Category Archives: War

WWI Wednesday: Homecoming of the Harlem Hellfighters

Return of the 15th New York (369th Infantry)

Return of the 15th New York (369th Infantry) Shown swinging up Lenox Avenue, New York City, Where they Received a Royal Welcome.

No band of heroes returning from war ever were accorded such a welcome as that tendered to the homecoming 369th by the residents of New York, Manhattan Island and vicinity, irrespective of race. Being one of the picturesque incidents of the war, the like of which probably will not be repeated for many generations, if ever, it well deserves commemoration within the pages of this book.

Inasmuch as no more graphic, detailed and colorful account of the day’s doings has been printed anywhere, we cannot do better than quote in its entirety the story which appeared in the great newspaper, The World, of New York, on February 18, 1919. The parade and reception, during which the Negro troops practically owned the city, occurred the preceeding day. The World account follows:

The town that’s always ready to take off its hat and give a whoop for a man who’s done something—’no matter who or what he was before,’ as the old Tommy Atkins song has it—turned itself loose yesterday in welcoming home a regiment of its own fighting sons that not only did something, hut did a whole lot in winning democracy’s war. In official records, and in the histories that youngsters will study In generations to come, this regiment will probably always be known as the 369th Infantry, U. S. A. But in the hearts of a quarter million or more who lined the streets yesterday to greet it, it was no such thing. It was the old 15th New York. And so it will be in this city’s memory, archives and in the folk lore of the descendants of the men who made up its straight, smartly stepping ranks.

New York is not race-proud nor race-prejudiced. That this 369th Regiment, with the exception of its eighty-nine white officers, was composed entirely of Negroes, made no difference in the shouts and flag waving and handshakes that were bestowed upon it. New York gave its Old 15th the fullest welcome of its heart. Through scores of thousands of cheering white citizens, and then through a greater multitude of its own color, the regiment, the first actual fighting unit to parade as a unit here, marched in midday up Fifth Avenue and through Harlem, there to be almost assailed by the colored folks left behind when it went away to glory. Later it was feasted and entertained, and this time very nearly smothered with hugs and kisses by kin and friends, at the 71st Regiment Armory. Still later, perfectly behaved and perfectly ecstatic over its reception, the regiment returned to Camp Upton to await its mustering out.

At the official reviewing stand at 60th street, the kinsfolk and admirers of the regimental lads began to arrive as beforehandedly as 9 o’clock. They had tickets, and their seats were reserved for them. The official committee had seen to that—and nine-tenths of the yellow wooden benches were properly held for those good Americans of New York whom birth by chance had made dark-skinned instead of fair. BUT this was their Day of Days, and they had determined (using their own accentuation) to BE there and to be there EARLY.

The first-comers plodded across 59th Street from the San Juan Hill district, and it was fine to see them. There seemed to be a little military swank even to the youngsters, as platoons of them stepped along with faces that had been scrubbed until they shone. Had a woman a bit of fur, she wore it. Had a man a top hat—origin or vintage-date immaterial—he displayed that. All heads were up, high; eyes alight . Beaming smiles everywhere. No not quite everywhere. Occasionally there was to be seen on a left sleeve a black band with a gold star, which told the world that one of the Old 15th would never see the region west of Columbus Circle, because he had closed his eyes in France. And the faces of the wearers of these were unlaughing, but they held themselves just as proudly as the rest.

Few of the welcomed went flagless. No matter whether a man or woman wore a jewel or a pair of patent leather boots as a sign of “class,” or tramped afoot to the stand or arrived in a limousine, nearly every dark hand held the nation’s emblem. Nearly every one wore white badges bearing the letters: “Welcome, Fighting 15th,” or had pennants upon which stood out the regimental insignia—a coiled rattlesnake of white on a black field.

Those colored folk who could afford it journeyed to the stand in closed automobiles. Gorgeously gowned women alighted with great dignity beneath the admiring gaze of their humbler brethren. Taxles brought up those whose fortunes, perhaps, were not of such amplitude. Hansoms and hacks conveyed still others, and one party came in a plumber’s wagon, its women members all bundled up in shawls and blankets against the cold, but grinning delightedly as the whole stand applauded. Children by the thousands lined the east side of the avenue—Boy Scouts and uniformed kids and little girls with their school books under their arms, and they sang to the great delight of the crowd.

