After the Summer

Prior to last week’s post, I hadn’t posted anything in a while – soz. As the autumn and winter months draw in, I’ll no doubt be posting a lot more. Summer kind of takes hold, and I did have a busy summer, though I haven’t stopped talking about and thinking about history the whole time. Even on my holiday in Portugal – a relaxing, sunny holiday – I wasn’t completely satisfied until we visited the old town of Sitges, home to a castle from the Middle Ages and an archaeological museum.

But now the Autumn has set in. And there’s something about this time of year, that for some reason always takes me back to my insatiable interest in WWI.

It’s a strange thing.

It’s the smell on the air – damp, muddy, fresh smell. It reminds me of visiting the old battlefields, the memorials, the cemeteries, the preserved trenches, especially when I went there three years ago at the end of October.  I feel like I need to go back there this time of year every year. It’s a strange calling I have.

Instead, I have to make do with entertaining myself with WWI related stuff. Like War Horse – watched that last weekend. It was interesting. I liked the idea. I’ve never read the book. My main criticism of the film? The filters/lighting of the scenes were a little too strong. But obviously that’s more technical. My favourite part? The charge of the cavalry – that realisation that being an arrogant Brit won’t save you from death, especially when you run into machine guns head on, armed with nothing more than a sword.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual excelled at playing a well bred English man in this film, and also in Parade’s End – a strange five part BBC drama. Featuring WWI (again) and suffragettes. Quite interesting, but strange as it jumped forward a lot through time. It would spend ten minutes on one scene – a conversation between two people – then jump forward a year. I reckon the books probably fill in the gaps a bit better, a set of three written by Ford Madox Ford in the twenties. I think I’ll have to read them at some point; there’s something comforting knowing a book was written close to the time of the events it references. It’s interesting to see the difference in perspective between then and now.

I also bought Birdsong on blu-ray, the BBC drama, produced by Working Title. Felt that should definitely have won some awards, but it didn’t. People seemed to love it or hate it when it was on in January and I obviously loved it.

I also have three books on my shelf to read. I started reading The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston last year. It’s Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiography. I mostly got it as I wanted to read about his time in the war and about his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and his friendship with Wilfred Owen. So I thought I’d get the full autobiography, learn about life in the English countryside before the war etc.

Turns out that Sassoon completely omitted Owen from the biography, as he was anxious not to show his relationship with him as homosexually intimate – as it wasn’t. Or to give any readers the slightest impression that it was – it was just a friendship. I didn’t even get to that bit, and I was already a bit disappointed; this was also because I kind of got a bit bored with stories about cricket and fox hunting. Not a massive interest in either and pretty much half of it is about those two things so far. But it’s cool – I gave up reading purposely at the point when he decides to sign up to the army, so it won’t be too hard to get back into.

I also have to read a new novel on World War One, though I’m a bit dubious of reading more recent war novels, after the awkward ending of Ben Elton’s The First Casualty. I didn’t like the ending or even really like the main character of that book. Anyway, the new book I have is called My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Found this after seeing a link to another fairly new war book, hailed as the new Birdsong. As some reviewers on Amazon disagreed with this, I decided not to get it, but got the My Dear… book instead, as most people gave it five stars.

And as a present to my manager when I left my job as a planner for Viasat History the other week, I got her Strange Meeting by Susan Hill – my favourite war book. Even more than Regeneration by Pat Barker. And as my leaving present? The Faces of World War I: The Tragedy of the Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur – an amazing book with haunting images.

Anyway, this was only meant to be a quick catch up, and I’m waffling on as if this is a review blog. Well, it isn’t. So I’m stopping there.

*

Separate point – was in a pub in Streatham the other weekend and was struck by this portrait:

The pub was called Earl Ferrers. This was a title not a name. This particular portrait is of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers…and the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in this country. He was hanged on 5th May 1760, for shooting an old family steward. I just thought it was a strange painting especially as the noose is too small.

Dangerous Jobs for Women

So, you’ve heard of The Dangerous Book for Boys and maybe The Worst Jobs in History series’s. But what about the dangerous jobs for women throughout the ages?

Women have been given very little airtime in historical accounts, and when they are written into anything, it’s to reinforce the age old sterotypes:

– Women did nothing during the First World War except write poetry whingeing about the lack of attention they received from their fiances on the front line, knit socks and dish out white feathers to innocent and unsuspecting young men out of uniform.

– Ancient Athens promulgated the idea of democracy where EVERYONE was involved in voting.

– Women do not and have never held a rightful place in the Christian church.

Well, to the first, if you just read the angry First World War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, then you will assume that women did very little during the war except what is named in the sentence above. In fact, many women joined up with the war effort as VAD nurses, having to care for all the injured and ill men, became part of the Land Army (yes – there was one in WWI), worked in munitions factories and much more. Are any of these women commemorated? Not obviously.

