The role of women in the War is largely associated with weeping, waiting and working: as wives, mothers and sweethearts; as factory, munitions and land workers (the United Kingdom used slogans like ‘National Service’ or ‘Women’s Land Army’ to encourage young women to join the work force); as nurses on the home front, red cross workers, VADs and WRNS who worked in all the Theatres of War. But military involvement, that’s something that doesn’t appear on the school curriculum.
Of course, women in the military have a history that extends over 4,000 years into the past, throughout a vast number of cultures and nations, from ancient warrior women to the women currently serving in conflicts, they have played many roles. Whilst military involvement in the First World War was rare it existed; below are some examples:
- Aviator Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya; (1889–1920) was the first woman to become a military pilot when she flew reconnaissance missions for the Czar in 1914.
- On March 17th 1917 Loretta Perfectus Walsh (1896 – 1925) became the first American active-duty Navy woman, and the first woman allowed to serve in any of the United States armed forces other than as a nurse, when she enlisted in the US Naval Reserve. She subsequently became the first woman Navy petty officer when she was sworn in as Chief Yeoman. By the end of the War America had sworn in 11,274 female Yeomen to the Navy on the same status as men.
- In 1917, in a last-ditch effort to inspire the mass of war-weary soldiers to continue fighting in World War, the Russian Provisional Government created fifteen formations of women-only ballalions. This included the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, commanded by Maria Bochkareva which were called into battle against the Germans during the Kerensky Offensive. The women performed well in combat, taking 200 prisoners and suffered few casualties.
- Flora Sandes (1876–1955) enlisted as a St John Ambulance volunteer and was stationed in Serbia to assist the humanitarian crisis where she joined the Serbian Red Cross in Kragujevac. Separated from her unit during the retreat into Albania, she joined a Serbian regiment for safety. Here she took up the rifle and became the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army and the only British woman to officially enlist as a soldier in World War I. In 1916 she was promoted to corporal then sergeant, and was wounded by an enemy grenade during hand-to-hand combat during the Serbian advance on Bitola (Monastir). Awarded the King George Star (Serbia’s highest decoration), she was then promoted sergeant-major, and eventually reached the station of captain.
To many, the idea of women in combat was abhorrent during the First World War, far removed from the picture of the ‘ideal woman’ as gentle, nurturing and pacifist. Summed up in a popular 1916 pamphlet allegedly written by A Little Mother which sold 75,000 copies in less than a week. The pamphlet stated women were ‘created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it’. Feminists also argued that ‘women were not warriors’ their job was not to ‘bear arms’ but ‘bear armies’. Engaging in combat would undermine the argument that it was not only those who fought for their nation (men) who a right to the ultimate gift of citizenship and right to vote.