“Women and War” at Birmingham

The last time I went to a Day School at the Birmingham Centre for First World War Studies, it was a pretty blokeish affair. Some excellent lectures on the strategies and tactics of the Battle of the Somme, delivered to an expert audience, clearly alert to the subtleties of military history.

Yesterday, the occasion was a bit different, a day devoted to the subject of women in wartime, approached from four contrasting angles. The audience was sparser than it had been for the Somme, and with a slightly larger sprinkling of women, but they were mostly the Birmingham regulars, I got the impression, coming to hear about aspects of war with which they were less well acquainted.

Jane Potter started off with “Khaki and Kisses”, an account of wartime romantic fiction. No audience can resist Jane’s passionate and colourful book covers, and the lively question time showed that she had sparked off real interest in a subject that most of the audience had previously not considered.

Then Katie Cassell from the Imperial War Museum spoke about the formation of the Women’s Work section at the Museum, from its beginnings in 1917. Dis you know that the original plan for the IWM was a huge building in Hyde Park, based around a vast Memorial Hall, on whose walls would be etched the names of all the fallen? Nor did I. The memorialising aspect of the museum’s work was very important in the early years. They planned to make a collection of photographs of every soldier and sailor killed in the War (and advertised the appeal on the back of ration books containing lard coupons, so that absolutely everyone saw them.)

The Women’s Work Section had a moderately feminist angle. The first Chairman was Lady Priscilla Norman, who had been a suffragette, and there was a desire to record all the ways that women had contributed, so that these would not be forgotten. (The contribution of women to the war effort, after all, was an important argument for extending the suffrage in 1918.) Katie Cassell took us through various stages on the progress of the section. In 1918 the IWM committee arranged an exhibition devoted to Women’s War Work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It attracted 82,000 visitors in six weeks, and among the other exhibits they saw a shrine devoted to the women who had died in the war – nurses, munition workers, and so on. Above the shrine was a sign: “They lost their lovely youth facing the rough cloud of war.”

After lunch there was a terrific talk by Juliette Pattinson on the brave women of S.O.E. working in occupied Europe during the Second World War. One sensed the war buffs in the audience responding enthusiastically to these women, especially to the one who lobbed a bomb into Gestapo headquarters, and afterwards said with relish “There were several dozen Germans who wouldn’t be eating lunch that day – or any other day either.” Juliette Pattinson was good on the anxieties about gender aroused by these women actually taking an aggressive part in the war.

I’d like to read her book – but it costs £55. Strictly one for the library list, I suppose. The good publishing news of the day was that Jane Potter’s Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print will soon be out in paperback.

The fourth speaker was Phylomena Badsey on Vera Brittain. She made sense of Brittain’s emotional and intellectual journey to a position of extreme pacifism after her experiences during the Great War, famously recounted in Testament of Youth. This led her to condemn British bombing raids on Germany, and campaign against Bomber Harris.

Vera Brittain was a woman too far for some of the war buffs of Birmingham. “Wrong about absolutely everything!” and “A professional bleeding heart!” they cried. Phylomena Badsey gave a spirited defence of Brittain’s sincerity and consistency (while conceding that the woman had no sense of humour, and could be pretty hard work in conversation.) It was a most enjoyable argument. What little I have read of Brittain seems to have a hectoring undertone (even Testament of Youth) and I don’t find her a very sympathetic writer. But I wonder – has anyone written a comparative study, I wonder, of Rose Macaulay, Cicely Hamilton and Vera Brittain – three good writers – all pushed towards pacifism by their Great War experiences, but in rather different ways.

So – four very good papers, and linked together by the scurrilous banter of John Bourne, director of the Centre. The next Day School will probably be on the Kaiser’s March Offensive of 1918. I’ll try to get to it.

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