It was nearly a century ago, in June 1914, when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in an episode that would lead to the start of World War I. During the next four years, the Great War would see more than 37 million military and civilian casualties, including more than 8.5 million killed.
Millions of those casualties were women. Some were victims of mass murder, some victims of malnourishment due to food shortages, some by accident. But a number of those victims were women who had served as resisters, medical personnel, spies, journalists, and even soldiers. It is these women that Kathryn Atwood profiles in her latest book, Women Heroes of World War I.
Written for a young adult audience, Women Heroes of World War I focuses on just sixteen of the millions of women who served—either officially or unofficially—during the war. Just as their male counterparts, these women were eager to serve, some out of fervent nationalism, some out of a lust for glory, some out of a sense of adventure. But each of the women profiled in this easy-to-read book was bold and in many ways ahead of her time.
In a day and age when women were expected to serve solely as housewives, taking care of children and home, the sixteen women Atwood focuses on helped shift views and expectations of female roles. Indeed, World War I in general served as a massive shift in the way women were perceived, in the duties and roles they were expected to play, and in the ways in which their capabilities were viewed. Women, who were once rarely seen working outside the home, suddenly rushed to fill positions vacated by men leaving for the front, taking up jobs in government, agriculture, munitions factories, and shipbuilding. A smaller number became nurses, medics, spies, and even soldiers.
Women Heroes of World War I looks at several women who embodied a progressive attitude during the war. The book sticks with women from Allied countries (no women from the Central Powers are featured), and readers will find stories of exemplary women from such countries as Australia, England, France, Russia, Serbia, and the United States. From teenagers who assisted soldiers as guides and nurses to adventurous peasant women who fought on the frontlines to journalists who risked life and limb to report from enemy nations, this accessible collection commemorates the largely forgotten contributions these women made during a war that is itself often overlooked despite the fact that it was the deadliest event of the twentieth century at the time.
Arranged in four parts, the book is a collection of sixteen features, each of which stands alone. Readers can easily digest the short features, quickly working through each part. Sidebars and pull quotes lend additional insight and information, often serving to illuminate broader issues about the war in general. Each chapter ends with a “learn more” box which points readers to various resources for additional information (although it should be noted that many of the materials listed are decades old and likely not easy to locate).
Many of the stories are told in a rather matter-of-fact style, although some notes of adventure, bravery, and derring-do pop through now and again. Although not necessarily designed to be read from beginning to end in one stretch, which might be a little tedious, taken together the features do combine to serve as an inspiration, particularly to younger girls. As such, Women Heroes of World War I has something of a “girl power!” attitude, a flavor that might well spark some readers to action in their own lives, whether on a local level or perhaps on a grander scale.
Indeed, it is toward the end of the book, when Atwood quotes attorney and journalist Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, that the essence of these features comes into full view. “The courage of the little band of women I had met,” Doty says, “was stupendous.”
This, then, is the key message of the book: that women, regardless of age or era, have much to contribute to the world, whether during wartime or peacetime. In sharing these stories, Atwood has done the women featured a great service—letting their lessons in courage live on a century later. She also has done her reader a great service—reminding them that nothing, and particularly not gender, need stand in the way of courage.
June 2014, Chicago Review Press
$19.95, hardcover, 246 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen