relapsing fever) although the cure was still unknown at this stage.  During the war, deaths through typhus were significant, particularly on the Eastern Front.  She continued her work on typhus in the post-war years, during which she caught typhus herself.

6. Käthe Kollwitz (1867 –1945)

Käthe Kollwitz was an established artist by the start of the First World War, working through the mediums of etchings, drawing and lithographs, largely in black and white.  But she is best known for her art during and influenced by the First World War.  At the beginning of the war she had patriotically supported Germany’s war effort, but in October 1914 her son Peter died on the battlefield.  His mother fell into a deep depression, particularly as she had actively supported her son’s enlistment.  She started to make plans for a monument to him and his comrades, but rejected her work, only resuming it again in 1925.

The Grieving Parents (Image Source – Visit Flanders)

The experience of her loss changed her perspective on the war.  This was reflected in her art, although she felt that she stagnated.  Many of her pictures during the war were of women in mourning (in effect reflecting her own state).  She found herself personally unable to produce more positive images during the war.

One of her most famous pieces of work, The Grieving Parents, the memorial to Peter, is situated in Vladslo German War Cemetery.

In Germany, countless squares and streets as well as more than 40 schools are named after Kollwitz.

7. Laura Gamble (1887 – date unknown)

Laura Gamble graduated as a nurse from the University of Toronto in 1910. She enlisted as a nurse in May 1915 with the No. 4 Canadian General Hospital, organized by the University of Toronto. During the war, Laura served most of her time aboard a medical ship in the Mediterranean, in Malta and Salonica, as one of over 3,000 nurses who served with the Canadian Army Medical Corp.  Laura was sent to England and then to France, where she served for a period of time with the No. 5 Canadian General Hospital.

Laura Gamble (right) and a colleague, during the First World War. Library and Archives Canada, MG30-E510.

Canada did not send military troops to the Mediterranean, but provided five medical units that served under harsh, challenging conditions. The close proximity of casualty clearing stations to the fighting was not without risk.  Medical ships were also vulnerable to attack.  More generally, many of the conditions that nurses treated during the war were ones for which their training would not have prepared them, such as gas gangrene.

She was awarded the Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class medal, for her show of “greatest possible tact and extreme devotion to duty’’ as well the Victory Medal in 1920 for her distinguished service during the war in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to recognise Canadian nurses.

8. Mme Elisabeth Rischard (1868 –1940)

Madame Rischard was a quiet, seemingly-unremarkable middle-aged housewife from Luxembourg.  However, in the final nine months of the war she operated a spy network for the British Intelligence Service.  In 1916 in Paris, when trapped because of international border closures she spent months learning and mastering a complex code.  This would enable her to pass on information about German troops movements in Luxembourg to the British Intelligence Office.

Because many German troops being deployed to the Western front were based in Luxembourg her spies (railway workers) were able to observe the soldiers, their weaponry and equipment and ascertain their destination.  This information was valuable for the Allied forces to make better estimates of German plans.  The information was then coded and transmitted to the British Intelligence.

Smuggled back into Luxembourg in early 1918, Mme Rischard recruited her husband, Dr Camille Rischard, to help her establish a network of Luxembourg railway workers to gather relevant information for her to encode. Through a convoluted route of newspapers, agricultural journals, cross border travel and a Jesuit priest the information was delivered to France.  After the war, Mme Rischard received a British CBE, and the French Croix de Guerre.

9. Margaret ‘Damer’ Dawson* (1873-1920)

*(not to be confused with Margaret Dawson prisoner)

In 1914 Damer Dawson was concerned about the vulnerability of women (particularly refugees) to prostitution. Answering a call for volunteer police officers, to fill-in for enlisted men, she joined forces with Nina Boyle, to encourage women to volunteer  although Boyle resigned over a disagreement about the role of the women.. The Women Police Volunteers, as they were called  patrolled the streets of London.