Just why it was that when Governor Smith and former Governor Whitman and Acting Mayor Moran and the other reviewers appeared behind a cavalcade of mounted policemen, the youngsters struck up that army classic, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” no one could tell, but It gave the reviewers and the crowd a laugh. With the state and city officials were the members of the Board of Aldermen, the Board of Estimate, Major Gen. Thomas J. Barry, Vice Admiral Albert Gleaves, Secretary of State, Francis Hugo; Rodman Wannamaker and—in a green hat and big fur coat—William Randolph Hearst. Secretary Baker of the War Department was unable to attend, but he did the next best thing and sent his colored assistant, Emmett J. Scott.

The reviewers arrived at 11:30 and had a good long wait, for at that time the paraders had not yet left 23rd Street. But what with the singing, and the general atmosphere of joyousness about the stand, there was enough to occupy everyone’s time.

It was 11:26 when the old 15th stepped away from 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue. They looked the part of the fighting men they were. At an exact angle over their right shoulders were their long-bayonetted rifles. Around their waists were belts of cartridges. On their heads were their ‘tin hats,’ the steel helmets that saved many a life, as was attested by the dents and scars in some of them. Their eyes were straight forward and their chins, held high naturally, seemed higher than ever because of the leather straps that circled them. The fighters wore spiral puttees and their heavy hobbed hiking shoes, which caused a metallic clash as they scraped over the asphalt. At the head of the line rode four platoons of mounted police, twelve abreast, and then, afoot and alone. Col. Hayward, who organized the 15th, drilled them when they had nothing but broomsticks to drill with, fathered them and loved them, and turned them Into the fightingest military organization any man’s army could want.

“The French called them ‘Hell Fighters.’ The Germans after a few mix-ups named them ‘Blutlustige Schwartzmanner’ (bloodthirsty black men.) But Col. Bill, when he speaks of them uses the words ‘those scrapping babies of mine,’ and they like that best of all. Incidentally (when out of his hearing) they refer tenderly to him as ‘Old Bill, that flghtin’ white man.’ So it’s fifty-fifty. Behind the Colonel marched his staff, Lieut. Col. W. A. Pickering, Capt. Adjutant Robert Ferguson, Major E. A. Whittemore, Regimental Sergt. Majors C. A. Connick and B. W. Cheeseman, Regimental Sergts. L. S. Payne, H. W. Dickerson and W. W. Chlsum, and Sergta. R. C. Craig, D. E. Norman and Kenneth Bellups.

The Police Band was at the front of the line of march, but it was a more famous band that provided the music to which the Black Buddies stepped northward and under the Arch of Victory—the wonderful jazz organization of Lieut. Jimmie Europe, the one colored commissioned officer of the regiment. But it wasn’t jazz that started them off. It was the historic Marche du Regiment de Sambre et Meuse, which has been France’s most popular parade piece since Napoleon’s day. As rendered now it had all the crash of bugle fanfares which is its dominant feature, but an additional undercurrent of saxaphones and basses that put a new and more peppery tang into it .

One hundred strong, and the proudest band of blowers and pounders that ever reeled off marching melody—Lieut. Jimmie’s boys lived fully up to their reputation. Their music was as sparkling as the sun that tempered the chill day. Four of their drums were instruments which they had captured from the enemy in Alsace, and ma-an, what a beating was imposed upon those sheepskins! ‘I’d very much admire to have them bush Germans a-watchin’ me today!’ said the drummer before the march started. The Old 15th doesn’t say ‘Boche’ when it refers to the foe it beat. ‘Bush’ is the word it uses, and it throws in ‘German’ for good measure.

Twenty abreast the heroes marched through a din that never ceased. They were as soldierly a lot as this town, now used to soldierly outfits, has ever seen. They had that peculiar sort of half careless, yet wholly perfect, step that the French display. Their lines were straight, their rifles at an even angle, and they moved along with the jaunty ease and lack of stiffness which comes only to men who have hiked far and frequently. The colored folks on the official stand cut loose with a wild, swelling shriek of joy as the Police Band fell out at 60th Street and remained there to play the lads along when necessary and when—now entirely itself—the khaki-clad regiment filling the street from curb to curb, stepped by.

