This Veterans Day, on the 100th anniversary of the Great War, spare a few minutes' thought for the many women who played a role in WWI — not only the wives, mothers, and daughters of combatants, but some very fierce ladies who went out and became war heroes on their own terms. These remarkable women battled prejudice as well as enemy soldiers for their place in history. After all, in 1914, the place of the woman was still firmly in the home, keeping the fires burning while waiting for the return (or not) of male soldiers. But these women got out, buckled up, and served their country.
Why don't we talk more about the Great War's heroines? It's not because what they did was less than heroic — there are some feats in here that may turn your stomach as well as bring a tear to your eye. It's because after the War To End All Wars, many of the female heroes, particularly those who'd done traditional "male" work like soldiering, got short shrift from their societies. As professor Alison Fell writes, "Women who had taken on men's roles during the war were subject to suspicion and sometimes to ridicule in peacetime." History let them fade to the background, and there, to some extent, they still stay.
If you've heard of Cavell, it might be because of her famous pronouncement about war: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anybody." But her story is one of the most famous of any to come out of the World War. A British nurse who ran a Belgian clinic, she saved many lives on both sides. She also managed to smuggle nearly 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers and military-age men out of Belgium, which was occupied by the Germans.
Lenah Higbee was the first female recipient of the navy's highest honor, the Navy Cross. A New Yorker, she founded the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps with 19 other nurses in 1908. The nurses would become known as the Sacred Twenty, the first nurses ever to serve in the U.S. Navy. (The navy was a bit wary of them at first; they thought that they might distract the male patients.)
Julia C. Stimson
Stimson was a military nurse too, but she went for the Army instead. She was also unstoppable: Born in Missouri, she volunteered for service in 1917, rapidly became superintendent of the entire American Army Nurse Corps in Europe, and was the first woman ever to become a Major in the U.S. Army.
Flora Sandes was the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in the trenches during World War I. How she got there is testament to a very determined character. A St John's Ambulance volunteer who'd once shot a man in self-defence, she went to Serbia to serve as a nurse; but when she was separated from her colleagues, she promptly joined the Serbian army as a soldier instead.
Dame Helen Charlotte Isabella Gwynne-Vaughan
Even if Dame Gwynne-Vaughan hadn't gone to war, she'd still be worthy of our attention for her contribution to botany: she was a pioneer in the study of fungi genetics. Aside from poking mushrooms (and being named the head of the University of London's Botany Department in 1909, staggeringly enough), she was brought in to lead the Woman's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1917.
Dr. Elsie Inglis
Elsie Inglis was famously told by a Royal Army Medical Corps officer, when she proposed the first-ever female-run war hospitals at the beginning of the Great War, "My good lady, go home and sit still." Fortunately, Dr. Inglis had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
Thuliez was a French counterpart to Edith Cavell, helped her with her plots, and was tried on the same occasion, only narrowly escaping execution through the intervention of the Pope and the King of Spain (yes, really). Her survival is amazing, considering that she was one of the most prominent resistance figures in France during the war.
Cnockaert was one of the most influential female spies of the World War. Born in Belgium, she earned an Iron Cross from the Germans for her work in a military hospital in her village when they invaded her town. Soon, though, she was working as a spy for the British, passing on information to the allies (and, for a short time, pretending to be a double agent to get the Germans off her trail).
Bochkareva was the leader of the Russian Battalion of Death, a woman-only group of 300 soldiers who fought on the Russian Western Front. Bochkareva herself had obtained Tsar Nicholas II's special permission to join the army, and earned three medals of distinction for bravery under fire. She led the Battalion of Death in one major battle, but was wounded, effectively ending her military career.
Evelina Haverfield was a suffragette — but she was also a prominent nurse, and devoted much of her life to helping those who were injured and suffering on the Serbian front. The daughter of a Scottish Baron, the upper-class Haverfield joined the suffragette cause in London and was arrested three times, once for hitting a policeman. When war broke out, though, Haverfield founded the Women's Emergency Corps to help the war effort in England, and promptly left for Serbia to help Elsie Inglis at her war hospital.
Images: Wikimedia Commons.