Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Heroines of the First World War - an article by Lady Randolph Churchill

THOUGH women play so large a part in every war, and one instinctively thinks of them as nurses for the wounded, one does not associate them with the actual horrible work of fire and slaughter. Yet there is no more interesting phase of the women’s part in this war than that which relates to their activity in the actual firing line. The world, which has hitherto regarded battle as essentially a man’s business, has lately learnt with something of a shock that in Belgium women have come to look upon it with supreme indifference.
Familiarity has bred such stoicism in the face of danger that women have been known to milk their few remaining cows within range of constantly-dropping shells, and to trudge miles along dangerous roads, bearing baskets of provisions for the husbands, sons or brothers they expected to find in every trench they passed.
One British war correspondent, indeed, told how here and there he had seen family parties sitting on newly turned earth at the bottom of the trenches—father, mother and children, some mites in arms, talking earnestly to each other and sharing the scantiest of meals. Even during the raging battle of Mona women and girls found their way fearlessly into the trenches with food and fruit for the fighting men. One girl, hardly more than seventeen, faced the terrific noise of conflict at the peril of shell and bullet quite undismayed.
There is a pathetic story of an old woman, seventy years of age, who arriving at Antwerp at the eve of its fall, approached one of the outposts, and told how she had come on foot from Liège to see her son. And she found him, poor devoted soul—a son who had acted as orderly to General Leman, the gallant defender of Liège, and, when he thought his master was dead, had posted off to Antwerp to strike another blow to the enemy.
In Russia, many of the peasant women, used in times of peace to the hardest physical labour in the fields, have an enduring strength which is uncommon among Western races, and quite large numbers of them have not only helped to dig trenches, but have, under various disguises and pretexts joined the fighting forces.
A Petrograd writer assures us that the most successful conspirators were the masculine-looking peasant women of the northern provinces. Surely the veteran of them all must be Nadezlda Ornatsky, woman of Archangel, who posed as aman during a large part of the Russo-Japanese war of ten years ago, and so had little difficulty in reassuming the part of a private in August, 1914. Only after the battle of Lubin-Krasnik was her sex discovered.

Another Russian named Linba Uglicki was actually present at four different East Prussia or Polish engagements, and was slightly wounded. It is said she feared nothing but the ordeal of crossing bayonets with the foe. Pride of family is a strong emotion among all Russian peasantry and it drove another woman to take up arms when her husband shirked his military summons. She impersonated the coward to preserve the family reputation from tarnish, and at Gumbinnen the action cost her her life.
Perhaps the most thrilling story of this nature relates to the adventures of Lyubov Ouglitsky, called the "Augustovo Amazon," a twenty-one year old girl from Smolensk. Lyubov--whose name means love--has taken part in four big battles, in her masculine disguise, and had not sickness intervened, she no doubt would still be on the firing-line.
Her rôle as a man is made more astonishing by the fact that she is described as "pretty, with expressive gazelle eyes, but somewhat too strongly built." When war was declared she went boldly to Smolensk, where she impersonated her reservist brother, who had died a few days previously. She enrolled in the 7th Army Corps and finally found herself in Rennenkampf’s army. When Rennenkampf first inspected his men he spoke among others to Lyubov, asked the name of her village, and said, "Well, you’re a fine lad!"
This "Augustovo Amazon’s" first battle was Gumbinnen when the Germans were driven back. After General Rennenkampf evacuated East Prussia he fought a rearguard action at Kalwarja Ille. Ouglitski’s battalion here lost half its men in killed and wounded. The girl warrior took part in a fierce fight for a village, which ended in the village being destroyed. She says she was not terrified as long as the Germans were on the offensive. But when her shattered battalion was ordered to charge with the bayonet a fearful dread seized her.
"I was terribly afraid of having to kill a man. To shoot I did not mind," she said. "I may have shot several men, but the idea of using my bayonet overwhelmed and horrified me. I realized that if I now killed a man in this way I should know it, and I should remember it to my last day. I prayed that I myself might be shot."
Mlle. Ouglitski fought at Augustovo in September, 1914, also shortly afterwards in a desperate struggle the Niemen. After the last fight she thought of deserting, but feared she would be captured or shot. She kept the secret of her sex by pretending to be particularly rough and callous.
"At times my heart bled with compassion which I could not express," she said. Finally her solitary career was ended by a slight wound front a shell splinter.