From the stand, from the Knickerbocker Club across the street, from the nearby residences and from the curbing sounded shouts of individual greetings for the commander and his staff. But these were quickly drowned as a roar went up for Lieutenant Europe’s band, with its commander at the head—not swinging a baton like a common ordinary drum-major, but walking along with the uniform and side-arms of an officer. ‘The Salute to the 85th,’ which they learned from their comrade regiment of the French Army of General Gouraud, was what they were playing, a stirring thing full of bugle calls and drum rolls, which Europe says is the best march he ever heard.

Half way down the ranks of the 2,992 paraders appeared the colors, and all hats came off with double reverence, for the Stars and Stripes and the blue regimental standard that two husky ebony lads held proudly aloft had been carried from here to France, from France to Germany and back again, and each bore the bronze token with its green and red ribbon that is called the Croix de Guerre. Keen eyes could see these little medals swinging from the silk of the flags, high toward the top of the poles.

The residents of the avenue [Fifth] paid fine tribute to the dusky marchers. It seemed Inspiring, at 65th Street, to see Mrs. Vincent Astor standing in a window of her home, a great flag about her shoulders and a smaller one In her left hand, waving salutes. And Henry Frick, at an open window of his home at 73d Street, waving a flag and cheering at the top of his voice. The real height of the enthusiasm was reached when, after passing through 110th street and northward along Lenox Avenue, the heroes arrived in the real Black Belt of Harlem. This was the Home, Sweet Home for hundreds of them, the neighborhood they’d been born in and had grown up in, and from 129th Street north the windows and roofs and fire escapes of the five and six story apartment houses were filled to overflowing with their nearest and dearest.

The noise drowned the melody of Lieut. Europe’s band. Flowers fell in showers from above. Men, women and children from the sidewalks overran the police and threw their arms about the paraders. At 145th Street the halt was called. Again there was a tremendous rush of men and women with outstretched arms; the military discipline had to prevail, and the soldiers were not allowed to break ranks, nor were the civilians (save the quickest of them) able to give the bugs and kisses they were overflowing with. As rapidly as possible the fighters were sent down into the subway station and loaded aboard trains which took them down to the 71st Regiment Armory at 34th Street and Fourth Avenue. Here the galleries were filled with as many dusky citizens as could find places (maybe 2,500 or 3,000) and so great was the crowd in the neighborhood that the police had to block off 34th Street almost to Fifth Avenue on the west and Third on the east.

Mustering out commenced at Camp Upton the following day. Thus ended the service of the 369th. Their deeds are emblazoned on the roll of honor. Sons and grandsons of slaves, welcomed by the plaudits of the second largest city in the world. What a record of progress in a trifle over half a century of freedom. What an augury of promise for the future of the colored race, and what an augury for the world freedom which they helped to create, and, overshadowing all else, WHAT an object lesson it should be to our country at large: east, west, north, south, that, “One touch of nature makes ‘all men’ kin.”

History of the American Negro in the Great World War: His Splendid Record in the Battle Zones of Europe by William Allison Sweeney

WWI Wednesday: Becoming a VAD

Oona Chaplin in The Crimson Field

Oona Chaplin in The Crimson Field, an upcoming original BBC drama about nurses in WWI. [Source]

Thanks to Vera Brittain and her memoir, Testament of Youth, the most enduring female image of WWI is the VAD. At the outbreak of war, there were already thousands of members of the voluntary organization, which had been founded in 1909 under the joint efforts of the British Red Cross Society and the St. John Ambulance Society. Numbers swelled when many realized the seriousness of the war, and these untrained nurses–to the consternation of trained professional nurses–soon filled positions in hospitals both military and auxiliary. The relationship between professional nurses, who put in years of schooling and training before being considered fit for work, and VADs could be strained, particularly when many VADs were upper class and aristocratic girls who had never worked a day in their lives. Nevertheless, but the end of the war, professional nurses and VADs proved their collective mettle in the cooking, nursing, cleaning and administration of hospitals.

