Historians rethink Great War women’s role both at home and on the front line

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AS the nation prepares to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, historians are looking afresh at how the conflict altered women’s lives.

In 1914, roughly 23 per cent of women were in employment. By 1918 it had almost doubled.

Women also suffered and died on the front line.

Some 656 women are included among the casualties of the First World War, said Kate Marshall, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

“The majority of people don’t realise there were such a high number. In 1914 alone there were four with the majority going out in 1915.”

Back at home, a new reliance on women to keep the country running was to prove an important milestone in the fight for women’s independence, but the suffragette movement was put on hold so women could help in the war effort.

Miss Marshall said: “The suffragettes literally stopped what they were doing, turned on their head and joined the government – their former enemy – said ‘look we have to support them, we have to do what we can to help’.”

Many women took over running their husband’s businesses informally – making it hard to work out exactly how many were in work, she said.

“The majority of people were in small businesses and if the husband went to war, the wife then took on that home business to keep the family afloat. It would still be registered under his name and she was not classed as working, she was looking after the family.

“So when we look at figures, it really doesn’t tell us the full picture.

“In 1915 more and more men were going and more and more things on the home front were changing.

“All the war work, and that’s not just making the actual guns and the bullets, that’s making uniforms, sorting out food and logistics – all this was growing. The bigger the Army grew, the bigger the behind-the-scenes operation had to grow.

“All these women suddenly had a job to go to, or the jobs they had before the war totally ended. Everyone turned their business over for the war effort.”

The countdown to war began on June 28, 1914, with the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.