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BBC WW1 at Home

The BBC World War One at Home Project: Reflections

In this piece, Dr Helen B. McCartney reflects on her involvement in the BBC World War One at Home project and the broadcasting, public engagement and learning opportunities that came from it.

The BBC World War One at Home project began with an ambitious aim – to produce over 1400 local stories that illustrated the diversity of experience on the British home front during the First World War. The BBC English Regions and Nations were tasked with each providing 100 stories that had a strong sense of locality, and explained how different individuals and places influenced and were affected by the British war effort from 1914.

The first stories were broadcast across radio, television, and online in February 2014 with further stories released in June and August. The final tranche of stories have been released this week, with a few kept in reserve to be broadcast later in 2015.

The project was a collaborative initiative between the BBC, the Imperial War Museums, and researchers funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Supporting World War One at Home is one of the key ways in which the AHRC is marking the centenary of the First World War. Through funding researchers to work with broadcasters, they aimed to facilitate the input of new historical ideas and broader national and international contexts into the project.

As one of the researchers on the project, working alongside Professor Ian Beckett and the broadcast journalists of BBC South, I want to offer a few reflections on what academics were able to contribute and what I, in particular, have taken away from the experience.

It is important to remember that this was an experimental project. Collaboration between AHRC academic researchers and broadcasters had not previously been attempted on this scale and this necessarily meant that roles had to be defined and refined as the project took shape. A key player in this was our broadcast controller, Joanne Babbage, who expertly managed the interface between the journalists researching the stories and academics providing advice.

We all had to recognize that journalism and academic cultures are different. I had to learn the hard lesson that although one of my primary functions was to add context, there was a limit to the amount of context that can be provided in a 5 -10 minute story. Inserting context concisely is, indeed, an art form. However, the broad selection of stories, presented collectively, also helped in the quest to highlight a wider view of the war experience. Charles Booth, one of the researchers in the South West, has pointed out how many of the stories illustrated the global dimensions of the conflict. Across the UK, there were stories about the interaction between local people and those of other nationalities – troops from undivided India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, as well as Yemeni sailors and men of the Chinese Labour Corps. All these stories helped to emphasize the international character of the war. Nor were the darker stories of wartime glossed over. For example, while Belgian refugees were welcomed by many British people at the start of the war, there were clearly tensions between some refugees and their communities by its end and stories detailing anti-German riots featured in a number of regions.

There is also the journalistic imperative to find the unique, out-of–the ordinary stories that engage audiences. These stories were crucial to the project, but so were the stories that looked at everyday life and experience. For example, we were able to cover not only the experience of conscientious objectors but also the experience of the many men who faced military service tribunals seeking exemption from military service for more mundane but no less fascinating reasons.

Finally, I was impressed with the way in which the journalists with whom I worked were prepared to discuss and amend parts of their programming to accommodate alternative views or tighten up terminology. The fact that there was room for ongoing discussion before the final production of the stories was a very positive part of the relationship and added greater depth and complexity to some of the stories presented.

The overall result has been, I hope, a rich variety of stories that reflect the experience of different regions and nations with different characteristics, different economic outlooks and different populations with different skills. The United Kingdom in 1914 was decentralized, both administratively and culturally. Most people lived their entire lives at the local level with their expectations and connections tied to their local communities and the project admirably reflects these realities. It does more than this, however. One of its real strengths is the way in which the stories have been archived both by locality and by theme. The thematic approach is significant because it also allows for people to engage with the stories more broadly, permitting comparison of how the war was experienced across the UK.

The other key strength of the project was that it was not simply about the production of stories but also about engaging with the public through a series of roadshows held around the country. These roadshows provided academics with an opportunity to highlight some of their own recent research to more diverse audiences than traditionally encountered. Talking to audiences in a BBC roadshow tent at Weymouth carnival was a new experience for me. It made me think carefully about what was essential to my argument as well as what might hold the attention of an audience with a wide demographic against the backdrop of potentially more interesting attractions. This was an audience that could vote with its feet.

BBC World War One at Home ‘Battle Bus’ at the Weymouth roadshow, 20 August 2014. © Robert T. Foley
BBC World War One at Home ‘Battle Bus’ at the Weymouth roadshow, 20 August 2014. © Robert T. Foley

The whole experience of working on the World War One at Home project has been incredibly valuable to my own research project that looks at the British soldier in the First World War and how different public narratives have become prominent in the UK over the last century. It has provided insight into how to engage a wide range of people from disparate backgrounds, allowed me to study the construction of narratives within a media organization, and afforded me the opportunity to influence those narratives by suggesting alternative perspectives from which to view the First World War. I hope that the collective experience of this collaborative project will be viewed as positively and will help to shape engagement between academics and the BBC in the future.

