Video on SOE special agent Pearl Witherington, narrated by me.
I had the opportunity this week to come face-to-face with a slice of my target audience: teenagers. They heard the heroic story of French teen Emilienne Moreau before viewing a sizeable number of archival photos depicting German, French, British, Italian, and American women at work on the home front, in munitions factories, in the medical services, and in auxiliary military roles.
They also learned the surprising connection between the Russian Women's Battalion of Death and American suffragists: how the existence of the world-famous Russian battalion refuted the American "Bullets for Ballots" anti-suffragist slogan.
Their teacher asked them what they found the most interesting and here's what some of them had to say:
- "I found it very interesting that women inspired each other from World War I to World War II. It was also very interesting learning about the women because I never hear about women heroes" - Emma
- "I found the story of Emilienne Moreau and how France and Britain use her story for their own benefit most interesting. I think it should be a requirement to include important female heroes in textbooks." -Leah
- "I thought it was interesting that a teenage girl in France was a school teacher that was able to also be a hero. I am only three years younger than she was at the time!" - Sophie
- "Emilienne Moreau's story was really interesting because it showed how governments twisted stories of heroes in their favor." -Lilly
and on the same topic -- "...it was amazing how brave and selfless she was."
- "The Russian women's battalion of Death because of the huge impact they made (This was a response shared by many students)
- "I found the books interesting and would like to read one one day." - Maggie
- "What I found interesting is how much World War I helped women get more jobs." - Derrick
- "I liked hearing all the courageous stories about women fighting in the war." - Lincoln
- "So many woman were helpful to the war effort and broke so many barriers that were thought to be indestructible." - Eva
- "What I found most interesting was how so many women helped out in the war, whether it was being a nurse or a factory worker or a number of other things."
- "I liked when she listed all the things women did when the men were at war because I found it interesting to learn about what they did back then."
- "Emilienne Moreau and her story was inspiring and very interesting and courageous."
- "How all of the women were somehow connected. Some women joined [WWII] because they were inspired by [WWI] women, or they read memoirs, and were motivated."
- "Feminine power even though they couldn't vote yet."
- "The amount of jobs that opened up - especially that women participated in the Army and Navy, and some [in the US Navy] got paid as much as men. This is very surprising because women didn't work as much, it was less common, so the fact that they got equal pay is surprising. Even today we have issues with gender equality and pay."
- "I found all of the stories in the war effort very interesting because that is something we don't see in our textbooks. We only read about male heroes in World War I, but women played a big role."
Seventy years ago this past June the armies of the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin's bullet.
The connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.
And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.
However, something occurred early on to give the war something of that sense. On August 3, 1914, the German government requested a peaceful passage through Belgium into France. Germany's army was large and battle-ready. Belgium's was neither. Yet the Belgians refused and defended their border. The surprised Germans reacted, in some instances, with savagery. Belgium, eventually beaten and occupied became internationally known as "Brave Little Belgium." The Germans were called "The Huns." As in Attila the.
Clearly, not all German fighting men were barbarians. And the armies of the Central Powers certainly showed courage in battle; one only has to consider their enormous casualty numbers to appreciate this. Yet their cause, associated as it was with Germany's, would never seem to be as fully right to Americans as that of the Allies, who the United States finally joined in 1917.
Hoping to make a clear distinction between American and European military motivations, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stated the United States would join the war to "make the world safe for democracy." And if the United States had an all-American reason for going to war, their involvement in the European conflict produced an exceptional all-American hero.
Alvin York, born and raised in Tennessee, was an expert marksman who gained fame -- and a significant number of medals -- during one stunning incident on the Western Front: while a group of machine-gunning Germans was decimating his battalion, York single-handedly sniped off more than 20 before the rest surrendered. He then escorted 132 German prisoners to Allied headquarters.
An entire generation of American boys, inspired by York's heroics, took up his mantle when they came of age and fought Fascism from Normandy to Iwo Jima.
But there were other World War I mantles, European ones, that affected World War II Americans. During the Second World War young Belgian Andrée de Jongh created and operated an escape route that rescued hundreds of downed American (and British) airmen from occupied Europe. Her inspiration to fight Nazi Germany? Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit, two World War I heroines executed by the Germans in Brussels, de Jongh's hometown.
British WWII agent Pearl Witherington saved countless American lives after D-Day when her resistance network in Central France disrupted German communication and transportation, significantly slowing sections of the German rush to the Normandy coast. Part of Witherington's inspiration for becoming involved in resistance work had come from reading a biography of French World War I heroine Louise de Bettignies who had run a brilliantly successful espionage network for British Intelligence in German-occupied France.
