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The First World War in Britain

In 1903 a militant suffrage movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union, emerged in England. These women activists heckled political speakers and organized protest marches, and some were even imprisoned, where they exploited their notoriety by engaging in hunger strikes to win public sympathy. This turmoil ceased abruptly in 1914 when the World War began. The suffragettes threw themselves into war service and in doing so earned by accomplishment what they could not obtain by demand. Immediately after the war suffrage was partially granted and in 1928 finalized.

But as social attitudes later evolved the memory of women’s wartime service changed, and in this book Janet Watson examines the historical record and analyzes the reasons why social perceptions became disconnected from reality. Watson begins by detailing how World War I produced significant changes in British society by examining several dimensions of war related to cultural evolution. She focuses on how class and gender bias affected three elements: the social perception of women in uniform, the experience of women healthcare providers, and the contrasting and disputed perceptions of women’s wartime roles from different perspectives.

The most compelling of these examples was between women professionals and wartime women volunteers. Before WWI, Watson explains, there existed in Britain a traditional bias against women performing jobs that were normally associated with men. For instance, in 1915, upon seeing four women from a para-military organization, perhaps the Women’s volunteer Reserve or the Women’s Army Auxillary Corps, an enraged English woman wrote a complaining letter to a prominent newspaper that incited a public debate over women in uniform.

The complaint condemned the uniformed females as, “A parody of the uniform” and accused the volunteers of looking “ridiculous. ” To many, Watson explains, these women in uniform were an assault on the tradition of men as protectors and women as the protected. For others, Watson writes, there were class and moral issues: some women’s volunteer organizations were maligned as mere recreational opportunities for the socially elite. Other working class-oriented organizations, on the other hand, were maligned by some as little more than dating services — or worse.

Analyzing this gap between these class and gender-determined views is one of the most revealing aspects of the book. Watson provides one study of opposing views as experienced by the Women’s Hospital Corps. To the pre-war professional healthcare providers – physicians, ward maidens, and nurses – the women volunteers provided a philanthropic nurturing service, but were primarily doing so to exploit circumstances in the cause of Suffrage. But the women volunteers saw themselves answering a “calling,” providing a critical wartime service that was essential military work equal to the that performed by men – and deserving recognition as such.

Before the war many Brits thought that women’s responsibility was exclusively in the home. But Watson details the wartime experiences of Helen Beale as an example of how revolutionary women’s military service could be. Beale was the daughter of a prominent Sussex family in her late 20s, serving in the Red Cross, initially in London and later in France. The whole Beale family served in some wartime capacity or another, some in the military, others in nursing or munitions manufacturing.

The Beale Family were prolific inter-family communicators and left a substantial written record of their wartime experiences – and that personal correspondence gives Watson’s book a persuasive personal dimension that supports her thesis. Warson draws on the Beale letters for confirming evidence that radical social change did occur during the course of the war in the roles that women played and the way such women and their families saw themselves and were generally perceived by the public.

Later, Watson shifts her focus to examining how the women’s wartime experiences were portrayed differently from men’s wartime service in literature, the arts, and the media. Just a decade after the armistice the retrospective view was radically different than it had been during the war. She attributes this change to the narratives written from the vantage-point of male veterans in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Watson found an overwhelmingly and uniform view of horror and disillusionment in these post-war writings, and that women had simply been excised from these male-perspective revisions.

She quotes such books as Robert Graves’, “Goodbye to All That,” and the satirical poetry and prose of Siegfried Sassoon. Their writings during and immediately after the war were preoccupied with patriotic glory and the spirit of sacrifice exhibited by a united society. But in later years both of these writers, as well as many others, became far more critical and skeptical, refocusing on the senseless sacrifice of war that Sassoon characterized as, “…depression and darkness. ” It was quite clear that this wasn’t the “war to end all wars,” as it was publicly hailed when the troops went off to war, Watson writes.

That view was replaced by a new public consensus, as exemplified by what became the “accepted” and defining war narrative about all the young idealists who volunteered out of a sense of patriotism and honor, but then experienced the horrors of trench warfare, only to be killed or return home emotionally devastated. Contrary to this later disillusionment, Watson writes that most women volunteers looked back at their war service as being generally positive. They didn’t sentimentalize the violence, but volunteers such as C. E.

Tinsdall wrote about the war as, “…old unhappy far-off days” but also as “the greatest experience of all. ” Watson concludes that those who focused on the soldier’s trench experiences looked back in anger, while those who focused on the wartime contributions of women saw progress. Although Watson also attributes the later war cynicism to the shifting social moods produced by worsening economic times, she notes that as the general disillusionment grew, the positive memories about the women volunteers changed to a corresponding disillusionment, as well.

Society simply demanded it, and dissent was not tolerated. Eventually, in the 1930s there was consensus that everyone – male and female – had been a victim, all equally devastated by the experience of war. When All Quiet on the Western Front appeared in 1928, “It touched a chord,” Watson says, and further focused public attention on the suffering in the trenches, and women’s wartime memories were further marginalized. She wrote that, “Women weren’t allowed to claim the truth of a war experience unless they faced the risk of death.

” Watson concludes that, “It is quite remarkable how differently people talked about the war at different points. ” Evolving perceptions of the wartime experience changed in relation to later social views, disconnected by time from the older cultural issues and social milestones, superseded by newer more relevant attitudes. When history and contemporary belief conflict, truth apparently becomes lost in the chaos of memory.

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