The Self Storage Association Partners With The Royal British Legion To Remember The Countless Women Who Served Sacrificed And Changed Our World During The First World War
Women of World War One will be honoured on banners being hung from self storage stores across the country. These banners are being unfurled in the first week of November to commemorate Remembrance Day on 11 November, this year marking 100 years since the end of the First World War.
Catherine Davies, Head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion: “We owe the First World War generation a huge debt of gratitude for helping shape the world as we know it today. Not only the 1.2 million British and Commonwealth Armed Forces who lost their lives on the battlefields but also those who kept the home front going. Women played an essential role in the war effort, seizing the opportunity to prove their worth and take another step towards getting the vote. Each and every one of them deserves our thanks.”
Rennie Schafer, chief executive officer of the SSA UK: “We were struck by how few women were remembered in the history books, even though they formed the backbone of the war effort. From making ammunition to serving at The Front, they showed such courage, determination and resilience. When we appealed for local stories, we were extremely touched by the memories people shared.”
Below are some of the stories that have been shared with us as part of this project.
Aged 18 in 1914
Lilian was a munitions worker at the National Projectile Factory, Hall Street, Dudley during the war (the factory opened in August 1915). The factory originally employed around four thousand workers - many were women and children. The women proved to be no less industrious than their male counterparts and at the height of the war the factory was producing 6,000 six inch high explosives and 15,000 sixty pounder shrapnel shells every week.
When Yorkshire born Flora Sandes arrived in Serbia in 1914 as a voluntary nurse, no one could have imagined she’d end up fighting on the frontline. When Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria invaded Serbia in autumn 1915, she refused to leave, joining a Serbian army ambulance unit instead.
She travelled with them throughout the Battle of Babun, and as they retreated through the Albanian mountains during the winter, she was armed with a gun and enrolled into Fourth Company, 2nd Regiment. On New Year’s Day 1916, she was made a corporal and rapidly rose through the ranks.
In August 1916, Sandes fought with the Second Regiment to reclaim their homeland from occupation. Wearing a British khaki uniform, she lived, ate and fought alongside the men and was seriously wounded in November, re-joining troops in the trenches in the spring of 1917. Her injuries forced her to leave frontline service towards the end of that year, but she remained a Second Lieutenant in the Serbian army until demobilisation in 1922.
Florence Cordell was a Londoner, who’d left school at the age of fourteen to work in a lampshade factory. With the war leading to a down-turn in trade and work prospects, Florence began to look for war work instead. Aged 21, Florence applied to work on the Underground, but was turned down for not being tall enough. Instead she applied to be a bus conductor with the London General Omnibus Company and was readily accepted. Once Florence was assigned a route, she received a regular income and was paid the same as the male conductors. It was only later on, when the bus company proposed paying the women 5 shillings a week less for the same work as the men, that the transport workers, both male and female, went on strike in 1918. The uniform gave Florence a sense of pride and she enjoyed her time as a bus conductor and the financial independence that came with it, but she accepted that it had to come to an end in 1919.
The Pole Sisters
With men away at The Front, law and order faced a crisis. One concern was for the “morals” of women; tens of thousands of young men heading to war were eager to have an experience with the opposite sex for the first (and possibly the last) time. It was a recipe for trouble. In response to this perceived “threat to public decency”, women volunteers took to the streets all over Britain, working at rail stations, parks, factories, camps and other public spaces. Edith Smith, a widow and former midwife, became the first woman police constable to be sworn in and given power of arrest. From December 1915, she patrolled Grantham for two years, cracking down on “unseemly conduct”. Smith would approach couples and “with motherly frankness, point out the dangers and appeal to [men’s] chivalry for the protection of the girls”. Smith was one of 4,000 women to take on police duties during the war. For all her good works, Edith Smith was a troubled soul. After two years working seven days a week in Grantham she left the police in 1918. Five years later she died of a morphine overdose.