Voluntary Aid Detachments were organized in each county and consisted of men (yes, men!!) and women:

The Men’s Detachment
1 Commandant
1 Medical Officer
1 Quartermaster
1 Pharmacist
4 Section Leaders
48 Men

The Women’s Detachment
1 Commandant (man or woman)
1 Medical Officer (if the commandant is not a doctor)
1 Lady Superintendent (who should be a trained nurse)
1 Quartermaster (man or woman)
1 Pharmacist
20 women, of whom four should be qualified as cooks

Each Red Cross detachment was registered by the Council of the British Red Cross Society, given a number by the War Office, formed part of the Technical Reserve, and was inspected annually by an Inspecting Officer detailed by the General Officers’ Commanding.

To focus on the women’s detachments: those who joined the VAD were trained in cookery, sanitation, bandaging and dressings, washing of bodies and linens, and proper procedure before, during, and after surgeries. To become a VAD Member, a woman would write to her Country Director for instructions, or to the Secretary of the Joint Women’s VAD Department, which was stationed inside Devonshire House, who would then forward the name of her local County Director.

For admittance to nurse in a military hospital, prospective VADs were required to be aged 21-48 for home service, or 23-42 for foreign service. On completion of a probationary period of one month, they then signed a contract for six months service, and were paid £20 per annum for the first six months. £22 10s per annum was paid for the signing on of another six months, and there were further increments of £2 10s each half year until the salary reached £30 per annum. They were given an allowance of £5 per annum for uniform (either the black and white or grey uniform of the St. John or the blue uniform of the BRCS, and a small handkerchief cap). Lodging, food, washing, and traveling expenses were paid. For work in an auxiliary hospital, the VAD signed a contract before admittance, stating she would remain for three months after a fortnight’s probation. The VAD working in an auxiliary hospital–frequently converted schools, country houses, and large village buildings–had to provide her own uniform (Garroud’s was a popular destination, though some ordered a custom uniform from smart department stores like Harrods), but her other expenses were paid.

Gilbert Stone detailed the daily duties of a V.A.D. in Women War Workers:
Those who work in a V.A.D. hospital have, on the whole, an easier time than those in a military hospital. The hours are shorter, and allowance is made for human weakness by more regular time off every day and precious half-days off every week. On the other hand, the military hospitals offer you gold for your services not very much gold, but enough to live on. Thus you cease to be a voluntary nurse in the accepted sense, but you are still under the wing of either the Red Cross or the St John’s Ambulance.

The day work begins at 7 a.m., when the kitchen staff and the housemaids arrive, and the hospital is swept and polished, the beds are made, and the men’s breakfast is served. The men who are well enough to get up are expected to help make beds and sweep the wards. After breakfast the night nurses go off and the day nurses arrive. This is the
most instructive time for the V.A.D. nurse, for now the dressings are done by the sister in each ward. In most of the military hospitals the professional probationers help her, and the V.A.D. only picks up unconsidered trifles of knowledge, but in the V.A.D. hospitals she is at the right hand of the sister, and if she has the good fortune to work under one who knows how to give the amateur credit for slight signs of human intelligence she soon becomes a very useful member of the nursing staff.

The doctor’s round is the chief event of the morning, and after that the men who are well enough go out for a walk or drive or pass the time with needlework and games in the recreation room. The afternoon is spent by the men in sleeping, walking, or entertaining visitors, and by the V.A.D.s in light ward work, such as washing and ironing ties and bandages, tidying the lockers and medicine cupboards, and cutting up dressings. The afternoon is the time when the wards are expected to be in perfect order beds not an inch out of line, castors all turned the same way, nothing unnecessary on the lockers, and no speck of dust anywhere.

The evening again bristles with work and interest. Dressings and fomentations to put on, beds to be made, medicines to be given, and hot-water bottles to be filled. At 9 o’clock the lights are turned out, the night sister and her
nurses come in and take possession, and the day staff is dismissed.

Thekla Bowser, author of The Story of British V.A.D. Work in the Great War, describes work for V.A.D.s in France:

There are hundreds of V.A.D. members working as nurses and orderlies in the great Military Hospitals at the various Bases; there are dozens of members working in the same way in Auxiliary Red Cross Hospitals; there are members who spend their whole lives on railway stations, attending to the wounded as they come straight down from the firing line. There are Units of girl motorists who drive ambulances, and dozens of others who run canteens for convalescent soldiers who have not had the luck to be sent to England and who are sadly in need of the understanding word given by a woman whilst she ministers to their physical comforts. Some V.A.D. members do nothing but clerical work, many being engaged in the sad labour of trying to trace “Missing” men.