"There are at least a score of women fighting on our side," declared this undaunted soldier, and the many other instances of which one has heard certainly seem to bear out her statement. A woman who passed as Private Norman Nesmetooft was killed outside Suvalki. On the day before her death she made a forced march with her battalion of 42 versts (about twenty-six miles).
It is given to few women to don male attire and fight side by side with their brothers, but since the war began many have shown in more legitimate fields a quiet heroism, a staunch cleaving to duty, for which no praise is too high. What of the two Belgian girls who were on duty at the telephone switch-board when Louvain’s day of terror began? Similar cases have been related in peace as well as in conflict, but no records of war heroism can rank above this tale of duty well done.
Nearer and nearer, it is recorded, came the thunder of the German guns. Shells began to burst on the outskirts of the town, then in the very streets. Ominous flames crackled, leaping around the houses. Shrapnel bullets were raining on all sides of the telephone exchange, tiIl the two operators stayed unflinchingly at their posts. Whatever peril might threaten from s[illegible] or flames, they never thought of seeking safety in flight, for well they knew that along the line which they were serving were passing the orders the Belgian staff directing the safe retreat of the Belgian forces. It was only when they could do no more good, when the wires had been cut or, carried away by shells, and their building threatened to collapse, that Valerie di Martinelli and Léonie Van Lindt crept out of the exchange.
Antwerp yielded an equally striking example of the war heroine in two sisters who had only had a week’s training as nurses, but must have been exceptionally well endowed by nature with iron nerves, They were English, and it often happened in the hospital in which they served that there was no time to give anesthetics, and that all that could be done was to hold the patients’ hands under the most excruciating operations. The men in their agony would crush their fingers harder and harder, but they never uttered a sound.
Other British women, in breeches and great boots, went out under heavy fire near Nieuport, we are told, with the equanimity that one would associate with an afternoon drive in the park. They moved about among the great holes which the shells were tearing in the ground, seeking and caring for the wounded with as much ease as if taking tea in their own drawing-rooms. Lady Dorothie Fielding, the daughter of the Earl of Denbigh, worked at a small cottage hospital with her motor ambulance with shells flying round; and Miss Jessie Borthwick, a niece of the late Lord Glenesk, nursed the wounded in
Belgium under conditions that would make the stoutest heart quail, with the result that at Oudecappelle she herself was wounded. Later, at Dixmude, she tells us she came across some German soldiers who from cellars fired on her and her companions as they rushed about with stretchers!

"It was a full moon and the country was flat with very few trees, so we had to lie flat and crawl along till we got to the trenches. The rifle fire was incessant, but we picked out all the men it was possible to move. That night, too, we had to burn piles of the German dead, for they had been throwing them into the river and spoiling water." Little cause for wonder after this that in an outburst of admiration the colonel of the Belgian Carbineers made Miss Borthwick a corporal, another corporal cutting off the stripes from his own coat for her adornment and honour.
Side by side with this is the story of Mrs. St. Clair Stobart, who went to Belgium with a complete hospital equipment and who, while endeavouring to get to Holland from Brussels, was imprisoned by the Germans and searched six times, narrowly escaping from being shot as a spy.
In Antwerp Mrs. Stobart nursed the wounded amid a rain of shells, and when this fire endangered the lives of her ninety odd patients, Mrs. Stobart and her assistants, who included Miss S. Macnaughten, the novelist, carried their charges down into the cellars on their backs. This gallant band of twenty eventually rode out of Antwerp, through blazing streets, in London omnibuses laden with ammunition and driven by British soldiers.
Since then the merciful work has been carried on untiringly under more peaceful conditions near Cherbourg, where a beautiful château, lent by the owner, has beenturned into a large hospital for French wounded. More recently Mrs. Stobart has organised relief expeditions to nurse the Serbian wounded.
Even the doubtful excitements of trench work and actual "under fire" experiences were denied to Miss Margaret C. Ryle, the young daughter of an English bishop, who at the outbreak of war was in Russia, acting as coach to a girl preparing for Cambridge. Miss Ryle offered herself to the authorities for hospital work, passed the necessary examination, of course in Russian, and, after a probationary period in a base hospital at Moscow, was transferred to the hospital train service running to and from the front and Moscow--most trying and exhausting work, consisting as it did of tending wounded straight from the battlefield, hampered by the restrictions of a long journey. A hospital train was being fitted up for Serbia, where the condition of the wounded was at that time truly appalling, and Miss Ryle accompanied it to Nish. A few days later she died from the effects of a mountain fall while going about her duties.
Serbian hospital work claimed another gallant victim last July, when Mrs. Percy Dearmer died of enteric contracted while nursing the wounded. She was a woman writer who had made a name for herself by her delightful children’s books, plays, and novels. Three months later her younger son, of the R.N.V.A., gave his life also for his country.

