‘It will be difficult,’ he replied. ‘But then you have youth and intelligence – two great assets that will not fail to cajole our enemies.’ A sly smile lit up his rather alert face as he said these words.
This extract is from the biography of Marthe Richer. It reveals a conversation between herself and Georges Ladoux, the Head of the French Military Intelligence, where Ladoux attempts to enlist her as an agent of espionage.
The source, included in Elizabeth Shipton’s new book Female Tommies: The Front Line Women of the First World War, paints a fascinating picture of the place of women in WW1 and its effect in transforming gender perceptions.
In Ladoux’s estimation, Richer’s skills, finesse and uniqueness as a woman in the forces was the key source of her persuasive power. It represented a genuine opportunity for empowerment.
This becomes clear from reading further into the chapter. The assets that Richer is being asked to draw upon – her aviation experience and “flawless German” – and her “astonishingly high spirited” “remarkably intelligent” character – are not performative or generic, they are her own.
Richer was being courted for work on the basis her own merits and individuality and because, rather than in spite of, her participation in a male dominated world. This is clear to see from the professional recommendation that Ladoux was sent by a French aviation official:
“After doing everything imaginable to organise a free corps of women aviators, and then to secure permission to fly her own machines, she has just applied to me for permission to enlist in a man’s clothes. And yet she is very much of a woman!”
Female Tommiesincludes a number of these strikingly modern, epoch defining accounts. Marking the WW1 centenary, the book investigates the military role of women in nations across the globe; seeking to give voice the brave women who defied convention to protect those less fortunate themselves.
One of the most interesting and surprising things that the book reveals is the breadth of roles that were undertaken by women. It’s often assumed that the female war effort was confined to nursing and manufacturing, but Shipton’s book shows us women doctors, mechanics, pilots, spies and even front-line soldiers.
A stand out chapter focuses on Flora Sandes, a British nurse who joined the Serbian Army and took up a place in the rear guard of the Iron Regiment as they retreated from the Bulgarian advance. Using quotations from Sandes’ memoirs, Shipton presents her journey from medic to frontline soldier as defined by a sense of duty to a people she loved and respected: “looking back, I seem to have just naturally drifted by successive stages from a nurse into a soldier.”
In Britain, unlike Serbia and Russia, women were not permitted to engage in frontline combat. However, in 1917, following years of debate and attempts by women to expand their wartime service through voluntary organisations, the war office at last permitted the formation of the Women’s Auxillary Corps. In an insightful final chapter, Shipton explains the significance of Women’s Services such as the WAAC, WRNS and WRAF (both of which were established the following year) in altering attitudes towards war work and women’s participation in the public sphere.
By enabling women to take up men’s jobs on the home front, these organisations helped render patriarchal arguments about women’s inferior capabilities redundant. Ultimately this had a decisive influence on the debate on women’s suffrage, contributing to the success of the parliamentary vote the following year.
For anyone interested in the study of conflict, Shipton’s book is a must-read. Through the diaries, memories and letters of women on the front line, we are offered an insight into an unknown, untold perspective on WW1 and the shifts in attitude that it helped to elicit.
It’s not often that we get to see through the eyes of the change makers. Female Tommies provides rare access to that vision; we couldn’t think of a better way to commemorate the women who fought, supported and scarified in service of our freedom.