January 26, 2015

We Also Served – Book review

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 6:29 pm by historywardrobe

105027One day there won’t be Women’s History.

One day there’ll be People’s history, encompassing each gender, race, age, culture and ideology.

Until this elusive future ideal, books which focus on neglected aspects of our past are crucial to present the fullest, fairest perspective.

We Also Served – The Forgotten Women of the First World War by Vivien Newman is a timely overview of experiences rescued from oblivion.  Here are women once lost behind the filters of indifference or deliberate censorship, now made visible again through accessible scholarship and engaging writing.

Newman explores facets of history which, thanks to the First World War Centenary and a new generation of historians, are almost familiar to the modern reader – munition workers, medical personnel, servicewomen and spies.  It would be easy to reduce a myriad of lives to neat stereotypes – the nurse, the WAAC, the factory worker – but Newman avoids this by drawing on a good variety of sources, and by combining analysis with first-person accounts.

It is the voices from the past which add an important human element to the historical overview – voices which deserve to be heard.  Among all the details and observations in We Also Served Newman rightly places the experiences of women in the First World War on an equal footing with those of the men.  There were few women engaged in martial combat during the war, but they had their own fights; their own victories and casualties.  Heroism or suffering on the battlefield are surely no longer considered the key requirement for a name being remembered on the roll call of history. Valorous deeds may have been underrated and unrecognised in the past, but Newman’s work clearly shows the courage is there regardless.

And not just courage.  We read of ambition, excitement, frustration and exhaustion.  Also, hope… and grief.

In one anecdote, Newman draws attention to the fact that when munition worker Lottie Meale’s husband donated a photograph of her to the Imperial War Museum, he inscribed the memorial message – “died of TNT poisoning contracted on duty.” He did not consider her sacrifice any less significant than those of the poor blokes killed abroad.

There is, of course, more to know.  Each chapter of this book could be expanded into a volume of its own.  There is always more to know and more to explore. Each life could have its own dedicated history (some of them do – the bibliography is helpful on this score.)  Newman’s book is one of several general WW1 histories which will inspire the even more specialist works which the subject so rightly deserves.

We Also Served ends with the words of WRAF servicewoman Florence Green, who, at the grand age of 110, told a reporter: “I was proud of my service.”  Newman can rightly be proud of hers too.

For details of the History Wardrobe costume presentations Women and the Great War and Great War Fashion visit www.historywardrobe.com

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