War correspondent recalls the achievements of the Great War women – Kate Adie at Swindon Festival of Literature

13 May

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Ask anyone to name a woman associated with the battlefield and you’ll get one of three answers – Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, or former BBC chief news correspondent Kate Adie – a veteran of Tiananmen Square, the first Gulf War, and the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Apt, then, that Kate has written a book about the women of the first world war. It’s called Fighting on the Home Front, but if the title suggests that women never made it across the Channel, let alone to the front line, then that’s far from the truth – as the author will explain later.

Feisty and passionate, Kate sets the scene by talking about war generally, and what we know about it from TV coverage.

“A great deal of TV coverage is about ‘outgoing fire’: it looks spectacular; men running around with guns. There’s a lot of focus on tactics, and strategy, and weaponry.

“But in modern wars like Syria or Ukraine, the pictures are not of two armies facing off across the battlefield, but of people standing in the rubble of their own houses.

“Modern war encompasses everyone whether they like it or not.”

The Great War, she argues, was the first since the Civil War that touched the whole nation, because it was a war being fought at home, not thousands of miles away – especially when German battleships shelled Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby killing 137 women and children.

Kate picks up a familiar story: The men going off to fight, the women picking up the slack. But she adds some new perspective.

The first war propaganda was aimed at men – Your Country Needs You – but as the initial enthusiasm waned, posters were targeted at women – and specifically mums: ‘I’m Proud of You My Boy,” and “Women of Britain Say Go.’

But Kate is determined to focus on the hypocrisy of a society that was critical of middle class women (the lower classes always worked, so didn’t count) who took on a ‘man’s job’.

There was outrage when a woman got a job as a ‘conductoress’ on the Glasgow trams, because ascending the stairs to collect fares it might be possible to glimpse an ankle below her floor-length skirt.

And with attitudes like that, imagine the outrage when women in tough manual jobs – like cleaning the insides of the boilers of steam locomotives at Swindon – abandoned the skirt all together, in favour of trousers.

It’s a ludicrous story that Kate spins – a country that is happy to send its menfolk to the trenches, but cannot contemplate the thought of its womenfolk showing the shape of their leg.

The prejudice was worse for the women who wanted to cross the Channel to Belgium or France to help the war effort, but go they did.

In a written exchange – discovered by Kate during her research – between the founders of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and the top brass of the British Army, the generals were horrified of the thought that women may adopt officer ranks. “You can’t have men saluting women!” one exclaimed.

So, the war changed everything and nothing for women. They stopped wearing corsets – the Ministry needed the metal – and skirt lengths rose to halfway up the calf. They even got the vote, eventually. But not until they were 30.

On the other hand, when the men came home they took their old jobs back.

Meanwhile, Kate celebrates one of the First World War’s greatest heroines, while downplaying her own bravery on the field of battle.

“I first heard of Flora Sandes [the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier, who joined as a St John’s Ambulance volunteer, enrolled in the Serbian Army, and ultimately reached the rank of captain] when I was lying on the floor of a house in the Balkans, under heavy shell fire,” says Kate, matter-of-factly.

“The house next to us blew up, and my Serbian interpreter said ‘You will be brave; all the women of your country are brave, like Flora Sandes – your most famous woman. Every Serbian school child learns about her’.

As the British government finally moves towards allowing women to serve in direct combat on the front line, it seems we have a duty to mark and celebrate the courage and effort of women – at home and on the front line – who helped Britain win the war in 1918. Kate Adie’s book may go someway to redressing the balance.

Words by Peter Davison. Photos by Calyx Pictures.

2 Responses to “War correspondent recalls the achievements of the Great War women – Kate Adie at Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Swindon Sports | Kate Adie talks in Swindon about women in the Great War - 30th Nov 2014

    […] A precis of the report at the Swindon Festival of Literature Chronicle: […]

  2. Kate Adie talks in Swindon about women in the Great War | Swindon Link - 7th Apr 2015

    […] A precis of the report at the Swindon Festival of Literature Chronicle: […]

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