Thursday, 17 January 2013

Heroines of the Eastern Front


In Britain, we hear and see a great deal about the Western Front but the First World War was fought in many theatres.   Here are some of the inspirational women of the Eastern Front.

Ecaterina Teodoroiu - born Catalina Toderiou

Born 15th January 1894 -  3rd September 1917 - a Romanian woman who fought and died in World War One.

Ecaterina was about to become a teacher when Romania joined the war.   She joined the Romanian Army in 1916, first working as a nurse but, after her brother Nicolae, a Seargent in the Roumanian Army, was killed, she decided to fight.

Ecaterina was taken prisoner but managed to escape, killing several German soldiers as she did so.  Wounded in November 1916, she returned and was promoted to Second Lieutenant in command of 25 men.   Her bravery in action earned her the Military Virtrue Medal 1st Class.

On 3rd September 1917 Ecaterina was killed at the Battle of Maraseti.


Milunka Savic

Born 1888 in the Kingdom of Serbia - died 5th October 1973, Belgrade, Yugoslavia

When her brother was served with his call-up papers for the Second Balcan War in 1913, Milunka elected to take his place.    She cut her hair, wore men's clothes and fought bravely, receiving a medal and promotion for her bravery.   She was wounded and only then was her subterfuge discovered. 

During the First World War, Milunka earned medals from France, Britain, Serbia and Russia for her bravery.
After the War, Milunka turned down an offer to go and live in France and receive a French pension in recognition of her contribution.   

During the Second World War she was imprisoned by the Germans in Bajinca Concentration Camp for ten months.    After the War she adopted three orphaned children.    Her bravery was finally recognised in the 1970s when she was awarded a pension and an apartment by the Belgrade City Assembly.  She died in 1973 and there is a street in Belgrade named after her.

Flora Sandes
(1976 - 1956)

Born 22nd January 1876 in Yorkshire, the daughter of Samuel Sandes, Rector of Whitchurch, County Cork and Sophia Julia  (nee Bresnard).   The family moved to East Anglia when Flora was nine years old.  Flora was educated at home by a governess.  She was a tomboy and learnt to drive, driving an old French sports car.

Flora worked as a Secretary but in her spare time she trained with the Female Nursing Yeomanry, studying First Aid. When WW1 broke out, Flora volunteered to nurse but was turned down because she was not qualified.
However, she joined a St. Johns Ambulance unit raised by American Archaelogist Mabel Grouitch (nee Dunlap), who had met and married a Serbian during a dig in Greece. and organised a group of British women to travel to Serbia in August 1914 to help with the situation on the Eastern Front.   

There, Flora joined the Serbian Red Cross and was assigned to an ambulance with a unit of the Second Infanctry Regiment of the Serbian Army.   Flora became separated from her nursing unit as the Serbian Army retreated from Albania and for safety enrolled in the Serbian Army as an ordinary soldier.  She was the only British woman to do this.  She was soon promoted to the rank of Corporal and fought bravely.  She was wounded during the Serbian advance on Bitola. For her bravery, Flora was awarded the Order of the Karadorde's Star and promoted to Sergeant Major.

Flora published her life story ("And English woman-sergeant in the Serbian Army ") and sold this to raise funds for the Serbian Army.   Flora joined forces with Evelina Haverfield, a Scottish woman who joined Elsa inglis's Scottish Women's Hospitals group to nurse in Serbia, and who had also created the Women's Emergency Corps, in order to found the Hon. Evelina Haverfield and Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes' Fund for Promoting Comforts for Serbian Soldiers and Prisoners.

Due to her injuries, Flora was unable to continue fighting and instead ran a hospital.  At the end of the War, she became an officer.   Flora married a fellow officer and remained in Serbia.  During the Second World War, she was briefly interned by the Germans. 
After the death of her husband, Flora returned to live in England, where she died in 1956.  A recently-published book by Louise Miller - "A fine brother: the life of Flora Sandes", published by Alma Books - tells the story of Flora.

Inspirational Women of World War One

I knew through reading the life story of Edith Cavell and Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" about women who were nurses, VADs and FANYs;  Pat Barker's "Regeneration Trilogy" tells us about women who worked in munitions factories, and other books tell of other ways women contributed to the war effort during 1914 - 1918.

However, I recently discovered many more amazing women.   Among them Flora Sandes, a clergyman's daughter from Suffolk, who joined the Serbian Army, Elsa Inglis, a doctor from Scotland who set up and ran field hospitals in Serbia and Russia, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, two motor cycle mad girls who went to Belgium in 1914 and ran a field hospital there until the end of the war.

In other countries involved in the War, women joined the fighting forces and they also took to the skies flying planes.

One of the most astonishing women in my view is Mary Riter Hamilton, the Canadian artist who went to live in France in 1919 at the request of the Canadian War Amputees to paint the aftermath of WW1 on the Western Front, living in a tin hut among the Chinese workers who cleaned up the mess.   Mary lived there for three years in a tine hut and sacrificed her health to paint more than 300 views of what she saw.

This was an amazing achievement when you think that the water table was contaminated very early on during the War.  All the water needs for our troops had to be transported over the Channel and water had to be boiled before use.   So Mary would have had serious problems finding food - the local population began slowly to return to their homeland but it would have taken time to restore the fields to the state we see them today.  The Chinese workers would have had their work cut out to clear away the unexploded bombs, etc., barbed wire and so on that were left at the end of the conflict.

Added to the problems of finding food, were threats from marauding bands of thieves.   Mary wrote about her experiences and the newspapers of the time carried stories of her narrow escapes.

Mary's paintings are amazing and the experience affected her so deeply that she donated the paintings to the Canadian Archives and gave up painting, turning instead to textile design.  Some of those paintings can be viewed here: