A short while ago I was contacted by American writer, Kathryn J. Atwood, enquiring whether I would like a review copy of her latest work of non-fiction, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics (June, 2014) published by Chicago Review Press. Kathryn has also written Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue (2011, Chicago Review Press) and Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent co-authored with Pearl Witherington Cornioley (2013 – hardback, 2015 paperback, Chicago Review Press). I will be reviewing Code Name Pauline in a second article about Kathryn’s work.
Kathryn lives near Chicago, USA but is a self-confessed Anglophile with a particular interest in writing about remarkable women from history. In Women Heroes of World War I, Kathryn writes about the extraordinary feats of courage and selfless acts of heroism shown by daring girls and women from around the world (including the USA, UK, France, Russia, Belgium, Romania and Australia) during World War One. Biographical profiles featured are brought to life through the use of engaging narrative, dialogue, direct quotes, document and diary excerpts.
Although Women Heroes of World War I is primarily aimed at the young adult market (12+) it will also appeal to the budding adult historian looking for a solid introduction to aspects of this complex period in world history. Parents of young adults will also enjoy reading this book.
The book is divided into four sections, ‘Resisters and Spies’, ‘Medical Personnel’, ‘Soldiers’ and ‘Journalists’. Women featured include: Edith Cavell; Louise Thuliez; Emilienne Moreau; Gabrielle Petit; Marthe Cnockaert; Louise de Bettignies; Elsie Inglies; Olive King; Helena Gleichen; Shirley Millard; Maria Bochkareva; Flora Sandes; Marina Yurlova; Ecaterina Teodoroiu; Mary Roberts Rinehart and Madeleine Zabriskie Doty.
On 12th October this year, it will be the 100th anniversary of the death of British nurse Edith Cavell (1893-1916). When war broke-out in 1914, Edith went to Belgium and treated injured soldiers whether they were British, French or German. She even hid nearly 200 British, Belgian and French soldiers from the Germans by keeping them safe at the nursing school and clinic where she lived.
Edith also ran a secret ‘underground’ group that helped Allied soldiers escape capture by the Germans and receive a safe passage to neutral Holland. She hid her private diary by sewing it into a cushion to prevent the secret of the hidden soldiers from getting out. Edith’s activities were eventually uncovered. In Women Heroes of World War I, Kathryn Atwood describes Edith’s arrest:
On the afternoon of August 5, officers from the German secret police – Pinkhoff and Mayer – arrived at the clinic and, after a thorough search, found a letter from Edith’s mother in England that had been transmitted after the occupation of Brussels through the agency of the American Consul. It was not much, but they used it as grounds for arrest. After unleashing a lengthy tirade intended to terrify everyone within hearing, the police took Edith to Saint-Gilles prison, where she was kept in a tiny cell and interrogated on three separate occasions. When she admitted that she had used the clinic to hide healthy Allied soldiers, the Germans realized that Edith was eligible for the death sentence. Under the German penal code, “conducting soldiers to the enemy” was considered treasonous and a capital offense.
(Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics by Kathryn Atwood, 2014, published by Chicago Review , pp.30-1)
Ten weeks later, on October 7th, 1915, Edith was tried and sentenced to the death. In the early morning of October 12th, 1915, she was executed at the Belgian national shooting range, Tir National.
Although some of the stories in Women Heroes of World War I are well-known, like Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit’s for instance, many are not quite so familiar to us, for example:
- 17-year-old Frenchwoman Emilienne Moreau (1898-1971) assisted the Allies as a guide and set- up a first-aid post in her home;
- Russian peasant Maria Bochkareva (1889-1920) who joined the Imperial Russian Army by securing the personal permission of Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918), was twice wounded in battle and decorated for bravery, and created and led the all-women combat unit the “Women’s Battalion of Death” on the eastern front;
- American journalist Madeleine Zabriskie Doty (1877-1963) risked her life to travel twice to Germany during the war in order to report back the truth;
- Surgeon Elsie Inglis (1864-1917) founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service and bravely stood up to the invading Germans while caring for sick and wounded in Serbia;
- Flora Sandes (1876-1956) the only British woman to serve as a soldier in World War One. She enlisted in the Serbian army after working in the ambulance service that was the first volunteer unit to leave Britain. The Serbian army was one of the few in the world to accept women. She became a Corporal and then a Sergeant-Major.
Kathryn’s research is impeccable, the text is written with care, precision and flare, carrying the reader along on an enthralling historical and biographical journey. Drawing upon original sources, for example, documents, personal diaries, photographs and direct quotes, providing a glimpse into the lives of this pioneering group of women, a number of whom had a relatively short lifespan.
Each chapter contains background information panels providing further detail on key historical events referred to within the text (see below). A clever idea to embed this information within each relevant chapter, saves research time whilst you are reading. At end of each chapter is a ‘Learn More’ resources section with useful websites and suggestions for further reading. Readers will also find a useful ‘Glossary’ at the back of the book.
