The unheard voices of World War One

By Rebecca Winson

This year sees the centenary of the First World War, which began in July 1914. A hundred years on, when we think of writing from the Great War we think of Flanders Fields and of Anthems for Doomed Youth. We think of trenchfoot and mud; of men in khaki sat pouring their hearts into tattered notebooks by the light of shellfire.

We think of all of that because it happened. Because it’s right to remember, and because it’s right to pay respect. But society’s idea of war literature is not respectful. It ignores a whole bloody swathe of it.

When we read about the war, we don’t read women.

Oh, we know about them alright: how they took up the roles left behind by men and gained the vote as a result. We talk about how wonderful that was for them all the time. What we don’t talk about is how hard it was: how they still came up against sexism, ending up doing twice the work but with half of the respect. How propaganda, when it mentioned them, relied on sexist tropes: girls simpering over soldiers, mothers bravely packing off chivalric sons.

It’s this that’s partly responsible for their exclusion now; perhaps the most remembered women writers of the time were those who fervently took up where the propaganda left off. Daily Mail sweethearts Jessie Pope, Mrs Humphrey Ward and Emma Orczy penned mountains of jingoistic doggerel which so disgusted Wilfred Owen that he wrote the eloquently furious Dulce et Decorum Est and dedicated it to them. Siegfried Sassoon went one step further and tarred an entire gender with one misogynistic brush in The Glory of Women, sneering: “You believe/that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace”.

This disgust at feminine sentimentality is a large part of the picture we have of WW1 women now. But if we don’t look past it we’re as daft as Sassoon was then: fooled by the false picture built up by a war-mongering elite. Not all women  – if any – were sat dutifully at home, creaming themselves over needless sacrifice.

For a start, being left behind was to play a grievously cruel waiting game, something evident in the poetry of Kathleen Tynan and Margaret Widdemer. Tynan had two sons on the front and her poetry, although patriotic, has little to do with nationalism and everything to do with offering comfort to herself and others. Widdemer, meanwhile, manages to be both a loving mother and to mourn the war (who’da thunk it, Siegfried?) in Homes, which sets up a cosy hearthside idyll and then laments: “Somewhere far off I know/ Are ashes on red snow/ That were a home last night”.

There were also women far from hearthsides themselves. Hundreds volunteered to work in field hospitals amonsgt the wounded and dying, although little of their writing has survived our ignorance. May Sinclair’s Journal of Impressions in Belgium is amongst those scraps which do.

Touchingly human, it draws a vivid picture of the front In one heartbreakingly furious entry, where she flies into a rage when a Commandant speaks delightedly that he and another nurse have come under shellfire. “I promised her mother that Ursula Dearmer would be safe,” she writes, “and then here he was, informing me with glee that a shell had fallen and burst at Ursula Dearmer’s feet.”

Sinclair’s journal and the writings of of Louise Mack – who was the first woman reporter on the front – reveal a uniquely female perspective of the trenches. But women writers dealt too with the one aspect of the war dealt with by men and women together: the aftermath.

In place of a solid class system and set gender roles was a decimated upper class, a female workforce and the previously unthinkable horrors of mechanised war: limbs left stumps by shells, jaws shot away by sniper’s bullets. Perhaps cruellest of all were the mental scars, which would take lifetimes to heal.

Everyone had to re-negotiate their place in this world, whether man or woman. Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier depicts this beautifully, telling the story of Chris, a brain-damaged upper class veteran and his working class teenage sweetheart Marge, who is the only person he can recognise since being hit by a shell. The poetry of the woefully underrated Charlotte Mew, too, deals uncompromisingly with a world gone mad: “What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim/From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?”

As Mew wrote, it was the world who looked with horror at the war. The world. Not just men. Not just soldiers, doctors and politicians, but nurses, mothers, reporters and lovers. Tynan, Sinclair, Mack, West, Widdemer and so many others put down their words because they thought others would listen to them, because they knew their experience was as important as any man’s.

And now, whilst we rightly value male trench poetry as a valuable way to pay respect, women writers are dealt a different hand. Only Rebecca West is in print in any large-scale way today, whilst Sinclair’s and Mack’s journals exist only on project Gutenberg, and Mew has been left to rot in obscurity.

Even the one female-authored text which does get attention – Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth – is diminished at the same time as being revered: immensely powerful and deserving of praise, it is at the same time all too often seen as speaking for all women of the war, despite only focusing on a handful of upper-middle class individuals.

The suffering, bravery and talent of the women writers of the Great War have been ignored for too long. Its about time we opened a few more books, and stopped this partial remembrance.

Rebecca Winson is the News Editor for For Books’ Sake, the feminist webzine dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by women. Find out more @rebeccawinson

A centenary edition of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth will be published by Orion Books on 27 March 2014, with a foreword by Kate Mosse OBE. Rebecca West’s Return of the Solider is published by Virago Modern Classics.

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2 thoughts on “The unheard voices of World War One

  1. Gail Chester

    Strangely absent from this article, indeed totally unheard, are the political women writers of WW1 who actively opposed the war. I am not only thinking of writers such as Mrs H Hobhouse (among other things, sister of Beatrice Webb) who, in 1916, published ‘I Appeal Unto Caesar’, an impassioned plea to improve the prison conditions of conscientious objectors – her son, Stephen Hobhouse, was then enduring those very conditions. There were also novelists, such as Rose Allatini, whose novel, Despised and Rejected (published in 1917 under the name AT Fitzroy) was about a gay conscientious objector and his close lesbian friend, and the dire consequences of espousing these emotional and political positions. And of course Sylvia Pankhurst was against the war, unlike her mother and sister, and wrote about it in The Woman’s/Workers’ Dreadnought, which she edited, and elsewhere.

    And please do not forget about the important role of WILPF, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915, still going strong, and about to celebrate its centenary next year.

    Anyone who is interested in finding out more about commemorations being organised round the country to remember the many groups who opposed WW1 can join the email list remembering-the-real-ww1, by sending an email to remembering-the-real-ww1-subscribe*@* [remove the asterisks before sending email].

    1. Rebecca Winson

      Hi Gail,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes – I did leave these women out – mainly because, despite doing a lot of research for this article (and for my degree, which is where I learned about a lot of these women), I had no real idea they existed (apart from Pankhurst, who I left out here as she was an activist before she was a writer)

      All women artists, WW1 or not, are disgustingly underpraised – so thanks for your comment, and anything I write about in future in regards to WW1 culture will certainly mention the ones you highlighted.




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