Born Phoebe Sarah Marks, Hertha changed her first name as a teenager and later married a respected physicist and electrical engineer. The third of eight children, Hertha’s father died before the last of his children was born and Hertha took many jobs to help support her family; from selling embroidery to teaching.
During the Great War Hertha invented the Ayrton fan to clear poison gas from trenches -104,000 fans were issued to British troops on the Western Front. Hertha was the first female to be elected a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the first woman to win a prize from the Royal Society. Nevertheless as a woman Hertha experienced discrimination throughout her life and career. She did not receive a degree from Cambridge University which issued only certificates to women. Hertha’s research into motion ripples in sand and water and into the electric arc led her to be proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902 but as a married woman without legal status she was rejected.
Hertha supported the women’s suffrage movement and helped form the United Suffragists. Whilst she did not live to see equal franchise between men and women, Hertha was able to support her daughter’s political career and Barbara Bodichon Ayrton-Gould later became a member of parliament for the Labour Party.
Louise de Bettignies
Louise de Bettignes was a French woman employed by the British army to gather information on the German army who had overrun her home town of Lille in 1914. Louise built a network of some eighty agents and operated under the name Alice Dubois, receiving the Croix de Guerre on 20th April 1916. Louise was captured whilst travelling to Holland in order to convey intelligence to the British. She was interrogated by Stoëber – the German prosecutor responsible for Edith Cavell’s execution – and sentenced to death. Louise’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment due to the intervention of the Spanish embassy at the request of her family’s connections. Whilst in Siegburg prison, Louise refused to follow instructions and was placed in solitary confinement where she developed pleurisy. Louise died in the prison on 27th September 1918 weeks before the end of the Great War.
Louise de Bettignies was posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur on 7th October 1918 and the British Military Medal. She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Renowned for her memoir ‘Testament of Youth’ about her experiences during the First World War, Vera Brittain worked as a V.A.D. nurse during the war and studied English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford. Vera’s brother and fiancé both died in their early twenties during the First World War and her poem ‘Perhaps’ is dedicated to her fiancé Roland Aubrey Leighton. ‘Perhaps’ places desperate loss and suffering alongside the fragility of hope.
Whilst researching individual women I was drawn to the stories of women footballers such as Lily Parr, Jennie Morgan and Bella Raey. Collectively, women footballers of the Great War had a phenomenal impact on the lives of their communities and their country. When the FA suspended men’s football teams from competing in 1915 it was women who kept the sport alive. Encouraged to play during breaks by factory owners to build morale, women munitionettes’ teams organised fundraising matches. These women footballers raised thousands (millions in today’s money) for POW and soldier’s charities, only for women’s football to be banned by the FA for an incredible fifty years (1921 -1971).
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were keen motorcyclists before the war, happy to get their hands dirty and repair engines. They met in Dorset and volunteered to join Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps, attached to the Belgian army medical corps working as ambulance drivers
Elsie was an orphan and was reported in the Bournemouth Echo as a daring motorcyclist competing in time trials alongside men. Mairi’s family moved to Dorset from Scotland. Her father was proud of her boyish skills but her mother thought she would be ruined for marriage.
The two women set up a first aid post in Pervijse, part of a small area of Belgium still controlled by Belgian troops and right on the front line, in order to treat soldiers for shock and internal bleeding before moving them to a field hospital. They were twice shelled out and forced to move their post within the village and they were eventually gassed out of Pervijze by the German spring offensive of 1918.
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were made Knights of the Order of Leopold II. They were awarded the Military Medal by King George V for ‘gallantry in the field’ and received the Honorary Association Cross of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
I began my research with Dorothy Lawrence after theatre maker Lizzie Crarer (‘Over the Top: The true-life tale of Dorothy Lawrence’ created by The Heroine Project Presents) generously shared her research with me. Aged seventeen years and an orphan when the war broke out, Dorothy Lawrence wished to pursue a career as a journalist and war correspondent. ‘I’ll see what an ordinary English girl without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents cannot get out there I’ll see whether I cannot go one better than these big men with their cars, credentials, and money’ wrote Dorothy.
Dorothy travelled from England to Albert, on the Western Front, by bicycle (an investment which cost £2 of her precious savings). Once in France Dorothy managed to procure pieces of the uniform from soldiers and dressed as Private Dennis /Denis Smith. In this guise Dorothy spent 10 days and 10 nights sleeping amongst ruins and cabbage patches and washing in dirty water. Illness forced Dorothy to give herself up, in order to protect her helpers. In contrast to this picture of a courageous and adventurous teenager, Dorothy could be found some seven years after the war in Hanwell Asylum, where she remained for almost forty years without a single visitor. Through my song ‘Who will Remember?’ I aim directly to confront the rejection of this spirited woman who perhaps stood little chance of finding a place in a patriarchal post-war society.
A visit to Priddy’s Hard (now part of the Explosion! museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyards) inspired me to further research the army of women workers who joined the war effort. Women’s increased involvement in making munitions came at a time the British Army was disastrously short of artillery. The British government legislated to gain greater involvement in the output of munitions factories, driving the price of munitions down. As a result factory owners were keen to employ women who traditionally worked for lower wages and the policies of substitution and dilution prevented women from becoming skilled labourers (i.e. they broke jobs down into the most basic tasks so women remained unskilled). Women organised and joined trade unions bringing a huge shift in attitudes towards women’s labour. Despite these giant steps forward, many women gave up their jobs in favour of men after the Great War.
The One Million Surplus Women
Following the end of the Great War there was speculation, exacerbated by the British press, about the numbers of women who would be left without a husband and the opportunity to establish a family. After trawling through some contemporary newspapers dated 1915 -1924 I decided to write a drinking song to challenge the view that these women were redundant.
The chorus is based on a phrase I read in Winifred Holtby’s novel ‘South Riding’ whose character Sarah Burton is a so-called surplus woman. Throwing herself headlong into her new role as the Headmistress of a girl’s school and resigning herself to the life of a single woman Sarah tells herself, ‘I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.’
A visit to Hampshire Record Office led me to Ada Yorke (née Hind), where I found a newspaper
cutting of Ada Yorke alongside her son Captain Harold Yorke. Ada had wanted to be a doctor but as a woman this opportunity was not available to her. Although underage, Ada trained as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, against her father’s wishes. In 1883 Florence Nightingale invited Ada to become Senior Sister of the Army Nursing Service in the Sudan War. At the start of the Great War Ada lectured for the British Red Cross and the War Office appointed her Staff Matron-in-Chief of the Southern Command of the British Army. Ada Hind was awarded the Royal Red Cross for exceptional services in military nursing in 1883 and Matron Ada Hind Yorke subsequently received a bar to her Royal Red Cross on 3rd July 1918, for her extensive services in the Great War. Her son Captain Harold Yorke from the Royal Army Medical Corps received the Military Cross. The images of female nurses are often presented as the face of women of the Great War and yet Ada’s story reminds me just how courageous each of these individuals were. Whilst in today’s world, one hundred years after the Great War, Ada may have trained as a doctor, she nevertheless tirelessly placed her talents and skills at the service of others in the way she was able.