There are in France a great many large Hospitals which come under the general term of Red Cross Hospitals. This means that they are not General or Stationary Military Hospitals, but are kept up by Red Cross funds and are staffed by Red Cross members, though in every case fully trained Sisters are in charge of the wards. In these Red Cross Hospitals the work for V.A.D. members is apportioned with the greatest care. There are those who have had some nursing experience who are put into the wards to act as probationers under the Sisters. When there is a big push on, and the Hospital is filled to overflowing by wounded men who come down direct from the Front, these girls have the chance of proving themselves exceedingly useful to the Sisters.

By the end of the war, thousands of British women served on various Fronts (and some had died from shelling or illness), thus proving their worth to men and to society–and also to professional nurses. ;)

For a little more information, the British Red Cross Society has uploaded some letters of a VAD, and an excerpt from a cookery handbook for VAD cooks! Sue Light’s Scarletfinders website and its accompanying blog, This Intrepid Band, are also excellent resources for women’s nursing in WWI.

Further Reading

Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, VAD by Bill Rompkey and Bert Riggs
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
A Volunteer Nurse on the Western Front: Memoirs from a WWI Camp Hospital by Olive Dent
Dorothea’s War: The Diaries of a First World War Nurse by Dorothea Crewdson and Richard Crewdson

WWI Wednesday: The Women Who Drove Ambulances on the Western Front

A VAD ambulance driver standing by the cab of her vehicle in uniform. She has her left hand in the pocket of her skirt and an oil can in her right hand. Though her pose is casual, her eyes stare out at the viewer. The debris of bomb damaged buildings is visible in the background to the left.

A VAD Motor Driver© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3824)

The WWI Wednesday series, which I began to I present a peek at the WWI we don’t normally see in pop culture, has resulted in just as many surprises for me as it (hopefully) has for you! My favorite find has been the story of the ambulance corps made up of women drivers, who dared much by sitting behind a steering wheel or fixing their own engines, not to mention their harrowing experiences driving quite near the front lines. After reading as much as I could about them–and the British corps in particular–I couldn’t not write a novel featuring an ambulance driver. How could I let that opportunity pass me by, right? ;) Surprisingly, women ambulance drivers could be found in various fronts over the course of the war, and the corps were kitted up by women from various nations and walks of life.

In the early 1900s, driving an automobile was an act of independence and privilege, and without going into any scholarly depth (I’ll leave that to this book), a woman driving an automobile in the early 1900s exercised her ability to go wherever she wanted when she wanted. This was an undoubtedly terrifying specter in the era of militant suffragist demonstrations, and the resistance towards women stepping outside of their “place” forced women ambulance drivers during WWI to carefully navigate their roles as “helpmeets” (proper femininity) with their “masculine” positions in the thick of the war.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, preparations for transporting the sick and wounded were better suited for the Boer War of twelve years before: horse-drawn ambulance waggons! Indeed, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was founded in 1907 for the purpose of sending nurses mounted on horseback to reach the wounded where ambulance waggons would be too slow to respond. The earliest weeks of war were to shatter these glorious ideals, and motorized ambulances quickly replaced the antiquated notion of a horse-drawn ambulance waggon across the Western Front. The aspirations of the FANY Corps–under the helm of the bold and audacious Grace McDougall (later Ashley-Smith)–to transform themselves from a mounted unit to a motor unit were thwarted by the British Army, who were loath to have women involved at the Front in any capacity other than trained nurses. Granted, their prejudice derived just as much from pre-war assumptions of a woman’s proper sphere as it did from the multitude of “helpful” ladies who flocked to France and Belgium to establish hospitals without any jurisdiction from the medical and government authorities. As a result, most, if not all, women’s ambulance units served the Belgian and French Armies for the first two or three years of the war.