When the call came, Gladys Pole thought it was a joke. She and her three sisters had spent the first weeks of the war helping to set up a “hospital” at their father’s church hall. Vicar’s daughters Gladys, Hilda, Muriel and Lily and Pole spent the first weeks of the war helping to set up a “hospital” at their father’s church hall and then mobilised it. The Pole sisters’ efforts were typical of the 90,000 men and women who volunteered as unpaid Voluntary Aid Detachment workers during the First World War. Most would work as nurses, ambulance drivers, cooks and maids, mainly in Britain, but also on the Eastern and Western Fronts, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. Some were in hospitals and more at 2,500 VAD branches. The VAD was set up in 1910 by the Red Cross and the Order of St John to boost established nursing services. By July 1914, 5,300 women had volunteered to work in hospitals and 47,000 in the branches. By 1916 most towns had VAD-staffed establishments; 12,000 were in hospitals and 60,000 in branches. Two thirds were women.
Eva Josephine Marsh
Eva was one of sixteen children, eight of whom survived. Born in Southampton she left school at the age of 14 to work at home whilst her sisters found employment as dressmakers, like their mother. When her fiancé went to war she was left heartbroken that she had not been able to see him go and determined that she would leave home and volunteer for war work.
Starting out on a farm, she was instructed to drive a horse and cart up a hill and spread muck on the top field.
Eva loved the country life, relishing the fresh air and not minding having to get up before dawn. It was only when her grandmother broke her hip that she had to resign and return home to support her family.
Edith was a nurse executed by the Germans for “treason” after helping hundreds of allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. A vicar’s daughter from Norwich, she was matron of a Brussels nursing school before the war. Her trial and execution aged 49 received worldwide coverage and she became a poster woman for Allied war propaganda. Her statement: “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” became an inspiration for the war effort.
Lady Jane Turnbull
Lady Jane Turnbull née Grey (1899 – 1991) was the daughter of William Grey, 9th Earl of Stamford and her family are associated with Dunham Massey and Ashley Hall. In 1917 Jane was by then a trained nurse and her home of Dunham Massey was taken over as a hospital for wounded WW1 soldiers. She was involved in every aspect of their care from general nursing to assisting the surgeons in theatre. Unusual for a woman the upper classes to be in the middle of nursing to that extent. She recorded a lot of her experiences in a diary and scrapbook which are kept in the archives at Dunham Massey. These records are now in the care of the National Trust.
Nellie Spindler trained to be a nurse, starting at Wakefield Fever Hospital. Later, she was to enlist with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. It is possible that she lied about her age to qualify to serve with the corps as there was an age requirement of 25 to join and, at the time she enrolled, Nellie was only 24. In 1917 she moved to Belgium after a short time in France, and was posted to a Casualty Clearing Station at Brandhoek, just a few miles from the front line and within range of German guns. Being close to both a railway and a munitions dump, the area was a target for German bombing. On the morning of 21st August 1917, Nellie was hit by an exploding German shell and died 20 minutes later in the arms of Minnie Wood, another nurse from Wakefield. Nellie was buried in the Lijssenthoek War Graves Cemetery in Belgium with full military honours, the only woman to be buried there amongst over 10,000 men.
Gertrude McCroben was the headmistress at Wakefield Girls High School. The students there were kept abreast of all war developments with form rooms having their own War Maps, a contour map of Europe was displayed in the hall and articles and pictures were on the school notice board. Lessons were suspended and replaced with fund raising activities to enable the funding of an ambulance that was kitted out and sent to the Belgium Front to support the soldiers there. War diaries were kept with strategies of campaigns and regular female guest speakers who had contributed to the war effort were invited to speak. Miss Bacon, for example, who was one of the first female pilots. WGHS families were encouraged and enabled by Miss McCroben to take in child war refugees from Belgium and fund raising also took place to raise money for Wakefield families left bereaved by the war. The school acted as a war hospital for war casualties and Miss McCroben helped to supervise and train the girls in the basics of nursing.