To the second, the idea of democracy involves all the people, coming from the Greek word that means “rule of the people”. Of course, the Ancient Grecians’ idea of “the people” lacked two major  groups – slaves and…women! Democracy? Pah!

To the last, just watch Divine Women, a new BBC series presented by the legendary Ancient History expert Bettany Hughes (well, I think she’s a leg anyway). She proves that women were pretty much written out of Christianity (and other religions such as Islam), so much so that mosaics and writings and teachings were tampered with to make women look like men, and female names like males’, such as Theodora the Bishop changed to Theodor and much more. And why? They were written out because early men in the church believed women were unequals, shameful. This judgement was sealed in 387 AD, when Augustine of Hippo became a Christian and a Theoligan. On becoming a Christian, he also became celibate. The problem was, prior to this he had been a bit of a sex fiend. So of course, he promoted and embellished the powerful concept of Original Sin – sex breeds sin, and women like Eve are dangerous sexual deviants and temptresses. The rest is history – ignorant history.

So, here is my first example of what struck me as a really dangerous job for women: Munitionettes of the First World War.

During the First World War women did not have the vote. The Suffragette Movement was stalled mid-flow on the outbreak of war, as they thought their resources would be better spent focusing on the war/anti-war effort. Despite the obstruction to their vote, the government nonetheless relied on women in the war effort. The government relied on women more than they paid for it (women didn’t get as high a wage as their male equals). This was during what became known as the “shell scandal/crisis” of 1915, when there just wasn’t enough available ammunition for those on the front (the crisis eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal Governement in 1916). Saying that, when I went on a trip to the First World War trenches, I learnt there, at an excavated trench that still held the remnants of a shell gun station, that British shells were notorious for not exploding on impact, and so maybe a little pointless?

Anyway, it took a little while for the concept of women working for the war effort to catch on, as women were expected to stay at home, and were definitely not thought of as capable replacements for men in the industrial, farming, and generally any of the industries that involved any amount of manual labour. No doubt, the women suffered many vindictive games at the hands of the threatened men they worked with in the factories. Still, women played a large role in keeping the home fires burning. They relied on money as much as their male contemporaries, and whilst these men took advantage of becoming soldiers in return for a stable income, so these women took on the roles that were needed during the war.

I came across the job of the munitionettes in the book Voices of the Twentieth Century: Women at War:

 

Munition workers worked in the factories with raw materials – such as the explosives and gas used in shells. Rules were followed strictly, and disobedience of these were treated serverely. In this book, I found the story of Lilian Miles, who tells of her friend who accidentally dropped a match, when she took out her handkerchief at work. Although she tried to protest her friend’s innocence, her friend was given a twenty-eight day prison sentence by the court. She never got over this, dying a few months later at the age of twenty. It’s shocking, but not so much when you learn that the army sent pilots up in planes without parachutes, during this war, to “avoid cowardice”.

Aside of the fear of a fire erupting in a shell factory – you can imagine why – is what seems to me as the other most dangerous aspect of these jobs, and that was working with poisons. For example, women who worked with TNT were often nicknamed “canaries” because their skin went yellow. They suffered many long term effects even after the war, such as infertility as a result of the poisons. Even those in other fields suffered similarly; the women who workerd with the toxic dye used to make khaki uniforms, developed painful boils.

Elsie McIntyre, gives an account of working at the Barnbow National Shell Factory in Leeds, in Women at War, saying:

 “…We had a fortnight in the powder and after the fortnight we had a fortnight on the stencil side. That was the dirty side. You could only do a fortnight. And then you had to come out, owing to the poison. And it was those people that you saw going about, they had yellow hands even through the gloves. We had two half-pints of milk a day to keep out the poison from the powder.”

Milk was used to keep the skin colouring at bay, that was caused by such explosives as cordite and TNT. Despite food rationing, munitions workers were given as much milk and barley water as they needed for this reason. Yet, still this wasn’t enough as Isabella Clarke, a munitionette in the First World War, explains: she says that even the pillow cases they slept on would go pink from their hair, and that you could tell by the discolour of the white of someone’s eyes if the gas they worked with had affected them. Her and her friend were both stopped because their eyes were discoloured – her friend’s were more discoloured than her own. She says:

“I was fortunate, my friend refused this herring that was cooked for us and I was a bit greedy and I ate mine and hers. It made me sick. Being bilious after the herring it was what really saved me.”

Later she was informed that her friend had died.

 

There’ll be more to come on dangerous jobs for women in later posts.

 

Thanks to Fountain, Nigel, ed., Voices from the Twentieth Century: Women at War (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 2002).