Far from being relegated to the home, women played an active and varied role during the First World War. From combatant roles on the front lines to saving lives in hospitals, these women not only faced the difficulties of the war, but the additional challenge of gender bias. In light of 100 years since the Armistice, TF commemorates the achievements of these women’s war work. Whether they were a soldier, photographer, union campaigner, spy, or radiographer- we say thank you.
Viktoria Savs: Female Soldier
Desperate to enlist, German-born Viktoria Savs signed up with the Austro-Hungarian army, disguising herself as a man. Using the name Viktor, she enlisted with her father in 1915. She was just 17 when she asked to be transferred to Italian Front. Highly skilled on skis (crucial in the snowy Alps), she was notorious for putting herself in front line danger. It was during one of these volunteering missions in 1917 that she stood her biggest test. Climbing up a sheer rock face to deliver a message, Savs was hit by an exploding grenade. This dislodged a boulder, crushing her leg and leaving her foot dangling. She passed out whilst trying to amputate her own limb with a knife (seriously). It was only when she made it to hospital that her biological sex was revealed and she was promptly expelled from the military. Despite recently having her leg amputated, she continued her war service in the Austrian Red Cross; the very definition of dedication to duty.
Florence Farmborough: Front Line Photographer
Florence was working as a tutor in Russia when the First World War broke out. She quickly trained as Red Cross nurse. She then joined the Imperial Russian Army as a surgical nurse, working across the front lines in Galicia, Poland and Romania. Alongside her nursing duties, she worked as a war correspondent for the BBC and The Times, acting as photographer, journalist and diarist. Carrying her heavy camera equipment and developing plates through the dangerous trenches, Florence was in a unique position to record the war. She took graphic photos of the dead on both sides as well as the wasteland left behind. There were no official female photographers during the war and so Florence’s willingness to brave machine gun fire to capture her experiences in the trenches offer a truly extraordinary perspective.
Mary Macarthur: Women’s Work Campaigner
Mary Macarthur was campaigning long before the First World War, setting up the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906, a union which all working women could join. During the First World War, women were brought in to fill jobs which were traditionally held by men. However, despite working long hours in dangerous conditions, their level of pay was not matched with that of the men (classic). The NFWW organised strikes and sit-in protests in munitions factories to highlight poor working conditions and campaign for better wages. In Newcastle, the workers refused to operate the machinery, opting instead to knit socks for soldiers, until the wage gap was resolved. The result? A terse telephone conversation between Winston Churchill (then Minister for Munitions) and Mary Macarthur. 24 hours later the wages were paid. Women’s wage equality 1, Churchill 0. From the home front, Mary Macarthur offered working women in the First World War organisation, a voice and a solution.
Marthe Cnockaert: Spy
Recruited by an old friend following the destruction of her village in Belgium, Marthe became a spy for the British. Her hospital work in the German-occupied village of Roeselare was the perfect cover. In reality, she listened to her German patients and customers at her parents’ cafe, relaying messages between the Allies and the Belgian resistance fighters. Her cover story was so efficient that she was even recruited by the Germans in 1916, becoming a double agent but remaining loyal to the British. She began undertaking even riskier tasks, culminating in blowing up a German ammunition store. The mission ultimately failed and her watch, which was engraved with her initials, was found on the spot and used to condemn her to death. However, the German forces had previously awarded her the Iron Cross for her genuine medical devotion to their soldiers, and as such, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment (which ended with the war in 1918). Unusually decorated by all sides and undertaking undeniably dangerous missions, with no training or experience, her intelligence-gathering skills rightly became the stuff of novels.
Nina Hollings: Radiographer
Nina’s wartime service stemmed from tragedy. Her son was killed in 1915 and in tribute to him, she travelled out to France in the same year, driving ambulances and bringing back the wounded. Encouraged by a visiting surgeon, Nina then went to Paris to study the relatively new science of radiography. After 6 months she left with a 1st class certificate, undertook more training in London, and finally, after an extensive fundraising effort, was able to purchase mobile x-ray equipment. She was ready. Rejected by the British War Office because she was a women, and facing problematic French attempts to commandeer her equipment, Nina was not immediately successful. Finally, she was accepted by the Italians, making her way to the Italian Front in December 1915. Undertaking over 17,000 x-rays over a two year period, Nina Hollings, along with her friend Helena Gleichen, became Joint Commandants of the only x-ray unit run by women during the First World War. The Duke of Aosta was proud to note ‘we employ who and what we can for our wounded regardless of whether they wear trousers or petticoats.’