Like Serbia, France has claimed an English victim. In the soldiers’ cemetery at Le Mans lies a nineteen-year-old girl, Miss Bell, who was tending the wounded in the firing line when a shell broke both her legs.
Chief among British nurses, however stands the heroic figure of Miss Edith Cavell, who for many years was head of a nurses’ training establishment in the Rue de la Culture at Brussels. When the capital of Belgium fell into German hands, Miss Cavell remained at her post, tending the enemy’s wounded with the same care bestowed upon those of the Allies. It was while she was actually engaged in bandaging a German’s injuries that the Kaiser’s soldiers rushed into the house and arrested her on a charge of sheltering English and Belgian soldiers and enabling them to get safely over the frontier. Despite the most persistent efforts made to save her by the American and Spanish ministers in Brussels, Miss Cavell languished ten weeks in prison, and was then tried by court-martial and executed in the middle of the night, within nine hours of her conviction.
Fortified by a life spent in ministering to others, the doomed nurse behaved throughout with a fine, quiet courage that never failed.
"I have seen death so often," she said to the clergyman who prayed with her during the last hours, "that it is not strange or fearful to me." And again, shortly before the end: "I realize that it is not enough to be patriotic. I must also bear my enemies no resentment for their treatment of me."
The news of her heroic death evoked wild outbursts of indignation not only in this country, but among neutrals, and even in the breasts of the Germans themselves. It is said that the firing party visibly trembled, and with one accord fired over her head, so that their officer had to do the deadly work himself by means of a revolver held to her ear. A memorial service, attended by Queen Alexandra in person was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral on October 29th, 1915, and the public subscribed lavishly to the Cavell Memorial Fund which was at once opened.
"What Jeanne d’Arc has been for centuries to France," said one writer in the press, that will Edith Cavell become to the future generations of Britons."
Another English nurse who deserves mention is Miss Violetta Thurston, who was ordered by the Germans to leave Brussels, where she had been doing excellent work. She was sent across Germany, having a tedious and uncomfortable journey, and when at
Copenhagen she offered her services to the Russian Red Cross. Her offer was accepted, and she went to Lodz, where she was posted to a hospital in what was once a girls’ day school. Writing home, she said:

"It is crammed with wounded men, lying on stone floors, either on filthy mattresses or on straw, with no sheets and only one blanket each. There is no heating, as there is no coal, and it is frightfully cold . . . .For a week we have been heavily bombarded; shells are bursting all round us, most of our windows are broken.
The cannons stopped for a bit yesterday, but have now begun again with renewed force. We have had to move all our wounded from the top floor on account of the shells. A shell burst in front of us in the street to-day, but neither of us was hurt. It is extraordinary how one gets used to it."
Subsequently Miss Thurston went to Warsaw, making her journey in an ambulance wagon, with shells continually bursting near and bombs being dropped from aeroplanes.
Miss May Sinclair, the novelist, has published a glowing tribute to the workof the women of the Motor Field Ambulance, in which she states:
"When we were in Ghent I have known them to work all day and half the night among the refugees at Termonde, on the ambulance trains as they arrived loaded from Antwerp, in our last appalling week; in the dressing-stations at Alost, at Quartrecht, at Zeele and Lokeren and Melle, wherever and whenever the wounded were brought in. They have gone out with the stretchers over the great open battlefield at Melle and brought in the wounded with their own hands; for hours and days and nights at a time, under rifle-fire and shrapnel, they have done this. I saw them, after such a hard day’s work, start off at twilight to bring in two wounded Germans whom the last ambulance had left there on that horrible field, and they brought them in under the German fire.
"At Fumes and Dixmude they have worked all night looking after their wounded, sometimes sleeping on straw in a room shared by the Belgian troops when there was no other shelter for them in the bombarded towns. Mrs. Knocker has driven a heavy ambulance car in a pitch-black night, along a road raked by shell-fire and broken here and there into great pits, to fetch a load of wounded, a performance that would have racked the nerves of any male chauffeur ever born. She has driven the same car, alone, with five German prisoners for her passengers. The four women are serving regularly now at Pervyse, the town nearest to the firing line. It is more than two months since Mrs. Knocker established her dressing-station there in a cellar only twenty yards behind the Belgian trenches. In that cellar, eight feet square and lighted and ventilated only by a slit in the wall, she and Miss Chisholm (a girl of eighteen) lived for three weeks, sleeping on straw, eating what they could get, drinking water that had passed through a cemetery where 900 Germans are buried. They had to burn candles night and day. Here the wounded were brought as they fell in the trenches, and were tended until the time ambulance[s] came to take them to the base hospital at Fumes."