Interview With Kathryn J. Atwood – April 2015
What first inspired you to write about this incredible group of women?:
Actually, it was my editor at the Chicago Review Press, Lisa Reardon, who first suggested I write a sort of prequel to my first book, Women Heroes of World War II. I initially dragged my heels on the idea because the only heroines of World War One that initially came to my mind were nurses and while I was certain they’d been exceptional human beings, I didn’t want to write an entire book on women who played a single role.
But then one of our sons gave my husband an interesting Christmas gift: Flyboys, a film about some American pilots who flew for the French during World War One before the U.S. became officially involved. While it’s not exactly the Saving Private Ryan of World War One films, the excellent period details made me want to more thoroughly understand the war.
Then one night, after I’d initiated my search for women’s stories, I turned on the television to see Matthew Crawley [Downton Abbey] in that amazing replica of the Western Front. It was the first time I’d encountered Downton Abbey and it fuelled my determination to write the book. It also turned me into a Downton fan … although in my opinion that second season has remained by far the most compelling!
Whose story did you first discover?
I already knew the outline of Edith Cavell’s story but the second woman I decided to include was Gabrielle Petit. I discovered her through a query to the Ypres Great War Museum when one of their knowledgeable volunteers, Freddy Rottey, sent me a packet of English-language articles about Petit.
He admitted that most of it was hagiography, written shortly after the war, but reading between the exaggerated lines, I could tell there was a great story there. So I purchased more recently written French-language biographical materials and handed them to my Francophile husband for translation.
Why do you think so many of these stories have remained untold for so long?
Women’s history is like an iceberg: when a particular era has passed into history, all that’s showing above water, so to speak, are the roles that men played. Studying women’s roles lets one see what’s underwater, the entire mountain of ice, the entire time period.
And if the heroines of World War Two are hardly remembered, those of the first have been completely snowed under. World War Two is generally considered a more compelling study because of its element of good vs. evil. However, the World War One was fought and supported by young people of such noble aspirations and calibre, it’s not only shameful that their lives were destroyed in such devastating numbers but that their stories are not more widely known. I hope my book might help remedy that situation!
Which individual’s story has touched/inspired you the most and why?
Gabrielle Petit. Her early life was so chaotic and difficult she tried to end it. But while working for British Intelligence during the war, her passionate nature found a focus which resulted in a patriotism, so winning it resonated for decades afterwards.
She was beloved and mourned by Belgians of various ethnicities who generally couldn’t agree on much else. She also directly inspired Belgian resistance during World War Two: so many flowers appeared at the foot of her statue in Brussels that the Germans posted a sentry there! And Brussels native Andree de Jongh, having grown up on stories of both Petit and Cavell, created an escape network that rescued hundreds of Allied airmen during World War Two.
What would you say are the key character qualities that all of the women you have written about have in common?
The women in my World War One and World War Two collective biographies were compelled into action by powerful conviction and they had the courage to follow their instincts in order to find a way to do what they thought needed to be done.
If you could invite 5 of the women you have written in Women Heroes of World War I to a dinner party, hosted by your good self, who would you choose and why?
For elegant conversation, initially reserved, perhaps, but eventually taking a fascinating turn, I would invite Edith Cavell, Louise de Bettignies, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Helena Gleichen, and Madeleine Zabriskie-Doty. For a more animated, visceral conversation I’d choose Gabrielle Petit, Maria Bochkareva, Louise Thuliez, Elsie Inglis, and Olive King. I might decide to sit between the latter two as Olive King left the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, founded by Elsie Inglis, because she felt inhibited by the many regulations!
If all these women were alive now, what life lessons do you think they would impart to their female counterparts in 2015?
I find it quite astonishing that they enthusiastically supported the wartime causes of nations who were at that moment denying them equal rights and accepting their services simply because there was no one else to do the job! Perhaps they would have a collective message about seizing windows of opportunity and following one’s conscience.
What does history mean to you and why is it so important, do you think, to keep the past alive for future generations, particularly young adults, to discover?
While technology and societal norms change, human nature doesn’t. That’s why “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” A positive variation of that thought, and what I try to accomplish with my books is this: those who admire the heroes of the past just might become heroes themselves.
History is full of stories of people who made courageous choices in the midst of difficulty, who gave their time and effort – and sometimes their lives — for something higher than themselves. That’s inspiring no matter what one’s age but it’s particularly important for young people in search of something that matters.
- Kathryn J. Atwood – author’s page on ‘goodreads’ ; Twitter – @ ;
- Kathryn J. Atwood – author’s website (click here);
- Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics – UK Amazon & US Amazon;
- Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics = Author’s Blog ‘Women Heroes of World War I’ (Click Here);
- Chicago Review Press (Kathryn J. Atwood’s Page);
- Women Heroes of World War II (2011) – UK Amazon & US Amazon ;
- Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of A World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley & Kathryn J. Atwood (2015, paperback version) – UK Amazon & US Amazon.