This piece was originally posted at defenceindepth.co

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BBC WW1 at Home Research

Riots, music halls and Spiritualists: World War One in the North West

In this blog article, Matt Shinn investigates various aspects of life during World War One in the North West of England.​

‘Location is everything in the First World War,’ says Mike Benbough-Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moore’s University. ‘Your experience of the war could be completely different from someone else’s, depending on your locality. And nowhere bears this out better than the North West’.

If you’d spent the war in Liverpool, for example, you would have been in a maritime trading city, with a major Imperial role. And you might well have known some of the many Liverpudlians who were on board Cunard’s liner Lusitania, which was making for Liverpool when she was sunk by German U-boats in May 1915. Though the sinking itself is well-known, being one of the triggers for the United States entering the war, what is less well-known is that this event sparked a series of anti-German riots in Liverpool and Tranmere, with attacks on shops – and not just German-owned shops, but Chinese-owned ones too. A dark chapter in the city’s history, which few now are aware of.

As a major centre for the importation of animals, millions of which were used in the war effort – including the real-life War Horses – Birkenhead was also the centre of efforts by the animal charity the Blue Cross to bring the concept of animal rights to the fore.

Moths to a flame

The role of the music hall was also particularly important in the North West, with its large working-class urban populations. As Mike Benbough-Jackson points out, ‘music hall can be seen as just another of the channels for exercising pressure on men to enlist, drawing them like moths to a flame’. The World War One at Home project has featured the story of one such recruit, Percy Morter, who went to a show at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, where the renowned female drag artiste Vesta Tilley was recruiting for the army. The star placed her hand on Percy’s shoulder and encouraged him to take the King’s shilling: he joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and died on the Somme the following year. And yet at the same time, the music halls could be much more than just propaganda tools – ‘they also included dramas featuring soldiers leaving, the loss of loved ones, and weeping widows’.

Liverpool Scottish at Bellwearde, June 1915 (IWM)
Liverpool Scottish at Bellwearde, June 1915 (IWM)

Mediums and hoaxers

The North West was also a particular focus for another phenomenon that was seen throughout the UK during the First World War: the growth of Spiritualism, as recently bereaved wives and parents tried to contact the spirits of dead servicemen.

‘The North West featured a very wide range of people who claimed that they could communicate with lost loved-ones,’ says Mike Benbough-Jackson, ‘from sombre Spiritualist churches for the august and scientifically-minded, Arthur Conan-Doyle types, through to crystal ball-gazers on the Blackpool seafront. I was struck by the extent, though, to which magistrates and the local police throughout the North West mounted sting operations, to try to clamp down on hoaxers.’ Women police officers, in disguise, were generally used to gather evidence: there were real concerns that so-called mediums, claiming to be in touch with the spirits of the dead, would cause distress.

While it might seem like a harmless quirk, ‘this kind of state surveillance is just one example of how the First World War was a massive set-back for liberal thinking in Britain. And it shows how big a question it became for many of the people who stayed at home during the war, of how you should behave during it. Many sporting events were cancelled, for example, and many people were unsure whether to take holidays. It’s surprising how personally people in Britain were affected by the war, and how different things became from the workaday world. You really need to look at the war with an estranging eye.’

The First World War and the fourth estate

Frank McDonough, Professor of International History at Liverpool John Moore’s University, has written on the origins of the First World War. As part of the roadshows associated with the World War One at Home project, he’s also presented research on the press reaction to the events leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914, and in particular on how it was reported in the North West, in papers such as the Manchester Guardian and Blackpool Gazette.

‘The Manchester Guardian was one of the first papers in the country to realise that things in the Balkans could escalate into a world war – but that was right at the end of July 1914 (less than a week before Britain declared war on Germany). The press didn’t understand the Anglo-French Entente, and nobody thought that the Anglo-Russian Convention would lead to anything. Until then, the big story in the British press had been the prospect of Home Rule in Ireland.’ With their large Irish populations, readers in Liverpool and Manchester in particular had had their attention fixed across the Irish Sea.

War and reconciliation

Another perspective that Frank McDonough has comes from his spending a large amount of time doing research in Germany. ‘Germans take the position that the First World War was a disaster, leading to Versailles, the Weimar Republic and ultimately the Nazis. They fear that the centenary will be used in Britain just as another opportunity to rub German noses in it, with no reconciliation involved. They don’t recognise themselves in the depiction of the Germans as Huns in the First World War.’

