The Tragic, Heroic Women of World War I

The Great War was a mixed blessing for British women, opening up the workplace to them as never before, even as it slaughtered their husbands and boyfriends.


I was wearing my best dress, best shoes, and my hair was braided with ribbon. At four years old, I was only going to have tea with a neighbor, so I might have seemed a little overdressed—but my mother was well aware that the neighbor’s last intimate experience of childhood was her own in Edwardian England.

In 1959, I was the only child in our hamlet, so I was in some demand among the ladies of a certain age who lived alone, having never married. I would sit at table with my boiled egg and toast, or a small cheese and cucumber sandwich and a scone with butter and jam, and I would answer their questions. And because I was a curious child, I had questions of my own. Each of those women had a sepia photograph on the mantelpiece, of a young man in uniform. And I remember the answer, when I asked about the man. “Oh, that was my sweetheart. He died in the Great War.”

I already knew about this “great war” because I’d been told that my grandfather’s ailments were all due to the same event. Granddad had been wounded, shell-shocked, and gassed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and it was my questions about him that ignited a lifelong interest in the effects of war and its aftermath—in particular, the changes wrought by that conflict on the lives of women.

A young woman in pre-World War I Britain would likely expect her life to follow that of her mother and grandmother. Depending on her “station” in life, she might work in a factory, in domestic service, a shop, or in an office. If she were from the middle or upper classes, she would remain at home until marriage, hopefully before the age of 21. Women’s lives were as restricted as their clothing, though Britain’s suffragettes were considered the most vociferous. Then war was declared in 1914. By the time the Armistice was signed in 1918, a British woman aged 16-32 stood only a one-in-ten chance of marriage. The 1921 census revealed that there were two million “surplus” women of marriageable age, a statistic that led to publication of a pamphlet, “The Problem of the Surplus Women.” That might appear amusing, but a generation had endured a devastating human tragedy.

It must have seemed liberating to my 18-year-old grandmother, Clara—she was living away from home in quarters close to the Woolwich Arsenal, working with volatile explosives. She was earning “good money” for a woman, though it was half that paid to a man doing the same job. The wage gave Clara and her women friends a measure of independence—on a day off they could pretty much do as they liked. In the years 1914-18, women flooded into the workplace to take on the toil of men conscripted to fight. No field of endeavor was left untouched by a woman’s hand—they built ships, aircraft, and tanks. They made munitions. They drove trains and buses and became mechanics. They worked overseas as nurses, ambulance drivers, and in military support roles. They buried the dead, delivered the coal and the milk, and women police auxiliaries pounded the streets. Some 50,000 worked in the Secret Service. Women were now in very visible roles, not hidden in factories, or offices, or working at home.

After the euphoria of the Armistice gave way to a deep collective depression, it was clear that life would not return to “normal”—especially for a woman. Certainly there were those who were married, but many floundered, living solitary lives. But others blazed a trail, realizing they alone had to bear responsibility for their financial security, that they must build community or become invisible, and that they had to nurture relationships to sustain them in old age. Women became teachers and scientists, they worked in business, became justices of the peace and entered politics, and if they couldn’t find work, they made it. The time between the wars became the golden era of the British woman novelist—there’s a job you can do at home with no training!

I believe an archetype was born in those years, that of the doughty British woman—proud, opinionated, but with a heart of gold. I knew her—she was one of the ladies who invited me to tea because she ached to have children in her life. The chance of becoming a mother had died when she lost her sweetheart in the Great War.

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the bestsellers An Incomplete Revenge, Among The Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death, A Lesson In Secrets, Elegy for Eddie, and Leaving Everything Most Loved, as well as four other national bestselling novels featuring Maisie Dobbs, an ex-World War I nurse turned psychologist-investigator. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Agatha, Alex, and Macavity awards for the first book in the series, Maisie Dobbs. The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War, to be published July 1, is her first standalone novel. Originally from the United Kingdom, Winspear now lives in California.