The Bretons were also said to be wonderful. "I want to thank the little Breton nurse who has been so good to us," writes a grateful private of the Leicesters of the lady who attended to him and his wounded comrades at a hospital in the north of France. "Never," he says, "was a woman born kinder, tenderer, or more patient and lovable. I saw her first in a field hospital, singing a wounded Highlander to sleep rather than that he should disturb the rest of us with his bagpipes.
The next moment she would be hunting for a priest to come and comfort a lad who had been shot to pieces, but was still conscious, and was crying for the padre, and when the chaplain had gone she continued to soothe him with those Christian phrases which a good woman can employ with far better effect than any minister.
He was lying next to me, and I heard her speaking of loved ones he was about to rejoin in the other world when he died in her arms. Later she had to hasten to another bed where a young lieutenant is dying—a shell has torn part of his head away. He is just able to utter one word—’ Mother.’ At once an inspiration comes to the nurse’s fine soul; she searches the pockets of the dying boy, finds the photograph of that loved one, puts it gently in his hands. Though blind, he realizes what it is, gives one last cry of’ Mother,’ and dies."
Another French heroine was Marie Masson, who belonged to a village, the inhabitants of which, though only civilians, had resisted the German advance. The Germans were driven off, but they came back. They returned on November 9th, "drove all of us into the church"—said the informant—and an officer, standing by the altar, announced in guttural French that the village was to be punished. "A woman," said he, "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." Groans filled the church. Cries were raised that if the "piou-pious" were in the village they certainly were not hiding in the houses. The officer would not believe them, and proceeded to announce that as an example and a warning he would have a man and a woman shot in the presence of the population.
At this point up stepped Madame Marie Masson, twenty-eight years old, who had a husband and two brothers with the colours. She turned her face to the German officer and the altar, and said, "There were no French in the houses, but here am I; take me, and do your worst." The German soldiers thereupon seized her and an old man who stood by her. Everybody was ordered out of church. The couple were marched away and placed against a wall, while the German troops surrounded the inhabitants and compelled them to witness the double execution.
The German officer in a loud voice asked if the father and mother of the young woman were in the crowd. They came forward and were forced to remain in the forefront of the populace so that they might miss nothing of their daughter’s last moments. Eight constituted the firing party, and in all sixteen shots were fired. The pair died, unbandaged, facing death without flinching.

A happier story is that told in relation to the work performed by the English Yeomanry Corps of Nurses in France. The Belgian nurses were being continually shelled, but one of them went steadily backwards and forwards–even after a shell had burst within twenty yards of her, killing three men and wounding several others.
Finally the officer in charge of the section was so touched, that, lacking any other way of showing his gratitude, he picked a few snowdrops which were growing on a little ledge in the trench, and, making up a bouquet, gravely presented them to her.
No doubt most, if not all, of these stories are common knowledge to our readers; the facts have certainly been set out in the newspapers, but linked together here they revive our recollections of women’s gallant deeds. They also serve as proof that the warring nations have good reason to be proud of their "heroines of the firing-line."

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