Author: Kathryn J. Atwood

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

ISBN: 978-1-61374-686-8

The stereotypical image of the combatants in World War I is of bedraggled and weary men fighting for their very existence in muddy, rat-infested trenches dug deep into the ground of a besieged and war-torn France. However, that the War went far beyond that country, and was most definitely not the sole domain of men, is clearly shown in Kathryn J. Atwood’s Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics. Having already proved her mettle as far as writing about the role that women played in World War II goes, in her authorship of Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue and in her editorship of Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent (both also, as is the present volume, part of the Women of Action series), the redirecting of Atwood’s attention to the Great War in the present volume serves to confirm her overall understanding of not only how devastating conflict can be, in terms of the effects that it has on the life of combatants and non-combatants alike, but also how it provides an arena for bringing out the very best in those who feel inspired or compelled to take part in it.

By focusing on the contribution made to the war effort by the sixteen outstanding women whose tales she here tells, Atwood is able to show, in some detail, how they were able to use the strengths of their gender as a cause célèbre to enhance and complement the work done by those who have traditionally been seen as the major protagonists in military struggle, namely men. The caring capacity of women, although most clearly revealed in the medical profession, is also explored in the section on resisters and spies. The bravery and allegiance of the teenager, Emilienne Moreau, who became a national symbol of hope for the French during a time when they had otherwise become disheartened by their severe losses at the Front, is echoed in more mature and full-bodied terms in the life of Louise Thuliez (who gave, as her motive for becoming involved with helping the Allied cause, “[b]ecause I am a Frenchwoman”), and in that of the fiercely defiant Gabrielle Petit.

The impact made by the death of Edith Cavell at the hands of a firing squad is shown as a key element of propaganda that was used against the Central powers for the rest of the war. Atwood’s logical arranging of the chapters of her book shows the considerable amount of forethought that she has put into this work. By heading Women Heroes of World War I with a description of Cavell’s involvement in the war, Atwood is able to refer back to the heroic stance that she adopted, even at her own execution, in later chapters. An instance of this is the fruitless attempt that was made by the Germans to get Elsie Inglis, founder of field hospitals run entirely by women, to sign a declaration condoning their treatment of her in captivity, which they could have used to reflect their humanitarianism, and to deflate the outrage felt by the rest of the world on Cavell’s death.

The heroic role played by the Russian women who voluntarily enlisted in the Women’s Battalion of Death, headed up by Maria Bochkareva, in raising the morale of those who fought on the Eastern Front is counterpoised against the role of the intrepid intelligence organizer extraordinaire, Louise de Bettignies, who inscribed her petticoats with messages written in lemon juice, a cheap form of invisible ink, so that she could move through enemy lines unscathed. No matter to which country or cause the women described in Women Heroes of World War I committed their energetic endeavours, they are all shown as having maximized the resources at their disposal, whether of a more feminine nature, or through temporary suppression of their gender in support of what they saw as a far more urgent cause.

In short, Atwood’s book is a reflection of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and deserves its place on the bookshelf of anyone who is truly interested in the history not only of World War I, but also of womankind itself.

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