Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Women's Part in the War

From The Times, 15th December 1915.



The market-place of the village of —, not very far from the front in Picardy, is crowded.  Pine boards, placed on low saw-horses, serve as counters of the canvas-roofed booths.  They groan under the weight of the wares piled upon them.  Picture post-cards and woollen mittens, socks and mufflers, leather purses, old books, torn sheet-music, spectacles, and pince-nez, which range in price from 4d. to ls., fresh vegetables and butter, fish and meat, cut flowers and chocolate, fowl and game (live and dead) are being sold to eager buyers.  Not the usual clientele of peasant women, but bronzed- faced, steel-helmeted French troopers, turned housemaids, are busy buying the week's supply for the messes of the hundreds of battalions quartered in the neighbourhood.....


One corner of the market-place has become the centre of interest.  Out beyond the line of booths an old, wrinkle-faced peasant woman stands, holding a pair of fat ducks by the feet, one in each hand.  The birds wriggle and squawk, but she pays no attention to this: grasping them the more securely, she holds first one and then the other on high, that her customer, as well as the group of soldiers that has gathered, may inspect and admire the fine birds.  And the customer?  She is a khaki-clad, slim, young English girl.  Her skirt is short, her boots heavy and well-worn.  She has shoulder-straps on her Red Cross uniform, and her broad-brimmed felt hat shades a face tanned and burned by months of out-of-door life.  She is utterly unconscious of the crowd, and merely keeps on repeating to the duck woman, “Trop cher, trop cher.”  The woman bursts forth in an elegy of her ducks, in a French patois that sounds interesting, but is unintelligible.  “Trop cher” is the only reward she gets for her pains.  The young girl pulls a memorandum book out of her pocket, consults it, and then looks fixedly at the market-woman.  She evidently wants the ducks.  The woman remains obdurate.  Then the girl snaps close her notebook, and turns to go.  But the victory has been won.  The ducks are hers at her own price.  There is a murmur of admiration as the wriggling birds are borne off to the Red Cross motor-ambulance that stands waiting at the kerb.  The girl steps to the front of the car, cranks the heavy engine, jumps into her seat and in a moment is off, piloting her big motor ambulance through the confused traffic, across a narrow insecure temporary bridge.  “C’est chic, les Anglaises.” a bearded young veteran murmurs to a comrade, as the khaki-coloured car passes out of sight.


The participation of women in war tasks has in all countries been admirable.  The devotion of Frenchwomen in caring for the sick and wounded under the most difficult circumstances, even under heavy shell fire, has called forth justly merited praise.  But of all the belligerents Englishwomen alone have had an active share in the fighting, in that in so many cases they are doing a man’s work.  Hundreds of young Englishwomen have, for more than a year, been living close up to the front, working at men's tasks, with a skill and untiring cheerfulness that are astounding.

I was standing at the railway station of a village somewhere back of the French lines.  A trainload of wounded arrived.  A certain number of the wounded were allotted to the town.  They were removed from the train into a temporary waiting-room, and then to the ambulances.  I noticed that more than half of the stretcher bearers were women—Englishwomen— and the ambulances were driven by the same women.  The admiration of the French trooper for the amazon-like achievements of the Englishwomen knows no bounds.  Their own women are devoted, tender, and sympathetic nurses, but Les Anglaises are heroic.  A man who has been wounded three times during the war told me that the difference between a man and a woman driver of an ambulance was all to the credit of the latter.  “I would a thousand times rather be driven by a woman,” he said to me.  “They’ll look out for every pebble in the road, avoid every jolt, and it makes a difference, I can tell you, when you have got a bad pain in your body.”  As far as I can ascertain, Englishwomen are the only women in this war who have driven motor ambulances.  These services have been performed not only at British bases, but more particularly among the French.  Clad in fighting clothes, wherever there are fighting men there the Englishwoman is to be found.

Stretching across the rolling sand dunes of the north-east corner of France there are vast tent colonies, where for a year British women have been living under canvas, in all kinds of weather, nursing British wounded.  It is one thing to nurse the wounded in well-heated, comfortable hospitals, and another to live in a cramped, ill-heated, draughty tent, where one is obliged often to wade ankle-deep in mud to reach one's patients.


  1. I don't comment often, but read regularly. Thanks for sharing these.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mary Lou - pleased to hear you enjoy the posts.