Friday, November 11, 2016

Guest Post: Viv Newman "The Forgotten Women of the First War"

Today (November 11th) is Remembrance Day here in Canada. As we pause to remember all the soldiers who fought for our freedom, it is important to also honor the women who gave up their lives as well. 

Please welcome author Viv Newman to Melissa Lee's Many Reads.. I hope you all find her post as fascinating to read as I did. 

Thank you so much Melissa for inviting me to post about “The Forgotten Women of the First World War”.

‘She Knew the Meaning of Sacrifice’
“Armistice Day”, “Remembrance Sunday”, the traditional days when we remember The Fallen.  But how many of us pause to wonder about the women who perished in The Great War?  When researching We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War, I was amazed to discover that between 1914 and 1918 around 2,000 women from Allied countries died due to their war service.  Here are the stories of just three of them.

In 1915, New Zealand Army Staff Nurse Margaret Rogers, wrote home to her father, “There is no romance about war; it spells suffering, hunger, filth”.  She was one of 36 professional nurses about to set sail from Alexandria in Egypt to Salonika (now Thessalonika) with British and New Zealand soldiers on H.T. Marquette.  At 9.15 am on 23rd October 1915, a torpedo hit Marquette; as a troopship, she was a legitimate target for enemy action.  She sank within ten minutes.  When after upwards of eight hours in the sea, the few survivors were rescued, it was obvious that the New Zealand Nursing service had received a significant blow.  Weighed down by their voluminous uniforms, nine nurses had perished; Acting Matron Cameron, had suffered what today’s newspapers would call ‘life-changing injuries’.  She never worked again.  Of the nurses who drowned that October morning, only one body was identifiable thanks to her watch.  The case was engraved ‘Margaret Rogers’.  The names of Marquette victims and the many other New Zealand nurses who served their country with pride and devotion in far-flung corners of the globe, are remembered in the Christ Church Nurses’ Memorial Chapel - which has withstood two demolition attempts and an earthquake.  The names of those whom it commemorates ‘liveth for ever more’.

Canadian Army Nursing Service nurse Agnes Forneri arrived in England in April 1917, her head held high, her heart full of sorrow.  The previous month her brother Lieutenant David had been killed in action at Vimy.  Now more determined than ever to serve Canadian soldiers, Agnes spent several months on the Western Front during the terrible Battle of Passchendaele.  In January 1918, she was invalided back to England suffering from ‘ptomaine poisoning and bronchitis’, aggravated by ‘active service conditions.’  She returned to duty at No.12 Canadian General Hospital in Bramshott, before she was fully fit.  She collapsed in April 1918 with a violent stomach haemorrhage, dying a week later.  The stated cause of her death was ‘multiple peptic ulcers’.  However, it is probable that, like other nurses including American Helen Fairchild, exposure to poison gas contributed to her death.  Buried with full military honours, one journalist felt ‘it is most fitting that our dear Canadian sisters should be buried like soldiers and in a soldier’s grave, for they are indeed as brave and true as any soldier.’  She lies with fellow Canadian service personnel at Bramshott Churchyard in Southern England, one of the 977 foreign nurses who had travelled from the four corners of the earth to war-torn France and lost their lives through their actions.  These nurses’ sacrifices are commemorated on an ornate memorial in the French city of Reims.  Passers-by who visit the memorial are requested to pause and ‘Remember Them’ – not only on Armistice Day but throughout the year.

New Zealander Margaret and Canadian Agnes perished far from home.  Belgian shop assistant Gabrielle Petit died in her native city – although it was one that by 1916 she barely recognized for Brussels was occupied by Germany.  Twenty-one-year-old Gabrielle was one of the most accomplished spies working behind enemy lines – she saw herself as a soldier in the Allied cause.  Having undergone espionage training in London, once back in Brussels, she created her own cell and network and supplied meticulous vital information on trains, troop movements and armaments.  The British authorities saw her as one of their most reliable agents.

Gabrielle Petit
postcard author’s own collection
Very aware of the dangers she faced, Gabrielle claimed that ‘If I die in service,’ my death will be ‘like a soldier’s’.  For several months she passed undetected until the German occupiers became increasingly suspicious of this seemingly simple shop assistant.  They watched her every move.  Having successfully evaded capture on one occasion, on 20 January 1916, her luck gave out.  Betrayed, arrested and tried, she was sentenced to ‘Death by Firing Squad’.  On 1 April 1916, handcuffed to the execution post, she proudly mocked her assembled executioners, ‘You will see that a young Belgian woman knows how to die. (Vous allez voir comment une jeune fille belge sait mourir.’)  Seconds later, she lay dead.  Most of Brussels, let alone the outside world, oblivious to her fate. 

Yet, recognition finally came.  Post war, her body was exhumed and re-buried in an elaborate ceremony and, in 1923 a memorial was unveiled at Place Saint-Jean in Brussels.  But the statue is not the representation of a martyred victim (which the city had commissioned) nor even heroine but that of a defiant ‘ordinary’ woman who, like all the women who gave their lives in the service of their country, accepted that her own life, when weighed against her nation’s cause, counted for little. 

As we remember The Fallen, this Armistice Day, let us also honour Margaret, Agnes and Gabrielle and indeed all the women of the Great War who ‘knew the meaning of sacrifice’.  Their lives, deaths and war stories are retold, many for the first time, in We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War (Pen and Sword).  Available from Amazon.  Visit to learn more about women in The Great War.

Viv has three books in publication about women in the Great War – and a fourth on the way for late 2017.


  1. A great post to read as I think usually, when one thinks of veterans, he/she thinks of men. This post is a great reminded there were and are brave women who serve in our militaries.

    1. I am guilty of that as well. Glad to hear you enjoyed the post, Stefanie.