“There’s nothing before us except starvation” (Evening News: Friday 13th Aug’ 1914)
Today I started the second week of my course with the University of Leeds; World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism.
As part of this week we have been asked to research and discuss heroines during World War I and the course itself has focused on Edith Cavell as their example.
Edith Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse who is celebrated for saving lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
If I am to consider what a heroine means to me then I would need to look closer to home and to look at the women in my own family.
Were the woman our soldiers left behind heroines in their own right?
What adversity’s did they face?
How did they manage to provide for their family whilst their husbands, brothers and fathers were away fighting?
I am going to consider one such woman in my family, who was very much a heroine as her husband was hero.
Her name was Clara Plaskett (Nee; Wilson), my 2x great-grandmother, she was born on the 12th February 1885 at 4 Downsall Road, Leyton, Essex and was a daughter of Samuel Wilson (1840 – 1918) and Selina Aylott (1853 – 1909).
Clara married her husband Edmund Lionel Plaskett (1881 – 1952) on the 24th June 1906 at The parish church of Old ford End, Poplar, Essex. For the first few years of marriage the family lived with Clara’s parents but sadly in 1909 her mother Selina committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Hydrochloric Acid. I can imagine it was a heartbreaking time for the family and must have been a huge weight on Clara’s shoulders.
That same year her husband Edmund who had previously worked as a Warehouseman enlisted with 1st London Regiment. Within 5 years England would be at war, her husband would be sent overseas and she would be left at home bringing up three young children and taking care of her elderly father.
So how did she manage?
Most people know of the famous land and sea battles of WW1, the hardship of life in the
trenches; but this is another side of the story, the part played by unsung heroes, the women of the home front.
These women stepped into the breach to do the men’s work at home. Without them victory would not have been won. There was no industry, no trade in which women were not employed and giving satisfaction. All thought they had no vote or legal status under law.
Below is a poem Written by S Gertrude Ford; She was an ardent feminist and worked tirelessly for the ‘Woman’s Cause’. This poem gives us a little insight into how Women were feeling during World War One.
‘A FIGHT TO A FINISH’
‘Fight the year out!’ the War-lords said:
What said the dying among the dead?
‘To the last man!’ cried the profiteers:
What said the poor in the starveling years?
‘War is good!’ yelled the jingo-kind:
What said the wounded, the maimed and blind?
‘Fight on!’ the Armament-kings besought:
Nobody asked what the women thought.
‘On!’ echoed Hate where the fiends kept tryst:
Asked the Church, even, what said Christ?
Women were first employed doing so-called women’s work, such as knitting garments, dispatching food parcels and other gentle forms of work, such as clerks. But not bank clerks. It was thought that lady clerks, by nature would gossip about client transactions. Eventually most types of work were done by women. From bank clerks to drivers, from munitions’ workers to farm workers; but they were still expected to make the tea!
Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war many East End factories had closed. Workers had no benefits to fall back on and little chance of finding another position. At the same time, panic-buying caused food prices to rise rapidly.
As men on the Army reserves list were called up and others enlisted, many women were suddenly left alone to provide for their family, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice. While separation allowances to provide for soldier’s wives and children were slowly introduced, they were not generous, were often paid late and could be suspended for weeks at a time. The queues at town halls all over the country were enormous, and marriage and birth certificates requested as proof cost money to acquire, and were frequently lost by the administration.
With only antiquated Poor Laws, the workhouse, and minimal National Insurance coverage in place of a welfare state, within weeks of war’s outbreak many families in the East End were facing starvation.
Clara must have been very resilient and she is just one example of millions of Women across England that faced uncertainty during this time, from keeping the fires burning at home, to getting food onto the table, this was just one small factor that they faced each and everyday day. They also wanted to do their part for the War effort, they were called upon to make ammunition, clothing and they helped keep the agricultural industry going.
Women are the unsung heroes of World War One, I have only touched lightly on this subject but what they must have achieved for our country, for women’s rights and for their men on the battlefields is quite extraordinary.