Thursday, 17 January 2013

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:

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