As their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons marched off to join the Great War, the women of the world stepped up to take their places in agriculture, industry, and in running their cities and towns. It had always been so when war came, but the sheer number of men serving in this war was unparalleled in history. And the unfolding tragedy would take its toll on an entire generation of women.
Before the war began, husbands, brothers and fathers worked the fields, labored in factories, or staffed the offices of accounting firms, banks, and numerous other enterprises. Women kept house, tended small vegetable gardens, and raised children. But all that changed when a total of 65.5 million men marched off to war. These men were no longer at home to milk the cows or plant the fields. Factories and offices emptied. There were fewer men to drive the trucks and trains, or to manufacture goods or even desperately needed war materials.
The role of women before the beginning of the war was primarily confined to their duties in the home, in their churches, and in schools. A few worked as seamstresses or waitresses, but by and large work outside the home was considered inappropriate and opportunities for women were limited. But as more and more men went off to war it became obvious that women needed to fill those empty positions.
Women took over every job they could manage. By 1916, there were more than 100,000 women clerks in England. Another 750,000 British women held men’s jobs and another 350,000 worked in specialized jobs created by the war. A specially created “Land Army” attracted nearly a quarter of a million women into agricultural work by the end of the war.
In France there were more than 400,000 female munitions makers and over 700 women clerks worked at the Bank of France in Paris. Women found employment as railway workers and miners, factory workers and prison guards, and in every imaginable job they could manage. Many took over and ran their family farms and businesses. Millions of others volunteered as nurses, cooks and many others served as auxiliary members of their nation’s armed forces, freeing men for battle duties. And the women knew as they did so that many of the men they replaced would never return.
The press made much of the fact that women were stepping into traditional male jobs. But the unfolding tragedy of the gallant women of World War I was largely ignored as newspapers focused on the war itself and the men who fought it.
By the end of World War I, a total of nearly 65.5 million men were involved in combat. Of those, more than 12.5 million were killed and nearly 22 were wounded. Civilian deaths were estimated at nearly four million, with countless others injured. Added to that number were the nearly 50 million people who died during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.
In France, there were more than 630,000 war widows by November 1918, and even more in Germany. And while a wife with two or more children enjoyed generous state support, if her husband lost his life, the support ended and she was forced to try to make do with a meager pension. The loss of their husbands drove women into factories by the thousands. Most lacked training of any sort and were forced into menial, low-paying work just to survive. Others turned to prostitution in order to support their families.
The end of the war saw millions of widows, and many unmarried women were left without the prospect of finding husbands. During the early years of the 20th century, a woman’s identity was generally tied to that of her husband, and for these women, the prospect of living out their lives as spinsters, with its accompanying low status, was a very real possibility. And more than ten million mothers grieved the loss of their sons.
The tragedy did not end there. Many of the men who survived returned home as invalids. Victims of mustard gas attacks that permanently damaged their lungs, amputees, and others with terrible and often disfiguring injuries returned home to be cared for by wives, mothers and sisters, many of whom were forced to work full time jobs in addition to their nursing and home duties.
These women proved their extraordinary strength time and time again, both during and after the war. They survived, raised their families, and worked hard to overcome the turmoil that the war had brought into their lives. The war had tested them and changed their lives forever. And even though for some there came a new respect for their strength and courage, the First World War proved to be a woman’s tragedy.
American Women in World War I, Lettie Gavin, 1997, The University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO
An Illustrated History of the First World War, John Keegan, 2001, Alfred A. Knopf Co., New York, NY
World War I, H. P. Willmott, 2003, Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London, England