This book explores the experiences and contributions of British women performing various kinds of active service across the Eastern Front in Serbia, Russia and Romania during the First World War. The book is roughly chronological, but also examines related themes such as gender, nationality and legacy. Upon the outbreak of the War in 1914, rejected by the British military, surprising numbers of British women went to work for the allied armies in the East. The book considers their experiences before and after the fall of Serbia in 1915. Other women were caught in Russia and remained there to offer service. Later, women’s Units moved further East from Serbia to work on the Romanian and Russian Fronts, only to be caught up in revolution. This book explores their many experiences and achievements, within an appropriate historical and cultural context and interprets their own words by examining the many and varied written records they left behind. Women such as Dr Elsie Inglis, Mabel St Clair Stobart, Flora Sandes and Florence Farmborough are studied alongside many others whose diaries, letters, memoirs and journalism help to shape the extraordinary role played by British women in the East and their subsequent legacy.
The changes in warfare during the twentieth century could be addressed from a variety of perspectives, political, cultural, and national. This book addresses the issue of how gender is constructed by exploring a range of historical events. It also asserts that a focus on gender, rather than producing a depoliticised reading of our culture, offers an informed debate on a range of political issues. The book explores the impact of warfare on women whose civilian or quasi-military roles resulted in their exile or self-exile to the role of 'other'. The book first draws upon a number of genres to use Richard Aldington and H. D. (the poet Hilda Doolittle), to understand the social and cultural implications of warfare for both parties in a relationship. Then, it examines the intricate gender assumptions that surround the condition of 'shell shock' through a detailed exploration of the life and work of Ver a Brittain. Continuing this theme, considering the nature of warfare, the gendered experience of warfare, through the lens of the home front, the book discusses the gendered attitudes to the First World War located within Aldous Huxley's novella 'Farcical History of Richard Greenow'. Wars represented in Western cinema are almost universally gendered as male, which corresponds to the battlefield history of twentieth-century warfare. As this situation changes, and more women join the armed services, especially in the United States, a more inclusive cinematic coding evolves through struggle. The book considers three decades of film, from the Vietnam War to the present.
This opening chapter sets out the aims of the book within current fields of study, identifying its original contribution. It explores the historical, cultural and political context in which the British women were working. It looks at the longer histories of Serbia and Russia examining the ambiguous position of both nations as part of the Orient, therefore different, exotic and potentially attractive to British women travelers. Against this backdrop, it introduces the various roles of British women within the field of conflict, and identifies some of the key players. It places the women central to this study in a British historical context, examining the evolution of the participation in warfare by British women and the emergence of women as a force in medicine. It defines the range of Institutional structures that enabled women to travel East and the importance of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in developing these organizations.
For many British women the exoticism and difference of the East proved to be a powerful draw. The 'otherness' of their experiences in Serbia and Russia inspired them to adopt a range of different styles in their writing. Almost all memoirs engage with the journeys of the women as individuals across unfamiliar, at times even alien, landscapes, well as dealing with harsh reality of the war experience. Their literary heritage is often apparent in their language. This chapter examines some of the key primary texts through the genre of travel writing in particular and explores the alternative literary strategies employed by the women to tell their stories. It provides a context for women's travel writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, looking back to its development in the nineteenth.
Within the historical context of Serbia's initial military success, this chapter examines the early work of British women in the East. The first Serbian Relief Units travelled to the Balkans as early as autumn 1914, in time to provide medical care during the typhus epidemic that raged across Serbia during the winter of 1914-15. In Russia there were a number of British initiatives from women ex-patriots living there. The chapter seeks to contextualize the early work within the historical framework of women as military nurses in foreign countries with very different cultures.
The female body and gender identity on the Eastern Front
Angela K. Smith
As the ‘Female other’ of World War 1, the Eastern Front, and in particular Serbia, provided British women with unique opportunities for involvement. Serbia enabled women to experience the war at close range, often facing many of the same threats as combat soldiers. Here female bodies were put to the test in ways not previously imagined, and some women explored gender roles in unexpected ways. This chapter examines the ways in which this stark new experience pushed societal understandings of gender boundaries through the experience of two very different women, Mabel Dearmer, a hospital orderly who worked and died in Serbia in 1915 and Flora Sandes, a nurse-turned-soldier whose experience questions accepted understandings of gendered war experience. The chapter considers various elements that might shape or alter gender expectations, such as dress, uniform, performance and behaviour patterns. It sets out the conventional expectations of Edwardian femininity and then juxtaposes them with the actual physical and emotional experience of life on the Eastern Front.
When the Bulgarian, Austrian and German armies invaded in late 1915, most of the British women working in Serbia were immediately evacuated. A few, however, refused to leave their hospitals and their patients, even in the face of the enemy. These women, with the assistance of select members of their teams continued to nurse the wounded in the occupied country, as enemy aliens, as prisoners of war. This chapter explores life for British women in captivity, the hardships they endured, their relationships with their captors and their achievements in the face of extraordinary danger. Both social class and gender are very important to this discussion as both have a significant impact on the women's behavior. It explores definitions of nationality and patriotism and the extent of their 'Britishness' making particular use of their relationship to the legacy of Empire. The chapter explores the roles adopted by these women in captivity, their attitudes towards both their captors and their patients, arguing that their Imperial background, their 'Britishness', had a significant impact on their behavior patterns and consequences.
Those women, who did not remain behind with the wounded, were forced to flee along with the defeated Serbian armies and thousands of Serbian refugees. Their path took them across the mountains of Serbia, Montenegro and Albania just as the winter set in, with the noise of the guns always behind them. This was an extraordinary journey and some fascinating accounts of it survive. This chapter explores the experience of the retreat from a gendered perspective, with a particular focus on the ways in which the women involved used their ‘femininity’ to survive and to help others to get through. It examines the everyday, the ordinary, the domestic, and the ways in which women used these aspects of life as a survival mechanism peculiar to their own gendered experience. This chapter focuses on the charismatic leader, Mabel St Clair Stobart, drawing on her autobiographical writings, analyzing her conscious self-presentation, and the ways in which she choose to perform the roles of Commandant, Major, Lady and Mother simultaneously. The chapter builds on the ideas in 'Role Call' and considers the significance of gender in the way women chose to deal with the experience of the retreat.
In Serbia the British women had faced invasion, flight and captivity. In Russia they had to confront revolution and its impact on the war experience. The combination of centuries of autocratic rule meeting rapid social, cultural and industrial advancement ignited with terrifying results for many of those embroiled in fighting the First World War. This chapter explores the direct impact and the political implications of the revolutions on the many British women caught up in them, using a range of sources. It places the revolution in an historical context and also examines the response of the British women to the politics of the revolution, which reflect their own social, cultural and class related bias, exploring how they were forced to engage with revolution from the inside.
This chapter considers the final victory in Serbia, set against the longer term defeat in Russia. After the armistice in 1918 many British women who had been involved in the plight of Serbia for four years took the decision not to go home. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals stayed and engaged in continuing relief work in a broken country, running roadside dispensaries and canteens, opening hospitals and orphanages, some committing themselves to Serbia permanently. This chapter explores these post-war roles and draws together the legacy of the British women in the Balkans by examining their relief operations. The rise of the USSR in the Inter-war years had a significant impact on the structure of Europe as a whole, particularly the Balkan States. In 1937, Rebecca West travelled across the Balkans, the new Yugoslavia, documenting what she saw and placing it in the context of its recent history. She recorded her experiences in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a book about travel and politics that helps to consolidate the work of many of the women considered in this book. An analysis of West's writing will act as a framing device for this conclusion