Their [FANY] work is varied: motor ambulance work in the actual firing line has now given way to motor ambulance work at the base; the first-aid work behind the trenches has changed to first a clearing hospital and now a base hospital, and the excursions to the front with what were then much-needed comforts have given place to running a big canteen for 700 convalescents. — Nursing Adventures, Grace McDougall

Joining the FANYs in Belgium were the Munro Ambulance Corps, a unit put together by the slightly eccentric Dr. Hector Munro in August 1914. Dr. Munro advertised for “adventurous young women to equip an ambulance unit for service in Belgium,” and of the 200 applications he received, he accepted four: Lady Dorothie Feilding, Mairi Chisholm, Mrs. Elsie Knocker, and Helen Gleason. May Sinclair, a novelist, joined in a purely administrative role, and there were two doctors, and two London bus drivers who drove the Daimler and Fiat ambulances, along with a few other people. The steady march of the German army across Belgium pushed the Belgian Army back towards the tiny tip between Nieuport and Ypres–the scene of much bitter fighting between 1914 and 1918–and swept the FANYs and Munro units into its tide.

Ghent did not long remain a refuge; well before the middle of the month earnest warnings to evacuate it were given. The way in which the final summons came was dramatic. Mairi was in bed, sleeping with her usual heart-whole earnestness, when she was awakened suddenly, and saw standing by her one of the doctors attached to the ambulance, telling her the Germans were upon them and they must fly. Then followed a scramble. The first thing was to save the wounded soldiers, who must not be left to fall into the hands of the foe. Alas! the order had come through the day
before that all the kits belonging to these men were to be sent to Ostend as a measure of precaution. One of those “decisions in blinkers” which cause such infinite suffering.

…When they were finally sent off the members of the corps had to think of themselves. There was none too much room in the cars, and they had to pack in like sardines. As Gipsy had been sitting up with a wounded officer when the summons came, and since then, having been occupied with the soldiers, had not been able to change the cotton hospital dress she happened to be wearing, she suffered frightfully from the cold. The cars crawled along to Eccloo, where they stopped at the house of an Englishwoman, a friend of Dr. Munro’s. Although this lady and her husband were themselves preparing to fly, they received the rather forlorn party with the utmost kindness, and spread abundance of blankets on the floor of
the drawing-room, where they made up a roaring fire. There they all waited till daybreak. — The Cellar-House of Pervyse, as told to G.E. Mitton

Driver of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry cranking up an ambulance

Driver of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry cranking up an ambulance

In 1916, the FANY Corps finally won the battle to become the first women’s ambulance convoy to work for the British Army. That same year, no doubt for the same reason the FANY were sanctioned by the British (the need to free up more men for the army) as well as the rivalry between Grace McDougall and the head of the V.A.D., Katherine Furse, the Voluntary Aid Detachment motor ambulance convoy was established. In mid-1916, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (later Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps, or Q.M.A.A.C.) “formed a motor branch under Miss Christobel Ellis, who had driven an ambulance for the French Red Cross.” As an aside, class distinctions remained even these volunteer units–the FANYs prided themselves on their more aristocratic roots (particularly since their members needed enough personal wealth, or access to wealth, to purchase their own uniforms, ambulances, and other kit), whereas the WAAC, which was formed to send women to perform as cooks, cleaners, and other menial tasks for the British army, was of a humbler stock.

Life as an ambulance driver wasn’t glamorous or filled with heart adventure, and many of the FANY in particular were involved in air raids, shelling, and accidents. Pat Beauchamp Washington was sidelined in early 1917 by a collision between her ambulance and a train, which cost her a leg.

Fraser [a member of the unit who was seriously injured during a raid]…was coming home from a job, when the bombardment started again and a bomb dropped in front of her, seriously injured the orderly, and hit her in three places. She had just passed a hospital, so managed to struggle back there, and tell them to fetch the orderly. She was operated on next morning, but the man died during the night. She was hit on the arm and leg and had a piece enter the liver; but she is wonderfully well considering, and they hope to be able to move her soon. She was decorated with the Croix de Guerre with palm, and next day with the Legion d’Honneur, a decoration which very few women, and still fewer Englishwomen, have. — Letters of Mrs. Homersham, a FANY ambulance driver.

Lady Dorothie Feilding was another highly decorated ambulance driver, earning the “1914 Star, the Croix de guerre from the French, the Order of Leopold II from the Belgians”, and the Military Medal from the British by the end of the war.

