Battalions of Death, Legions of Women, and Nurses on the Front Line : Women on Film During the First World War

Battalions of Death, Legions of Women, and Nurses on the Front Line : Women on Film During the First World War

It is swiftly approaching one hundred years since Nancy Astor became the first female member of parliament, taking her seat in the House of Commons on December 1st 1919. In celebration of that momentous occasion, and as we also approach Armistice Day, I’ve been investigating some rarer glimpses of women on film on the Western and Eastern fronts during the First World War.

Click on the image to watch the film

Films of women taking over from previously male dominated employment on the home front during World War One are fantastic – this particular film which traces the history of female suffrage, shows women working on trains, in warehouses, munitions factories, and doing agricultural labour.  It’s rarer, however, to find films of the many medical corps created by women, who travelled to France, Belgium and Serbia to create dressing stations, hospitals and ambulance services which provided care close to the frontline, often coming into the firing line themselves.

A field hospital. Click on the image to watch the film

This short film documents nurses at work in hospitals, treating wounded soldiers on wards and supervising rehabilitating outside. It is unclear which country those shots were filmed in, but right at the end there is a glimpse of what appears to be a field hospital made up of a complex of several large wooden and corrugated metal huts. Soldiers, a doctor in a white coat and nurses in uniform stand in the open chatting.

Nurse supervising transport of wounded soldiers. Note the piles of corrugated metal supplies on the platform at 2:23 minutes. Click on the image to watch the film

As our guest blogger Hanna Stein highlighted in our last article, it’s important to be aware of what you are not being shown in documentary films – this entire film focuses on the transport of men from the trenches to different care units until they can be taken back to England, and yet, there is a conspicuous lack of medical staff featured in it. The very staged nature of the film emphasises the well organised transportation of the wounded from a Regimental Aid Post, to Advanced Dressing Station (via trolley), then by ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station where we see invalids taken into a large tent. There is a multitude of uniformed men and one tantalisingly distant glimpse of a male and female operating team inside a hospital, but it’s only when we reach the coast that nurses actually start to appear; apparently standing in a supervisory role beside a train as invalids are moved on stretchers.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised about the lack of actual medical care being filmed; after all, from a technical perspective, filming inside with enough light was difficult in the 1910s – as you can see from the other films in this collection, the interior shots are very dark. More likely however, from a propaganda perspective, filming inside aid posts dealing with the more critically wounded close to the frontline isn’t going to be pleasant viewing. Add to that footage of women getting their hands bloody dealing with the terrible injuries sustained near the front – perhaps deemed too much grim reality for those at home. It’s no surprise a mid war film aiming to alleviate fears would focus on the apparently seamless organisation of the care of wounded soldiers instead.

Scottish Women’s Hospitals ambulance crew. Click on the image to watch the film

That is why films like this one documenting members of Dr. Elsie Inglis’ Scottish Women’s Hospitals at work in the field and an all women surgical team removing shrapnel from a wounded soldier, are so important. These women, clearly having to contend with bitter winter weather as they carry men on stretchers to and from large hospital sheds, appear to be in France. I’m not sure why ‘FRANCE’ is written above the door to one of the sheds – it does suggest the possibility this is also a staged film. Nonetheless, the shot of the ambulance crew is particularly interesting because you can see the lettering of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (N.U.W.S.S.) – A clear illustration of the close moral and financial bonds between this particular women’s medical unit and the suffragist movement.

Maria Bochkareva drilling the Women’s Battalion of Death in 1917 . Click on the image to watch the film

Even rarer are the occurrences of women actually being a recognised part of an armed force that was trained to see combat, let alone being filmed doing so. This is why I was so pleased to find that Huntley Film Archives hold a wonderful snapshot of the Women’s Battalion of Death – a Russian armed unit formed shortly after the Revolution in 1917. The battalion was initially brought about as a way to shame the less enthusiastic male population under the new Provisional Government into joining up, but these women did actually take part in combat on the frontline. Led by the indomitable Commander Maria Bochkareva, the women were rigorously trained. You can even catch a glimpse of Bochkareva standing with male officers on the side lines of this parade. Is it me, or does she look pretty pleased?

Ochotnicza Legia Kobiet. Click on the image to watch the film

Although not strictly speaking part of the forces involved in the First World War, I want to include some newsreel footage shot shortly after, probably between 1918 and 1920. I think the women are members of the Voluntary Legion of Women (Ochotnicza Legia Kobiet in Polish). A battalion formed in Poland in 1918. The caption “Polish women’s battalion, 1 of 8, has now been in action, and suffered heavy casualties at Wilno” suggests these women were part of forces involved in the Polish-Lithuanian War, in which the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius (Wilno in Polish), was being defended by Polish armed forces, including female volunteers from the O.L.K.

My thanks to Elisabeth Shipton, author of Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War, which inspired and informed much of this article.

Written by TC Summerford