The UK is preparing itself for Remembrance Sunday this weekend and with the stunning artwork “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” around the Tower of London, it is hard to miss the continued significance of war. The ceramic poppies each represent a fallen soldier in the First World War, which is marking its centenary this year. A whopping 888,246 poppies will fill the moat by the time the artwork is complete, which is a truly sobering thought: we often speak about remembering those who died in conflicts but rarely do we ever have such a stark visual representation of it. Next Wednesday, the artwork will be removed by 11,000 volunteers and the poppies will be sent to those who purchased them. Although the poppies have become a London landmark, officials are resisting calls to continue their installation beyond the official anniversary as their transient nature echoes that of human life. Approximately four million people will have visited the tribute by the time the poppies are removed which is a fitting mark of respect for the loss of lives incurred. Women may not have fought on the front lines, but their contribution to the war effort was still invaluable, as well as long lasting, in terms of shaping today’s society.
It is worth recognizing that women in the UK achieved the right to vote only after the First World War: their contribution to the war effort was the main reason for them finally being seen as able to ‘handle’ the responsibility of voting. Of course, the vote wasn’t granted to all women: only those over 30 who were more likely to be married could vote. The right to vote had already been granted to women in New Zealand, Australia, Finland, and Norway by the outbreak of the war, but in even in these countries, women’s war work contributed to a shift in how women were perceived. War has a dark legacy, and “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” shows that vividly. However, the First World War also left a legacy in terms of gender equality and rights for women.
The First World War was the first time since the industrial revolution that women found themselves outside of the household. They moved into the workforce and the Land Girls who aided the war effort showed that manual labor was not just for men. By the time of the armistice in 1918, in the UK alone, 900,000 women had served in munitions factories, 117,000 in transport jobs, 113,000 on farms, 100,000 as nurses, and 80,000 had volunteered for war service. More than 25,000 women left the US for Europe to aid the war effort on an individual basis, helping to set up hospitals and provide supplies to the military. Russian women openly enlisted and served in combat during the First World War, forming the Battalion of Death led by Maria Bochkareva. Around 700,000 German women were employed in munitions by the end of the war, and they had also taken on roles in heavy industry and clerical jobs within the military.
There is a memorial that recognizes the contributions of women to the Second World War in London, just north of the Cenotaph. But there is unlikely to ever be a way of accurately showing the importance of women in war, or how scarring the war was to them as they lost brothers, husbands, lovers, and friends. Women were limited in their combat roles, but they played a vital part in not only aiding the war effort, but also in easing the psychological and physical trauma of war. War is humanity at its worst. As we remember the First World War and the devastation it caused, it also bears remembering that it contributed to a massive change in gender relations.
Title image source: commons.wikimedia.org