Back in London, women took the wheel as part of the the Motor Transport Volunteers, the Y.M.C.A. Baltic Night Transport, and the Women’s Reserve Ambulance (Green Cross Corps), and the Military Transport Section of the Women’s Legion, as well as general chauffeuring of troops on leave and driving mail vans. The Women’s Reserve Ambulance were first on the scene in the wake of London’s first serious zeppelin attack in September 1915:

There was the time of the first serious Zeppelin raid on London, when amid the crash of falling bombs and the horror of fire flaming suddenly in the darkness, the shrieks of the maimed and dying filled the night with terror and the populace seemed to stand frozen to inaction at the scene about them. Right up to the centre of the worst carnage rolled a Green Cross ambulance, from which leaped out eight khaki-clad women. They were, mind you, women of the carefully sheltered class, who sit in dinner-gowns under soft candlelight in beautifully appointed English houses. And they never before in all their lives had witnessed an evil sight. But they set to work promptly by the side of the police to pick up the dead and the dying, putting the highway to order as calmly as they might have gone about adjusting the curtains and the pillows to set a drawing-room to rights.

“Thanks,” said the police, when some time later an ambulance arrived from the nearest headquarters, “the ladies have done this job.”

Since then the Women’s Reserve Ambulance Corps is officially attached to the “D” Division of the Metropolitan Police for air-raid relief. — Women Wanted: the story written in blood red letters on the horizon of the great world war, Mrs. Mabel Daggett

The Transport Corps under the Women’s Legion soon included dispatch riders and Royal Flying Corps drivers (taken over by the Royal Air Force in 1918), and served with the Q.M.A.A.C. Transport in France for the duration of the war. After the Armistice, women ambulance drivers remained behind to assist in the devastated war-torn areas of France and Belgium, and the FANY were tasked with retrieving prisoners of war from the various prisons across the Rhine.

There were jobs to take doctors to the camps of Russian prisoners left behind by the Germans, but dear God! That was hell let loose on earth. These starved, emaciated, wolfish creatures were animals, not human beings, and their cries and gestures and bestial ways made the girls turn sick. The climax came when one girl thoughtlessly tossed them a packet of sandwiches, which she could not eat in front of these tortured, hungry eyes. The whole mob was on the food and almost on her with claws that dug feverishly for crumbs–with lips that shrilled for more. — Five Years with the Allies, Grace Ashley-Smith

Women war workers were all demobbed by the spring of 1919, and they undoubtedly found life had changed for themselves and for British society after four years of chaos, carnage, and courage. Though their contributions to the war were often marginalized in the interwar period, the inroads the ambulance drivers–and munitionettes, nurses, surgeons, farmers, WRNS, etc–made during WWI laid the foundation for an even greater contribution for women during WWII.

A BRCS and Order of St John Motor Driver by Gilbert Rogers, 1919 - A Red Cross driver standing by his ambulance. He looks out towards the viewer, the collar turned up on his overcoat, his hands protected by thick fur mittens.

A BRCS and Order of St John Motor Driver© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3739)

But let us not leave unsung the many men who served their country–or volunteered to serve another–under similar harrowing circumstances as their female counterparts. Contrary to common perception, the Voluntary Aid Detachment was not only for women. According to a BRCS handbook published in 1915, a proper men’s detachment consisted of one commandant, one medical officer, one quartermaster, one pharmacist, four section leaders, and forty-eight men, of whom were required to be thoroughly trained as stretcher bearers and to some extent, as male nurses, with others hopefully being skilled clerks, carpenters, and mechanics. Their principal duties consisted of “carrying sick and wounded by stretchers and, when necessary, in preparing means of transport by road or rail, in converting local buildings into temporary hospitals, and in disinfecting buildings, etc.” Before the United States entered the war in 1917, the extensive ties between wealthy Americans and European society encouraged many expats as well as those still in America, to fund ambulance units. Many American men jumped at the opportunity to help the Allies in this fashion, and soon they too found themselves in the midst of a great war.

Sources & Further Reading

Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front by Diane Atkinson
Lady Under Fire on the Western Front: The Great War Letters of Lady Dorothie Feilding MM by Andrew and Nicola Hallam
War Girls: The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in the First World War by Janet Lee
Women in Uniform edited by D. Collett Wadge
Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age by Virginia Scharff
Women and War Work by Helen Fraser
Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War, August 1914-September 1918 by Arlen J. Hansen
Women in the First World War by Neil R. Storey & ‎Molly Housego
Not So Quiet…: Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith

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