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We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War Hardcover – 19 Nov 2014
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About the Author
Dr Vivien Newman, an expert on women's experiences during the First World War, works at the University of Essex. Dr Newman is also working on a collection of women's First World War poetry and a book on children's experiences during the conflict, both due to be published by Pen and Sword. She is a regular speaker at national conferences and for groups including the Women's Institute and the Western Front Association.
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Top customer reviews
Filled with well researched material, from all walks of life it looks at the way women featured in a war which is mainly remembered for its horrors and its men.
Did you know that the government propaganda effort to get men to sign up focused on women? Not only encouraging the "white feather" brigade but printing posters that implied that mothers, wives and sweet hearts were all fully behind the government call ups. They used them to shame men to sign up before conscription was brought in. Once the men were gone, women were encouraged to support them knitting desperately needed socks and other items too.
But many women also wanted to be useful and volunteered as nurses, yet there was a reluctance to accept anyone not seen as a "qualified" nurse and many women drummed up financial support them-selves and headed to the front with ambulances, supplies and determination.
Oversees women nurses were eventually called for when it became obvious the war was going to last much longer than expected, they came from particularly from Canada and Australia, many funding their own transport, uniform and travel.
I was fascinated to learn about the hospital trains and barges used to transport the injured men. And the horrific conditions the nurses had to work in. Then there were the home front women, those who worked in factories in dangerous jobs handling explosives and being exposed to chemicals which later caused them ill-health and even death.
This book is a tribute to the women who were proud to take up their own form of "arms" and serve their country, few received medals or recognition for their work and there was no pension or compensation or even job prospects at the end. I think the author did a great job of giving a voice to these war heroines.
As it happens, I have more than a passing interest in the subject and so already had a broad knowledge of the role of women during the Great War. Or so I thought. Newman doesn't just consider the role of nurses or ambulance drivers or munition workers – she considers them all and many others besides. The sheer scope of research alone that has gone into this book is to be admired. Newman takes on the task of exploring women's experience of war from August 4th 1914 right the way into the aftermath – and succeeds in telling a compelling story.
At the beginning of the war, women were not expected to play any role other than to persuade their menfolk to join up while they sat quietly at home, patriotically knitting socks. As the war progressed, expectations changed and Britain needed her womenfolk in a way she never had before. Nursing was the most obvious support role for women at the time, both professionally and, increasingly, as volunteers. Unlike the men who volunteered for the army however, those women who volunteered as nurses were expected to purchase their own uniforms and pay their own expenses. Newman considers a whole breadth of nursing experiences from hospital trains, hospital ships and barges to Casualty Clearing Stations and Field Hospitals encompassing the stories of nurses from across the British Empire.
I think the thing that sets We Also Served apart from other similar books is the many and varied first hand accounts, diary entries and memoir extracts that are deftly women throughout the text. I was particularly gripped by the account of Dorothy Lawrence who, after a dozen unsuccessful attempts to undertake some form of voluntary work, decided to pack herself off to France as a war-correspondent. Investing £2 in a bicycle, Dorothy cycled her way into the proscribed zone, where no civilians were allowed to enter, before disguising herself as a Tommy (Sapper Dennis Smith) to make it all the way to the Front Line.
Then there was the indomitable Flora Sandes. An unconventional middle-class rebel, Flora was a young woman with a reputation for smoking, drinking and being a crack shot with a service revolver. Initially joining the Red Cross, Flora went on to join the Serbian Army – as a woman – where she fought shoulder to shoulder with her male comrades and was promoted through the ranks.
Other accounts that moved me were those of Gabrielle Petit and Lady May Bradford. Gabrielle Petite was a young Belgian shop assistant whose endeavours as a spy for the Allies resulted in her facing death by firing squad – a duty that some of the German soldiers involved could simply not discharge. Fulfilling a very different role, Lady May Bradford wrote letters home on behalf of the young men, maimed and dying in hospital beds. Lady May had a way with words and managed to write letters that honestly, but gently, broke the very worst of news to anxious wives and mothers at home while providing succour to the men who were unable to write for themselves. So important was her work that in 1916 she was 'Mentioned in Despatches'.
There are far too many stories for me to do justice to here – you really need to read We Also Served for yourself. You won't be disappointed. Newman encompasses not just women's experience of war, but the human experience of war. Her writing is intuitive, informative and always absorbing; this is a book I will return to again and again.
Like many people, I had an image of women as nurses or handing out white feathers and I had certainly never realized the varied roles they played nor the battles they had to fight and the injustices they faced when they wanted ‘to do their bit’.
Dr Newman’s writing is engrossing and I turned each page eagerly, wanting to know more about the intriguing characters I met.
The illustrations are a joy too: cigarette cards, postcards, photos, all give a flavour of the times.
Whether you know a lot or only a little about World War 1, I would heartily recommend this book.