How difficult it is to pick just ten of the inspirational women I have come across since beginning this project almost two years ago. I could go on and on - but here is an initial list. I'd love to hear from you about your Top Ten.
1. MAY SINCLAIR – BRITISH (1863 – 1946) Writer and poet. Aged 51 in 1914, May volunteered to go to France with Dr Hector Monro and his Ambulance Unit as his secretary. Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were also in the unit. May was only able to stay for six weeks before she was sent home suffering from shell shock but she wrote about her experiences, telling the world what the early weeks of the war were like. Elsie and Mairi remained in Belgium for the duration of the war, nursing the wounded.
2. Beatrix BRICE MILLER - BRITISH (1877 – 1959) – poet. went with the British Expeditionery Force in August 1914 as a Lady Helper. Lady Helpers were not trained nurses but willing volunteers who were able to help out in many ways.
3. Lise RISCHARD from LUXEMBOURG (died 1940). An ordinary, middle-aged housewife, Lise travelled from Luxembourg via Switzerland to visit her son before he was sent to the Front to fight. While she was in Paris, Lise was recruited as a secret agent by the British and did some very valuable work informing the British about to movements of German troops during WW1.
4. Edith CAVELL – BRITISH (1865 – 1915). Trained as a nurse and was working in a hospital in Brussels in Belgium when WW1 broke out. Edith organized escape routes for British soldiers after the Battle of Mons. She was arrested, imprisoned, tried and shot as a traitor on 12th October 1915.
5. Flora SANDES – BRITISH (1876 - 1956) The daughter of a clergyman who lived in East Anglia, Flora volunteered to go to Serbia with the St. John’s Ambulance. While there she joined the Serbian Army, fought, was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and was wounded.
6. Nellie SPINDLER (1891 – 1917) – BRITISH. Nurse from Wakefield in Yorkshire. Joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service. Killed at the 44th Casualty Clearing Station in Brandhoek, near Ypres on 21st August 1917 when the area was shelled. Nellie is buried at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery near Poperinge in Belgium.
7. Dr Flora MURRAY – (1869 – 1923) BRITSH. Trained as a doctor, which was not easy in those days as women were not popular as medical students. Founded the Women’s Hospital for Children in 1912. In 1914 ran a military hospital for the French in Claridges Hotel in Paris. From May 1915 until the end of 1919 Flora ran the Endell Street Military Hospital in London for the British – a hospital staffed entirely by women, including the porters.
8. MARY RITER HAMILTON (1873 – 1954) CANADIAN. Artist. Travelled to the Western Front in May 1919 to paint the Aftermath. Lived alone for three years in a tin hut among the Chinese Workers who cleared away the mess left by the conflict. Mary painted the scenes of desolation. She lost the sight of one eye and became ill due to the privations of the area – the residents had fled or been evacuated, there was very little to eat, the water table had become contaminated early on in the war and there were bands of thieves and bounty hunters. Mary’s amazing paintings are now in the Canadian National Archives but some of them can be seen here: www.collectionscanada.gc.ca
9. MOINA BELLE MICHAEL - AMERICAN (1869 – 1944) “The Poppy Lady” Moina was a teacher from Georgia. During the First World War she worked in New York training YMCA volunteers who were going to serve abroad. Inspired by reading Canadian soldier John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”, Moina wrote a poem herself called “We shall keep the Faith” and vowed always to wear a poppy in remembrance of the War. Her idea was picked up and spread by fellow YMCA workers at a conference in Paris and in 1919 the British Legion adopted the poppy as its emblem.
10. Marie MARVINGT – FRENCH (1875 – 1963) As she grew up, Marie became an accomplished athlete – swimming, fencing, shooting, speed skating, horse riding, skiing, athletics, boxing, tennis, golf – whatever she tried she excelled at. In 1901, Marie tried ballooning and went solo in 1909. She then tried flying in a plane, liked it and decided to study flying. She was the second woman to be licensed to fly a monoplane. During WW1, Marie flew missions as a bomber pilot. She was also a qualified nurse and tried to establish a flying ambulance service. Marie disguised herself as a man and served at the Front as a soldier with the 42nd Battalion of Foot Soldiers but she was discovered and sent home. In 1915, Marie’s campaign for an air ambulance seems to have borne fruit for during the retreat of the French Army from Serbia, a group of wounded men were evacuated by plane – this is believed to be the first instance of an aircraft being used as an air ambulance. Marie finished the war as a Red Cross nurse, still campaigning for the idea of “aeromedical evacuation’.