Unsung women kept the wheels of the war machine turning

fighting-on-the-home-front

Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One
by Kate Adie

This is a book that needed to be written, and Kate Adie seems like a good choice for it – a journalist whose own career blazed a trail for women to follow, but who is nevertheless rarely if ever controversial, not radically feminist and famously matter of fact. And arguably that’s exactly the book you get: competently written, comprehensive and factual. But is it the book I was hoping for?

This is the story of British women in World War One, from encouraging men to enlist, to stepping up to fill men’s jobs left vacant, to political campaigns for the vote and equal pay, to supporting the armed forces on the battlefields. It was a time of radical change throughout the world, but for women in Britain especially so. Adie takes a different war-time role per chapter and looks at it overall (including pre-war history where relevant) as well as showcasing specific examples of women in that field. She acknowledges that most of these are upper or middle class women, because even war did not erode class boundaries and generally the women creating new charities and organisations, from knitting drives to army hospitals, were those who had money and social clout. However, she does also include excerpts from interviews with many women from lower down the social ladder who can testify as to the reality of work in munitions factories, felling trees, delivering post, driving trams and dozens of other roles previously male-only.

It’s certainly an interesting read, with plenty of fascinating snippets and some surprising facts. There was real resistance maintained to women filling certain roles right up to the end of the war (they could clean, build, engineer and signal trains but never drive them, for instance) but also to the way women dressed when they took on these jobs – skirts 10 inches above the ground, or even trousers! Adie has clear admiration for all these women, from the ambulance drivers who went to war zones without official permission because they knew they were needed, to the maids who joined the Women’s Land Army and worked long hard days in mud for little money because they knew there was a food shortage. She depicts the good and the bad – explosions in munitions factories and the beginnings of women’s football; women working longer hours for less pay than the men they replaced and their winning the (restricted) right to vote in early 1918.

“However vital the [munitions] work was, it wasn’t glamorous – it was hard, undertaken in unpleasant conditions, boring and relentless…The press were not inclined to print stories about the downside of this vast industry. Physical stress, unhealthy conditions and increasing arguments about wages from those who could see they were doing the same as men was not the image that was projected: these were fit, patriotic workers.”

Suffrage features heavily because most suffragettes and suffragists (previous to reading this book I had no idea there was a difference) abandoned, or appeared to abandon, their political campaigns in favour of helping the war effort. In some cases this was itself a political act – by exercising their skills of organisation, marketing and fundraising in a field no-one could disapprove of, they proved their capability, not to mention that many of the organisations created by suffragettes were formed wholly of women doing “men’s work”, or filling traditional women’s roles but in dangerous territory so that the armed forces didn’t need to “waste” able men feeding, cleaning uniforms for and providing first aid to their troops.

There were many victories won, small and large, by British women between 1914 and 1918, but many were only temporary. The post-war section of the book is fairly short, but in general women were kicked out of their new jobs, often at the worst possible time for them to lose their income, as men’s deaths and injuries resulting from war left many women as the principal wage earners for their household. I would have liked a few case studies here, for Adie to have followed up with some of the women interviewed earlier to see how their lives progressed.

“The time and energy spent in travelling, acquiring supplies, sorting, packing and transporting them abroad are hardly recorded. It represents the most enormous amount of daily effort by an unsung and huge amount of women…Garnering no medals and mostly ignored by the official historians, it was small beer compared to the horrifying statistics of the military campaign; but every last little bandage and bar of soap kept the wheels of the war machine turning.”

In fact, this would be my overriding criticism – the narrative descends into generalisation a little too often. I wanted more facts – how many women did this job before, during and after the war? – and more first-hand accounts. I also didn’t like all the subjects Adie chose to concentrate on. There’s a whole chapter about women’s struggle to be allowed to read in church, which actually formed an amusing anecdote in the speech Adie gave about this book in Bath last year, but didn’t really have the substance for a whole chapter, and as a result it was an especially woolly chapter. I suppose as a feminist and occasional radical myself, I wanted more of those trailblazing women – Flora Sandes who joined the Serbian army as a soldier, Louisa Garrett Anderson who qualified as a doctor and ran hospitals near the front line so that she could get to injured men early enough to operate. And I also would have liked some personal accounts of men’s reactions, rather than just what was published in the papers.

Adie throws in her own family history during the war, which is fine, but there is also a very obvious slant to her home town of Sunderland. At one point I wondered if she’d bothered to do research anywhere else! She also throws in her own experience as a war reporter, which is sometimes perfectly appropriate and sometimes jarring.

I think “uneven” would be my one-word summary, but even so this is a very readable, enlightening book about many many amazing women.

Published 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: I bought this at a Toppings author event in Bath.

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