Women of the First World War by Juliet West

16 August 2014

By Juliet West

Juliet West worked as a journalist before taking an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University, where she won the Kate Betts' Memorial Prize. Before The Fall, her debut novel, was inspired by a compelling, moving tale of a love affair, set in the East End during World War 1. 

It can’t have escaped your notice that August 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The military campaigns and the suffering endured by soldiers have been meticulously documented in history books, novels, poetry and film. But less is known about the impact on those left behind.

While researching my First World War novel, Before the Fall, I wanted to explore the lives of ordinary women who lived through the war. I came across many accounts of women whose lives were inspiring, or tragic, or both. They weren’t necessarily heroic – they were human. Here are some of their stories:
 
 

Annie Baker

When war broke out, Annie was only twenty-two - a young wife with a toddler and a five-month-old baby. Her husband Arthur worked at a sawmill in London docks. In 1915, Arthur enlisted as a rifleman, and Annie had to give up her rented rooms to move in with her sister and husband. Money was tight, but in 1916 Annie found a job in a cafĂ© close to Millwall Dock. There she met and fell in love with a customer, Richard Luck. ‘I have loved this man from the moment I saw him,’ wrote Annie. But Annie’s passion was to have terrible consequences, ending in a murder trial in 1918. I was profoundly shocked by this tragedy when I first read about it, and ultimately it was Annie’s story which inspired me to write Before the Fall.

 
Margaret Llewelyn Davies/ © www.co-op.ac.uk/politicalwomen/cs2.html 

Margaret Llewelyn Davies

A fearless campaigner for women’s rights, Margaret Llewelyn Davies was general secretary of the Women’s Co-operative Guild from 1889-1921. Pacifist, suffragist and health reformer, Llewlyn Davies successfully petitioned for the introduction of maternity benefits for mothers. She encouraged working class women to write down their accounts of childbirth and motherhood, and their letters were published in the 1915 book ‘Maternity: Letters from Working Women’. I read the book with tears in my eyes. The poverty, hardship and ignorance which so many women endured just a few generations ago is difficult to believe. But the Great War laid foundations for change. Llewelyn Davies argued that mothers - many struggling without their husbands - needed help more than ever. Local authorities responded to the appeal, setting up welfare centres, health clinics and milk depots for needy families.

                                                                                                           
Kitty Eckersley

Kitty was a young mill worker who married her sweetheart in the months before war broke out. When she and Percy were offered free tickets to a night at the music hall in 1914, they jumped at the chance. They had no idea that the evening was in fact a recruitment rally sponsored by the army. The star turn, Vesta Tilley, sang patriotic songs and wandered up and down the aisles, encouraging young men to come up on stage to join the army. Vesta touched Kitty’s husband on the shoulder and to her dismay, he followed. In the book Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Kitty says: “When we got home that night I was terribly upset. I told him I didn’t want him to go and be a soldier. I didn’t want to lose him.”

Percy was killed in 1915 when Kitty was seven months pregnant. Kitty’s story inspired the music hall scene in the opening chapters of Before the Fall.

Mary Gartside-Tipping

I came across Mary’s story while looking through local newspapers from 1917. Described as a ‘lady of considerable musical talents’, Mary gave up her comfortable middle class life after her husband, a naval officer, was killed in 1915. She began serving at the munition workers’ canteen in Woolwich, before joining the Women’s Emergency Corps and volunteering for canteen work in the French war zone. In March 1917, when Mary was in her late 40s, she was shot and killed by a French soldier whose mind was ‘disordered’. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre, which had previously been withheld from women.

It was heartbreaking to read Mary’s obituary and to think of the two daughters she left behind. Yet another example of the way in which so many families’ lives were devastated by the Great War.
 
Before the Fall