Their role was  enforcing the Defence of the Realm Act and in particular to enforce a curfew on women to prevent prostitution (venereal disease was a major concern). In August 1915 the first woman police constable was appointed in England with full power of arrest, although the same rights were not true for most of the volunteers, who were assisted by policemen in this regard.

As Commandant, Dawson instigated training for women in giving evidence at court and introduced motorcycles and sidecars for transporting senior staff when the male equivalents were sometimes using horse and cart.

Like many women’s groups it was disbanded at the end of the war but it was the first uniformed women’s police service. Dawson’s request to have her volunteers made into police officers was refused. She awarded the OBE in 1918.

10. Maria Plozner Mentil (1884-1916)

During the war, over 2000 women aged between 12 and 60 from the Carnia Region in North East Italy volunteered to act as “portatrici” or “female supply bearers”, carrying supplies to the Italian front line.  From August 1915 to October 1917 they risked their lives every day marching for hours between the depots and the front line, carrying 30-40 kilos of supplies – ammunition, food, medical supplies and equipment – on their backs.  One of them, Maria Plozner Mentil, lost her life while doing so, at the age of 32; she was hit by a bullet in February 1916 and died of her wounds.

The “portatrici” carried their loads in cone-shaped baskets with leather shoulder straps; this basket is the symbol of female labour in Carnia. For each trip they made they were paid 1.5 lira – the equivalent of  around €4 or just over £3 today. They were all decorated with the Knighthood of Vittorio Veneto.  Maria was the only one to be killed. In 1997 the Italian President Luigi Scalfaro, taking her as the symbol of all the “portatrici” of World War I, awarded her a posthumous gold medal for military valour, presenting the medal to her daughter Dorina.

11. Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Polish by birth, French by marriage, Marie Curie had already twice been awarded the Noble Prize by the outbreak of the First World War, most latterly for chemistry for her work on radiation in 1911.  When war commenced she realised that X-rays could be used to support battlefield surgery.  She raised the funds to build and equip a series of 20 mobile radiography units (dubbed ‘petit Curies’).

As director of the Red Cross Radiology Service she established France’s first military radiology centre, which became operational by late 1914 as well as a further 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war.  In her Red Cross role she trained medical orderlies and doctors in how to use the equipment as well as learning to drive and subsequently driving ambulances to the front line.

Marie Curie with her daughter, Irène, and other researchers in her laboratory at the Edith Cavell Hospital in 1914.

Marie Curie with her daughter, Irène, and other researchers in her laboratory at the Edith Cavell Hospital in 1914.

A further application of radium noted during the war was that radon, a gas emitted from radium, could sterilise diseased body tissue.  Using a technique pioneered elsewhere involving an electric pump, she filled glass tubes with radon, which were then sent to military and civilian hospitals.

It is estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated using her X-ray units.  Her exposure to radium during the war eventually contributed to her death.

12. Milunka Savić (1888 – 1973)

Milunka Savić fought in both the First and Second Balkan Wars disguised as a man.  After an injury revealed her sex, she applied to stay with the Serbian army and was accepted.

In the First World War Sergeant Savić served as commander of the Iron Regiment’s Assault Bomber Squad.  On several occasions she took 20 or more prisoners single-handedly. For these acts she was twice awarded the Karadjordje Star with Swords for outstanding bravery demonstrated in combat.

By autumn 1915 when enemy forces were overrunning Serbia, the Serbian Army evacuated as many civilians as they could and began a long, withdrawal through the snow to the coast. Milunka Savić was wounded many times during the retreat.

On reaching the coast she was one of just 125,000 soldiers left in the Serbian Army.

Serving in the Serbian Brigade of the French Army, Sergeant Savić continued commanding the Assault Bomber Squad, fought through the rest of the war. She received the French Legion d’Honneur twice and the Croix de Guerre, the Russian Cross of St. George, the British Medal of the Order of St. Michael, the Serbian Milos Obilic Medal.

Milunka Savić was the world’s most decorated female war hero.

