Women Heroes of World War I – a review

In 2011, American author, Kathryn Atwood, wrote a book entitled Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Now, comes a prequel to that title, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics.

Women Heroes of WWI coverWhen one thinks of the Great War, invariably the first images to spring to mind are, understandably, that of soldiers in the trenches, men with shellshocked eyes carrying their wounded comrades, soldiers with gas masks. Women, with the exception of nurses, rarely feature among the iconic images of the war. Atwood, in her finely-crafted book, attempts to redress the balance.

Nurses, resisters, soldiers and journalists

Kathryn Atwood’s book, although aimed primarily at the ‘Young Adult’ market, is a fine read for all. Her introduction provides a brief overview on how the war started and the changing role of women as the conflict progressed. The book is then divided up into sections where we are told the stories of some incredibly brave women. We have a section on nurses, resistance and espionage, women soldiers and journalists. Some, like Edith Cavell (pictured), are still remembered but most have been forgotten, partly, says Atwood, because their stories have been eclipsed by the very women they helped inspire during the Second World War.

Edith CavellThe stories are indeed remarkable. We have, for example, Louise Thuliez, whose resistance work in Belgium was discovered by the Germans and stood trial alongside Cavell. Following the war, she was decorated by French president, Georges Clemenceau. We have Emilienne Moreau who, just 16-years-old, single-handedly managed to warn a company of Scottish soldiers that they were walking straight into a German ambush. Days later, she shot dead two Germans with a revolver. Incredibly, a quarter of a century later, following the fall of France in June 1940, Emilienne resumed her resistance work.

We meet Marthe Cnockaert who was awarded the German Iron Cross for her work tending German wounded in a Belgian hospital. Yet many of those she tended had been wounded as a direct result of intelligence she had supplied to the British, who, using her information, had bombed a German stronghold. She was later found out, arrested and tried. Facing the death penalty, two German officers testified on her behalf and her sentence was commuted to imprisonment. Such is war.

Battalion of Death

Maria BochkarevaAtwood relates the astonishing tale of Maria Bochkareva (pictured), a 25-year-old Russian. Having been prohibited from bearing arms, she wrote to Tsar Nicholas pleading her desire to fight for the motherland, and was duly accepted into the army. She soon overcame the innate discrimination of her male colleagues by her acts of courage under fire and her incredible marksmanship. Following the tsar’s downfall, and as Russian soldiers deserted en mass, Maria formed the ‘Women’s Battalion of Death’, formed specifically to shame the menfolk in continuing the fight. She had her girls shave their heads, and taught them to smoke and swear like men, and fight to the death. The Bolsheviks, who saw her as an apologist for the tsarist regime, had her executed in 1920.

I do not fear you

The theme that runs throughout the book, and one that is common to all sixteen of these heroines, is the fight for acceptance. Civil and military authorities, in all countries, deemed war man’s work. Undeterred, these women fought on – against the enemy and against the conventions of the time, slowly dismantling the edifices of what the establishment considered the role of women to be. They were driven by patriotism, hatred of the enemy and the desire to help. Yet they were also driven, in most cases, by the sense of adventure, a new and real meaning to their lives, and an opportunity to break out of the constrictions of societal expectations. Belgian, Gabrielle Petit, wrote of her resistance work that at no time had she ‘been happier’. Tried by the Germans, she said to them, ‘I do not fear you. You can kill me; I will only be replaced’. Petit, like Edith Cavell, was executed by the Germans, aged 23, on 1 April 1916.

We have partners of women

The historian A J P Taylor wrote in 1963 that the First World War had done more for the advancement of women than the pre-war woman suffragette movement. Indeed, in Great Britain, women aged 30 and over, and with certain qualifications, were first allowed to vote in 1918, and Britain returned its first female Member of Parliament, Nancy Astor, in December 1919.

In September 1918, US president, Woodrow Wilson, said ‘We have made partners of the women in this war’. Atwood writes that governments everywhere recognised that it was ‘time to treat women as citizens’.

The book is populated with quotations and plenty of lovely photographs, as seen on its colouful and appealing cover. Each chapter finishes with suggestions for further reading; there is a glossary, a fulsome bibliography and an index.


Gabrielle Petit memorialAtwood writes with great respect and admiration for her subjects but manages throughout to avoid sentimentalising them. She understands her women well enough to avoid such an obvious trap. Her grasp of the First World War provides each tale its wider context but, at the same time, she manages not to swamp the reader with too much detail. We are left in awe of what these women did, and wondering what we would have done in their circumstances.

Total war is much more than simply the actions, however important, of the brave. Yet even the deeds of the heroic are lost in the pages of history, and it is thanks to authors such as Kathryn Atwood that we can acknowledge their selflessness, their courage and, sadly, in too many cases, their ultimate sacrifice.

(Pictured: The memorial to Gabrielle Petit in Brussels).

Rupert Colley.

Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics by Kathryn Atwood is now available, published by Chicago Review Press, part of their ‘Women in Action’ series.

See also HIAH’s review of Women Heroes of World War II, and Kathryn Atwood’s article on researching and writing the book.

See also Kathryn’s article on GoodReads: American Flyboys, A World War, and Sixteen Heroic Women.