The First World War, as its name suggests, was a conflict unlike any before – countries far removed from Europe found themselves supplying men and labour, if not actual battlegrounds, to support the various war efforts. In terms of its brutality and loss of life, it was also unique in world history: nine million military personnel and seven million civilians succumbed to war related injuries and events. What is often overlooked, however, are the immense contributions and sacrifices women made during wartime.
A subject of this magnitude can hardly be covered in a single article, so we’ll briefly touch on just one area that forever challenged gender stereotypes: women in the non-traditional workforce. Women as peace activists, unfortunately, won’t be addressed here.
The new heads of households
The governments of warring nations were well aware of the fact that it was vital that the morale of even conscripted men be upheld by ensuring that the families they left behind would receive an income. Although differing in amounts and implementation, a central method used to achieve this was the “separation allowance”.
The idea was that government payments would sustain women and children while male breadwinners were deployed in military service. The reality, however, was that many women had to enter into the workforce to gain a wage that would supplement inadequate allowances.
The dramatically increased and sudden entry of women into the labour market also resulted from the fact that the war was lasting for much longer than anticipated. To put it bluntly, nations couldn’t sustain their militaries and domestic economies without replacing male workers that had vacated jobs to serve in the armed forces.
One academic writes:
As male waged laborers entered the armed services, women filled their ranks, finding employment on a scale neither seen before the war nor sustained afterwards. Women not only entered wartime factories, but also banks and places of business and government as clerks, typists, and secretaries. They were found running trams and buses, delivering milk, and even joining newly-created armed forces’ auxiliaries and becoming police officers. Although varying by region, women worked on the land and sustained agriculture.
Everything under the sun… and more
This is to say that unskilled, semi-skilled and highly skilled women were employed in a wide and diverse range of essential services. It must be noted that this was done while they still maintained their household roles of being primary care providers for children, elderly parents and even struggling siblings.
Whereas many of us have, at some point, seen a photograph of a woman, in work overalls and a welding helmet, producing ammunition and arms for men at the front, in the later stages of the war when food became deeply insecure, women were also required to grow food (and even keep small livestock) in urban settings. Some were willing to temporarily relocate to rural areas to further aid in food production.
Did it work?
[If] we think of wartime conditions as a whole, the capacity of nations like Britain to mobilize a female workforce by gaining the support of trade union leadership, in contrast to Germany where such leadership opposed it, helped the war effort both in terms of supplying material support and bolstering morale.
Unfortunately, the absolutely essential functions women performed in the most adverse of conditions has been overlooked and subsumed by the battlefield actions of male soldiers. Without diminishing soldier valour, and the ultimate sacrifice many men made, history has a duty to remember the women who acted with incredible bravery, often making equally heroic sacrifices in a war that should have ended all wars – as many, incorrectly and tragically, thought it would.