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Women in WWI

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The First World War started with a surge of enthusiasm and many men immediately volunteered to join up. Left behind, lonely or anxious, women looked to see what they could do to help. As soon as the war began in earnest women with time on their hands threw themselves into volunteering for appeals or organising groups to meet specific needs. Others were determined to take an active part in the war by enrolling with nursing groups such as the Voluntary Aid Detachment or the British Red Cross.

In the first months of World War I and throughout most of 1915, it was mainly the upper- and middle-class women of Britain who took to knitting socks, scarves and mittens or packing parcels of sweets and cigarettes for those at the front. Many women also volunteered to take on nursing roles in the hundreds of makeshift military hospitals that were set up in the country’s large empty houses or institutions.

As conscription began more and more women, including those from the working classes, took on not only the jobs that the men had left behind such as railway staff, bus drivers and delivery roles but also vital jobs in munitions and manufacturing.

In 1917, women on the home front worked hard to combat food shortages and to promote food economy campaigns. Many cost-price canteens were set up and people from all walks of life would eat the same food for perhaps the first time in modern history.

Some women wanted to be able to actually fight for their country, and there were several cases of female soldiers who enlisted in the British Army disguised as men in order to get to the front line. However, most women who went abroad had volunteered as front-line medical staff.

Working in what were often shocking conditions and with little or no medical equipment, volunteer nurses from all walks of life had to tend to the injured, assist with amputations and sit with the dying in their final hours. At major engagements such as the Battle of the Somme, where there were thousands of casualties, nurses had to enter the battlefield to rescue injured soldiers and get them to a field hospital. Makeshift ambulances were driven by women into impossible terrain, and lifesaving procedures were often carried out in appalling conditions.

Strong bonds were formed between many of these groups of women lasting well beyond the duration of the war. Their new-found freedom was symbolic of a change that was occurring in wider society: the suffragette movement was building and by 1914, although interrupted by the war, had become a huge force for bringing about equality. Women’s lives were forever changed by the war and their many roles in it.

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