“I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved”: the women of World War I


Postcard front for web_Women and the Great War

It’s the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and we’ve heard much about the men who went to war … but comparatively little about the women. They weren’t always left behind, reading letters from the front. They took an active role in nearly every aspect of the war – as soldiers, nurses, spies, relief workers, ambulance drivers, and yes, sometimes scribbling letters to the soldiers far away. A new exhibition at Hoover Institution, which continues through March 21, 2015, tells the stories of individual women whose acts of selflessness, courage, and integrity captured the public imagination.

Poster Collection, AT 45, Hoover Institution ArchivesPerhaps the most famous heroine of the Great War is Edith Cavell – or rather was, since her name has been largely forgotten today. Before the war, she was considered a pioneer of modern nursing: she was head of  L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, launched Belgium’s first professional nursing journal, L’infirmière, and eventually trained nurses for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.  With the war, she redoubled her efforts: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved,” she said. Cavell, a British nurse in Belgium, saved lives on both sides of the war, but in particular she helped about 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.

She did more than bandage wounds: Cavell was part of a much larger operation to help wounded British and French soldiers and Belgian and French civilians of military age get out of the country, providing them with false papers, money, and guides to reach the Dutch frontier.  She had sheltered most of them in her house.

2006c7_rolston_box05_album02_001When arrested and charged with treason under German military law, she refused to defend herself or hide what she was doing. The world appealed for mercy for the 49-year-old nurse, but Sir Horace Rowland of the British Foreign Office  said, “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.”

The Americans, at that point a neutral party in the war, urged clemency, one diplomat writing a personal letter from his sickbed. However, Germany’s Count Harrach said his only regret was that he did not have “three or four old English women to shoot,” managing to combine ageism and sexism in one go (although neither concept existed in 1915). German civil governor Baron von der Lancken pleaded with his government on her behalf –  not only because of her honesty, but because her tireless work had saved many lives on both sides. He was overruled.

poster_us_01238The night before she died, she told a priest, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” She was shot by a firing squad on October 12, 1915.

The new exhibit Women and the Great War illuminates the varied roles women—and images of women—played in the four-year conflict. The exhibit features posters, photographs, letters, diaries, postcards, handbills, pamphlets, medals, and memoirs drawn from the rich holdings of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, founded in 1919 to collect, preserve, and make available the records of that war.

And it comes in the nick of time – it’s only one month more before the centenary ends. But cheer up. Edith Cavell’s centenary is coming up next year, and it looks like the British are determined to make a splash of it.

The exhibition in the Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. – except for this week. The pavilion will be closed on Thanksgiving, November 27, and Friday, November 28. But otherwise, it’s a way to fill out the holiday weekend, beginning Saturday.

All photos courtesy Hoover Institution Library and Archives.

Winifred V. Ramplee-Smith Collection, Box 1, Envelope 1

Commander Botchkareva, at left, and her Women’s Battalion for the Allied Cause in Russia. (Photo: courtesy Hoover Institution Library and Archives).

Poster Collection, US 484, Hoover Institution Archives.

World War I Pictorial, Box 33


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