World War I: The Libel Against Women

Ask someone to name one woman from World War I, the response is likely to be Mata Hari, the exotic and executed Dutch dancer-spy; in reality, there is scant evidence that she was a spy. While women were abroad in Europe as nurses, as members of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the YMCA, or within the numerous war-relief efforts, many fought and died in combat.

American women had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, some in the Coast Guard, while the U.S. Army had refused women. The Army preferred to have women as contractors or as civilian volunteers. The interesting fact is that women who did serve in clerical positions within the Navy and Marine Corps received identical pay as their male counterparts, and they were recognized as veterans after the war. Sad to say, however, that the military nurse back then did not have rank. If a woman was not secretary or a nurse who did go “over there,” she was probably a “Hello Girl,” a bilingual switchboard operator, or under contract with the U.S Army near the French front, where she worked in combat situations.

In other countries, women did see combat. Russia had its “Women’s Battalions.” Maria Bochkareva, twice seriously wounded and decorated for valor in combat, had led the Women’s Battalion of Death. She traveled to the United States and moved President Woodrow Wilson to tears when she begged him to intervene in Russia. When she returned home, the Bolsheviks arrested her and the nascent KGB executed her.

Olga Krasilnikov and Natalie Tychmini had disguised themselves as soldiers and fought with distinction and both were decorated for it, their gender discovered after they had been wounded. Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya flew reconnaissance missions for the Czar in 1914 and later, in a boggling twist of fate, became the chief executioner of Kiev! In 1915, Nedeshda Degtereva was the first woman pilot wounded in combat in a reconnaissance mission over the Austrian front in Galicia. Actress Lyubov A. Golanchikova flew and trained pilots; she would later drive a cab in Manhattan.

If Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in World War II, Milunka Savić, a Serb, is the most decorated female in any war; she remains the only person to have received the French Croix de Guerre with the palm attribute in World War I.

Ecaterina Teodoroiu, a Romanian, died in combat leading her 25-man platoon; she was a Second Lieutenant. She led men and they followed her. Teodoroiu is a national hero in Romania, second only to Marie of Romania.

In England and France, the situation for women was slightly different, but equally dangerous. Dorothy Lawrence, a tragic figure later in life, had disguised herself as a man with false papers and joined the British troops near the Somme. Once discovered, her life would spiral into absurdity and tragedy, for the military authorities interrogated her and did everything to suppress her existence; she was censored and legally prohibited from discussing her wartime experience. Such was the extent of British male chauvinism; and after the war, she was raped, thought crazy, and institutionalized in 1925. She disappears from the public record after 1919; she would die in 1964. Flora Sandes, another Briton, somehow became a Sergeant major and commissioned later as a Captain, earning a nation’s highest military decoration – in the Serbian army!

French women took to fighting from the air and on land. Hélène Dutrieu, a professional stunt driver, amongst other things, drove an ambulance and flew reconnaissance flights to monitor German troops. The amazing Marie Marvingt, the first woman to climb many of the peaks in the French and Swiss Alps, a record-setter in many sports, served in the French infantry and then later as a combat pilot. She battled unsuccessfully with the French higher-ups to form a special air ambulance for the wounded. Madame Arno organized Parisian women to fight the Germans in 1915.

Other women from other nations served in combat. The Turkish army at Gallipolli had women snipers. The Ukrainian Helen Ruz, a nineteen-year-old corporal in the Voluntary Ukraine Legion, fought and was decorated twice for valor in the Carpathian Mountains and during the Galician campaigns. Zoya Smirnow was the only survivor of a group of 12 teenaged girls, who had joined the Russian army; they also fought in Galicia and in the Carpathians Mountains.

Women served as spies. Marthe Richard, a truly colorful character, acted as spy for the French in both world wars. She was the mistress of Von Krohn, the Naval Attaché of the German Navy in Madrid in World War I, and managed to use her charms to spy on members of the Gestapo in World War II. The German spy-teacher Elsbeth Schragmüller ran an unsuccessful espionage school in Antwerp, Belgium. Her exploits would become fodder for Allied propagandists; but the single, most important rallying point for the Allied cause, an example of the sacrifice by women during the war, and a propaganda moment was Edith Cavell.

The 12 October is the feast day in the Church of England for British nurse and war hero, Edith Cavell. In German-occupied Belgium she provided care to soldiers on both sides, seeing it as her ethical duty as a nurse, but she helped British, French, and some Belgian soldiers escape to England, acts of daring considered treasonous in Belgium. Technically, she violated the First Geneva Convention, therefore sentenced to death and, despite enormous worldwide pleas for clemency, executed by firing squad. In her memory, a statue was erected at St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London, her last words inscribed there: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

The belief that women give life, and men take it, is worth reconsidering. A generation later the world would witness women meeting the challenges of another world war, on the domestic front as Rosie the Riveter for better, or female death camp-guards for worse. Outside of the U.S. Armed Forces women would continue to serve in lethal capacities, like snipers such as Lyudmila Pavlichenko, with 309 confirmed kills, spies such as Julia Child, or guerilla-fighters, such as the martyr Zoya “Tanya” Kosmodemyanskaya. Hundred of teenaged boys and girls would resist the Nazis, who tortured them, filmed and photographed them before and after death, hanging them in public on makeshift gallows without the benefit of a blindfold or a hood, using a thin cord to make their death excruciating. The spectacle was intended to intimidate the locals. In every instance, the young women were defiant to the end, never pleading for their lives, never showing fear, and never shedding a tear.

The weaker sex?


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
This entry was posted in Remembering World War I, Women Writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to World War I: The Libel Against Women

  1. Susan Ostrem says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for bringing these women to light. Makes me want to know more.

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