We Also Served by Vivien Newman is subtitled The Forgotten Women of the First World War. I’ve always been interested in WW1 so I’ve read a lot of books about the period but I still found a lot of new to me information in this book.
It begins with the feverish knitting of socks, scarves, gloves and such comforts as were desperately needed by the soldiers in the trenches and sailors. Even young children were knitting socks, one poor little eight year old boy was said to have been knitting almost right up to his last breath, but it was mainly females who were doing the knitting. The women in Dundee knitted over 6,000 pairs of socks in the early months of the war! It was a great way of making women feel that they were doing something for the war effort, they couldn’t go and fight but with so many women having a husband, brother, son at the front they wanted to do their bit. Knitting was approved of by the powers that be but when it came to doing anything more involving such as nursing women were told they couldn’t go to the front. Famously (if you know anything about this subject) the Scottish surgeon Dr Elsie Inglis was told to ‘Go home and sit still.’ The British government wasn’t interested in help from women. The Serbians, French and Belgians were much more sensible and Elsie Inglis and her nurses are still revered in Serbia today.
Early in the war women were recruited by the government to hand out white feathers to men that they thought should be in the army, a way of shaming them. I must admit that I hadn’t realised this was originally organised by the government.
Later as the war dragged on women were taken on in war service as nurses, munitions workers, were recruited in the armed forces (not armed of course) land girls, who were particularly disliked because they were used to free up men for the front. Their wives didn’t want their husbands going to war and up until then farm workers had been safe from conscription. Women were recruited as spies and if caught they were executed. The stress and strain of the horrific experiences of nurses led to them suffering from shell-shock and what we now call post traumatic stress disorder and sadly nurses did commit suicide.
This was a great read although at times infuriating as women were treated so badly, earned much less money than the men when they worked in munitions, despite the horribly dangerous work which often ended up with them being blown up or poisoned by the chemicals. Those accidents were hushed up.
The women who had been despised by male workers often ended up being admired by them because of the hard work and long hours they put in – and of course most of them had to go home and start doing all the work there too, so never got any rest at all. However, when the war ended the women had to give up their work and go back to the kitchen sink and often the only option open to them was to go back into service as a maid. Their efforts did go a long way to women getting the vote, but only if they were over 30 at first.
Thank you to Pen and Sword History and NetGalley for providing me with a digital copy of the book for review.