I’d like to welcome historian and author M.K. Tod to History With A Twist. Mary has a great blog A Writer of History, which I’ve been following for some time. Her World War I novel, Unravelled, has just hit the shelves. It is a story which I look forward to reading soon. Like me, Mary is fascinated by ordinary folk who encounter extraordinary circumstances in history, and here she reveals some stories for us…
I am grateful to David for the opportunity to share this post on History With A Twist.
While researching WWI for my writing, I have come across many stories of women who served with great distinction. A few stand out for their uniquely heroic efforts.
In 1914, the German army crossed the Aisne River and invaded Soissons. According to Frances Huard’s memoir, My Home in the Field of Mercy, “On August thirty-first, a Government decree ordered every valid man between the ages of fifteen and fifty to evacuate the city to escape capture by the oncoming German hordes.” When the German commander sought someone in authority, Madame Macherez, a woman over sixty, stepped forward.
Jeanne Macherez was “of medium height, portly in demeanour, with snow white hair and piercing blue eyes”. She was President of the Local Chapter of the Association des Dames Francaises – a war relief organization.
The Sydney Morning Herald of September 28, 1914, reported that the German officer demanded “70,000 kilos of oats, 70,000 kilos of hams, preserved meats, and sausages, and 20,000 kilos of tobacco and cigars” threatening to shoot the woman and her companion if these were not procured. “It would be just as easy for me to procure the moon and the stars for you,” Madame Macherez said, however, she was astute enough to offer a compromise. From that day Macherez “took charge of the police, the fire station, and the hospitals, and, aided by the Bishop of Soissons, ran the town.”
Macherez remained in Soissons, leading the Red Cross of that region, caring for the wounded and the sick during more than one thousand days of bombardment.
According to Jennie Churchill’s Women’s War Work, Marie Masson is another heroine.
The inhabitants of a small French village, all civilians, successfully resisted a German advance. When the enemy ultimately returned, they forced every citizen into the local church where a German officer announced that the village was to be punished. “A woman,” he said, “betrayed us by telling us there were no French troops in the place, whereas the houses must have been full of them; if she doesn’t confess we shall kill every inhabitant.”
Although villagers protested that no French poilus had been there, the Germans did not believe them. The officer then announced that he would kill one woman and one man as an example rather than the entire village.
Twenty-eight-year-old Marie Masson stepped forward. “There were no French in the houses, but here I am, take me, and do your worst.” German soldiers seized Marie Masson and a man, who was beside her, took them outside, stood them in front of a wall and, while the entire village watched, executed them.
Several women became soldiers during WWI: Maria Bockareva served with Russia’s “Women’s Battalion of Death; Mademoiselle Tomilovsky accompanied her father to the war and ultimately commanded a platoon; Milunka Savic dressed as a man and served in the Serbian army winning medals for her bravery.
Then there’s the story of Flora Sandes who, in August 1914, left England with thirty-six other nurses bound for Serbia. After eighteen months nursing in the most harrowing circumstances, she became attached to the 4th Company of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment under the command of Janachko Jovitch.
In Sandes’ memoir—An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army—she writes about her first action on Mount Chukus: “we did not need any trenches, as there were heaps of rocks for cover, and we laid behind them firing by volley. I had only a revolver and no rifle of my own at that time, but one of my comrades was quite satisfied to lend me his and curl himself up and smoke.”
Flora Sandes was promoted to sergeant in early 1916 and remained with the Serbian Army until the end of the war.
Beyond these few heroines are the hundreds of thousands of women who served in other capacities. Margaret Higonnet author of Women and World War I, writes that they “became clerks, coal porters, drivers of trains and tramways, journalists, munitions makers, nurses, policewomen.” They brought in the crops, brewed beer, tanned hides and did as many jobs as possible so that men could fight the war. On the front, women served as nurses and ambulance drivers risking their lives to care for the wounded and as members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Everywhere women served they made a difference.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon (US, Canada and elsewhere), Nook, Kobo, Google Play and soon on iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.