13. Moina Michael (1869 – 1944)

In summer 1914 Moina Michael toured Europe.   Like many American tourists, on the commencement of war she found herself in a difficult position.  Working from the American Embassy in Rome with an American Committee to help the stranded tourists, in the first two weeks she helped collate information for over 12,000 Americans who wanted to return home.

After America had declared war in 1917 Moina applied to join the only line of service for which she was eligible — war work with the YMCA.

Moina trained with the sixteenth YWCA Conference but after completing her training course she was turned down for work overseas due to her age. However, she remained with the organization at the training headquarters

It was while working for the YMCA, just before the Armistice that Moina, inspired by the John McRae poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, conceived of the idea for the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.  She made a personal pledge to ‘keep the faith with those who had died’ through wearing a poppy. Others quickly noticed her wearing it and asked to buy them.  After the war she tirelessly campaigned for the symbol to be adopted and to raise money for war veterans.

14. Princess Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya (1889 – 1920)

During the years after the first flight across the Channel in 1909, flying became fashionable among the young nobility including a number of female pilots.

Princess Eugenie’s interest in aviation started following a trip to Germany in 1911 when she paid for her own flying lessons.  She trained with the Wright Company, and received her licence in 1912.  After an accident in April 1913 when her instructor died she vowed never to fly again.

Russian Princess Schaikowski [and] Aviator Abramowitsch. Image Source Library of Congress LC-B2- 2712-6 [P&P]

However, she resumed flying in spring 1914 and when the First World War broke out volunteered as a military pilot.  In November 1914, she served as a junior officer in the Russian Air Force.  She was posted to the North Western Front where she joined the 1st Field Air Detachment as a reconnaissance pilot.  There are few reliable details but there is a reference to her aircraft being struck by gunshots on one reconnaissance mission, and she herself wounded.  She received the Military Order of St George from the Tsar.

Princess Eugenie was not the only female pilot to fly for Russia in the First World War, although she is considered to have been the first female military pilot.

15. Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938)

Born Princess Marie of Edinburgh, in Kent, UK, Queen Marie became Romanian through marriage in 1892 to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, heir apparent of King Carol I.  In October 1914 the King died, leaving Marie and Ferdinand in a difficult position with the recent commencement of war.  Ferdinand wanted to maintain Romania’s neutrality, but Marie wanted Romania to join the Allies.

Queen Marie tending to a patient.

When Romania entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1916, Marie set up a hospital in the grounds of the Royal Palace and acted as a nurse in this and other hospitals, and other places up to front line trenches through the typhus epidemic.  In the same year her youngest child died of typhoid, and she turned her grief more towards the war effort.

When in December 1917, Romania surrendered and a pro-German government was installed, Marie refused to flee for England but remained in Romania, under bombing.  Queen Marie’s actions during the war earned her the nicknames “Mama răniților” (Mother of the Wounded) and “Regina- soldat” (The Soldier-Queen).

A popular figure in Romania, it was said that she effectively ran the country during the war.  Afterwards she represented Romania’s interests during the Versailles discussions, leading the delegation of Romanian statesmen in the negotiations.

16. Rosika Schwimmer (1877 – 1948)

Rosika Schwimmer was living in London when the First World War began.  As well as being a feminist activist, Schwimmer was an ardent pacifist. When the European countries declared war, she devoted her energies to opposing it and urging for a peaceful settlement. She proposed that the neutral nations should to formulate a plan for mediation. Shortly after the war began, she travelled to the United States and met with President Woodrow Wilson, attempting (unsuccessfully) to convince the US to sponsor a neutral mediation conference.

Schwimmer spent the early war years in the US, travelling the country as a lecturer and political activist.  While promoting suffrage, she continued to decry the war.  In 1915, Schwimmer helped to create the Women’s Peace Party, becoming the organization’s international secretary.  At The Hague Congress of Women held that year, Schwimmer convinced the conference to send representatives to meet with leaders of both neutral and belligerent nations to encourage peaceful mediation.

Her attempts to promote mediation initiatives continued through the war, despite personal attacks by the media.

With special thanks

With thanks to Tara Finn, Historian, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for the text of this article.