The women who lived during the two world wars did more than just wait for the men to return from the frontline.
This International Women’s Day, we are remembering the sacrifices and hardships endured by those women, from nurses to the first female British Army officer and other honourable accomplishments.
Edith Cavell WW1
Edith Cavell was born in 1865 and after helping nurse her father when he was ill she was inspired to complete her nursing training. At the outbreak of war, she was working in a hospital in Belgium, where she remained and cared for wounded soldiers from both sides of the war.
To help the allied soldiers she looked after escape German capture she worked with others to smuggle them across the border to the neighbouring Holland (a neutral country). It is believed that by doing this she helped save the lives of 200 men.
The German officials became suspicious and arrested her for committing treason. After a trial, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Edith Cavell died by German firing squad on October 12, 1915.
Cavell Nurses’ Trust, a national fund, was set up in the UK in her memory to provide for the nurses who were,
“shattered mentally and physically, who have sought the health of others at the expense of their own.”
Flora Sandes WW1
This remarkable woman was born in 1876 and although she was rejected from being a nurse at the outbreak of war due to lack of qualifications, she did not let that stop her doing her bit. Instead, Flora joined St John Ambulance and found herself aiding a humanitarian crisis away from home in Serbia.
From there she joined the Serbian Red Cross and then eventually the Royal Serbian Army, making her the only official British woman to serve as a soldier during World War One. After the war, she was promoted from Sergeant Major to Captain and was decorated with seven medals for her service including the highest military medal of the Serbian Military the Order of the Karađorđe's Star.
Elsie Maud Inglis WW1
Elsie was a qualified surgeon, and like Flora Sandes, when war broke out in 1914 and she volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps, she was refused and told to go home. Again, like Flora, she did not let that stop her and set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals treating soldiers in Serbia and Russia.
Elsie was the first woman to receive the White Eagle, the highest Serbian honour. In 1917 Elsie and her staff were evacuated following the Russian Revolution. Sadly Elsie was only home for one day before she died from cancer.
Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville) WW2
Krystyna's bravery showed no bounds during her time as a spy. After demanding that the Secret Service take her on, she didn't disappoint. At one point, she found herself skiing out of Nazi-occupied Poland holding onto the first piece of evidence of the Nazi plans to invade Soviet Russia.
During the French liberation, Krystyna held a vital role as the first contact between the French Resistance and Italian Partisans. Part of her role involved single-handedly securing the defection of an important German Garrison.
Also known as Churchill’s favourite spy, Krystyna showed true valour during World War Two.
Girl Guides WW2
With their 'Be Prepared' attitude it is no wonder the Girl Guides were able to step up to the mark quickly when the Second World War began. Some of their tasks included:
- Helping members of the public correctly wear their gas masks
- Digging bomb shelters
- Cotton reels collected by Brownies were used by MI9 to hide secreted maps
- Fixing flat tyres on ambulances - with thanks to their cycling badge
- Assisting with the influx of evacuees in their local towns and villages
The Guide, a publication at the time described them as,
"quiet, friendly, smiling figures in blue."
A welcoming sight for those who had just travelled a long way, leaving behind their families and home lives.
Cover image - Air Historical Branch-RAF Credit: MoD/Crown copyright 1940