With July 28 marking 100 years since the beginning of World War One – the so-called Great War, which ended with over nine million lives lost in combat – we look at five heroic and inspiring women who made a signficant difference during that time…
In such a large-scale conflict, it’s little wonder that many stories have gone unnoticed. Women of the time overcame gender-prejudice and fear to help their country and save lives. Here we bring you the unsung heroines of World War One …
1) Dorothy Lawrence – The woman who fought on the front
After hacking off her long brown hair and learning to walk like a man, Dorothy Lawrence transformed herself into Tommy the British Soldier. She forged a birth certificate and travel documents to join the army, and was posted to the rat-infested trenches of the Somme.
She later revealed her secret to superiors and was sent back to the UK. Although Dorothy and other influential women of the time were keen for her to tell her story, she was banned from doing so and died never having the recognition she desired.
2) Lady Carnavon – The inspiration behind Downton Abbey
Almina, the Countess of Carnavon, was the socialite who inspired Lady Cora’s character in Downton Abbey. She trained as a nurse and turned Highclere Castle into a hospital, using her own fortune to fund it.
Although she was responsible for saving the lives of many soldiers, she refused a CBE, claiming that she didn’t deserve the honour.
3) Mairi Chisholm – The rogue nurse
Mairi Chisholm’s penchant for motorbikes was recognised by The Flying Ambulance Corps, who invited her to serve in Belgium.
She and close friend Elsie Knocker became disheartened by their job of taking corpses to the mortuary. Deciding that too many men were dying in the long transit to the hospital, she and Elsie decided to set up an illegal dressing station just 100m from the trenches.
Between them they saved thousands of men who may otherwise have died on their way to hospital.
4) Edith Carvell – The woman who died to save others
As a nurse serving in Brussels, Edith Carvel became famous for treating wounded soldiers, whatever their nationality. She also helped over 200 soldiers escape from the German-occupied territory by hiding them in her house and sneaking them out of the country.
A German accomplice deceived her, and she was arrested for treason in 1915. She was sentenced to death by firing squad.
5) Flora Sandes – The woman of adventure
Growing up as a tomboy, Flora Sandes was already skilled with weaponry by the time the war broke out. She became a nurse in Serbia, and gained a huge amount of respect. One day she tore her Red Cross badge from her arm and declared that she would join the 2nd Regiment as a private. It’s said that the colonel removed his badge and fastened it to her strap.
She fought until 1916 when she was wounded by shrapnel. After a short recovery period, she later re-joined the trenches and fought until 1922.
During the Second World War Flora, aged 65, refused to leave her house in Belgrade, instead she pulled on her uniform, claiming that she was going to fight the Germans again. She died aged 80, shortly after renewing her passport, determined to explore until the end.