World War I might seem morally ambiguous from a distance but this does not mean that we should underappreciate the dedication and courage of its participants. If the war wasn't overflowing with heroic principles, it did create exceptional heroes, some of whom would directly impact the next generation, men and women whose war would be painted in much clearer moral shades.
On a November evening in 2010 I was dropping off the corrected proofs for my first book, Women Heroes of World War II, when I was asked about writing a prequel, a Women Heroes of World War I. Lisa Reardon, my editor at the Chicago Review Press, lives only a few miles away and is always full of great ideas. But I thought she was kidding. At least I was going to react that way because my exhaustion level was much to high to allow the slightest consideration of a second contract.
When I'd regained some energy and Lisa mentioned the WWI idea again, I gave it a few serious moments before rejecting it. The only female heroism to come out of that war (or so I thought) was related to nursing; photos of smiling young women in those ankle-length uniforms immediately came to mind. I knew that the war had produced a devastating number of casualties which must have required a proportionally large number of medical professionals. But I didn't want to write an entire book on them.
If I was going to take another plunge, I had a general idea of what it might look like. Or what she might look like. The only idea with enough power to tempt me into signing another contract would be writing the biography of a late 19th century/early 20th century woman, someone who, according to the styles of her day, wore her hair up and her skirts down. But that's where her conformity ended: she had been one of those individuals who hadn't walked lockstep with the rest of her generation. No, she'd done something admirably out of step but her efforts had been, sadly, buried beneath the rubble of time. I would help remedy that situation by bringing her story to light in my new biography.
But no one in particular came to my attention and I found myself very busy during the publication year of Women Heroes of World WarII: learning the ropes of book marketing while editing the memoirs of WWII SOE agent Pearl Witherington Cornioley, a plum but time-consuming project.
It was Christmas of that year, 2011, when I suddenly decided to take another look at World War I. One of our sons gave my husband a DVD called Flyboys, a somewhat recent film regarding some young Americans who volunteered to fly fighter planes for the French Lafayette Escadrille before the U.S. had entered the Great War. While watching the film I suddenly realized that my perception of World War I -- a rather uninteresting black-and-white prelude to the more attention-worthy Second World War -- had been severely myopic. I'd never seen a modern film on the subject before and so for me Flyboys brought the era out of the realm of B&W photos (or stylized silent B&W films like Wings) and made me realize, once again, that though we might view history in B&W or as existing only on the pages of dusty books, the past was once someone's living, breathing present, filled with convictions and difficult choices. Filled with life. In color. Flyboys made me want to attain a deeper understanding of the war and explore it in terms of what interests me most -- the involvement of women.
One Sunday night, shortly after I'd begun poking around in some collective biographies, I turned on the TV to find Matthew Crawley in the trenches. I'd somehow missed the entire first season of Downton Abbey so my first encounter with the series was that stunning replica of the Western Front. The episode converted me into a Downton fan (although, in my opinion, the show's never been as compelling as when it was tied to the war). It also further fueled my determination to uncover the Great War's heroines.
I eventually discovered a fascinating variety of heroic women to include in my book. They were lockstep with their generation only in that they supported their nation's cause; their choices were not dictated by those around them but by their own consciences. I discovered Belgian and French resisters who refused to accept the German occupation. I found women whose patriotism drove them into the ranks of fighting men in Serbia, Romania, and Russia. And of course there were medics -- a doctor, an ambulance driver, a radiographer, and yes, a nurse -- who worked to save lives in Serbia, Italy, and France. Finally, I discovered two American writers who, against all warnings and common sense, put themselves in harms' way so that they could see and report what was happening on the Belgian Front and in wartime Germany. All but the soldiers wore their hair up and their skirts down and their stories were played out against a remarkable backdrop: an entire world had mobilized its women for the war effort yet few governments had given them the right to vote.
I wrote narrative chapters on sixteen of these women whose stories had been buried beneath the rubble of time -- specifically, the rubble of WWII, whose heroines they'd directly inspired before they were forgotten by nearly everyone else. Some of that amnesia was clearly a deliberate desire to forget a war of horrific casualties. But these women are too heroic to be forgotten any longer. And if I once viewed their generation's defining moment -- a cataclysm that thrust the world violently from the 19th century into the 20th -- in fuzzy hues of black and white, it will forever be for me crystal clear and in color.
BBC video on Pearl Witherington, narrated by me, the editor of her English-language memoirs.