Frank McDonough says, by contrast, that he would like to see the commemoration here as being about reconciliation. ‘People in the UK sometimes think that the war was all about the War Poets, but the War Poets hardly sold at all. Wilfred Owen’s poetry sold just 2,000 copies during the war – it was hardly Sergeant Pepper. The best-selling book about the First World War, after the conflict had ended, was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – which is about a German soldier.’

The depiction of the war in films and musicals has also spread the idea that it was ‘a complete waste, with generals using recruits as cannon-fodder, or even deliberately planning to kill off working-class recruits. It’s hard to shift that perception. The historical debate that’s attempted to turn it around hasn’t resonated with the public. But perhaps, through World War One at Home, it will.’

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Research

Occupational Hazards of a Secret Agent

In this guest blog, Paul M H Buvarp, a PhD candidate at the School of International Relations at St Andrews, explores the risks of working as an undercover propagandist during WW1.

War is a messy affair. Decisions are made and filtered through bureaucracies and offices, creating often very inefficient systems prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. Secrets are difficult to keep, plans are difficult to authorise and it is nearly impossible to receive clear directives. Perhaps the most vulnerable class in this regard in the First World War were those who depended particularly on secrecy, authorisation and direction — the secret agents.

Rowland Kenney (1882–1961) was one such secret agent whose frustration with the system ranged from humorous to downright despairing. Kenney was sent to Norway in 1916 to be the spearhead of the British propaganda campaign there. As an agent of the Foreign Office News Department, he received a cover identity as a Reuters Correspondent, which enabled him to make close connections with the press elites in the country. He was, by all accounts, very successful. By the end of the war, and in a period of only two years, he had personally been responsible for over one thousand pro-British articles appearing in the Norwegian press, and had held a significant role in shepherding the fall of the Berlin-influenced Norwegian national news agency and the creation of a London-friendly agency in its place.

The secrecy of his mission was essential not only because of his personal safety, but also because of the nature of his work. Kenney was of the belief that propaganda was at its most effective when it was not known to be propaganda. In one of his earliest reports, he wrote of his German counterpart in Norway and how that agent’s heavy-handedness and obviousness had turned the press and the people against his message.

It is difficult to tell to what extent his cover was upheld, i.e. whether some of his Norwegian contacts were aware of his true mission. There is nothing on paper to sharply suggest any of them did, and in fact, when he is referred to in Norwegian documents and memoranda, he is referred to as Reuters Correspondent. However, maintaining this identity was no easy task.

Oslo's Grand Hotel today
Oslo’s Grand Hotel today. Image by Asbjorn Floden (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the summer of 1917, for example, the British Legation in Oslo received a visitor by the name of Ellison from Britain. It is not made explicitly clear who exactly Ellison was, but it is suggested that he was one of the many British do-gooders who spent the war going from place to place, dipping their toes in other people’s business. He appears—at least in Kenney’s writing—to have been unfortunately indiscreet. On Oslo’s main street stood the Grand Hotel (which still stands today) which doubtless was a centre-point for both Norwegian and foreign dignitaries, agents and elites in wartime. On the first day of Ellison’s visit, Kenney and Ellison were speaking in the foyer of the hotel, and Ellison evidently made the point that Kenney was in effect a secret agent of the Foreign Office. Kenney, mortified, acknowledged to his handler that it might have passed unnoticed, but that it may also have ruined his work.

A continuing theme throughout Kenney’s papers from the First World War is his constant battle to register his address with the Foreign Office, as well as to have them send certain necessary materials. Presumably, the Legation was under surveillance, and in order to maintain his secret position it was important that messages and packages could be received privately. While the idea carries merit, Kenney was more than a little annoyed when after nineteen messages had been sent about his new address, packages were still sent wrong. His twentieth message got the job done, only after it was passed through the Legation and encrypted in code.

Perhaps the most basic necessity to remain covert was the nature of payment for Kenney’s work. Payments were slow and unpredictable, and in order to elicit some form of response, Kenney sometimes had to threaten with resignation, or even borrow money privately from the British Minister’s private pocket. The Foreign Office payments naturally had to be disguised, so as to not blow the cover of his Reuters employment. When Kenney one day found his payment coming directly and openly from the Foreign Office, he was not amused: “The cat is out of the bag, and the spy hunters are dogging your tracks all over the place, but why, oh why, do your people do these things?” Being a secret agent was no easy task.

The First World War was in many respects an unprecedented challenge for governments and bureaucracies. It created a demand for a massive coordinated system, the likes of which had never before been seen. That the system was not as streamlined as it should have been is no surprise, and it is a credit to Kenney’s hard work, dedication and good luck that he at all succeeded. Notably, Kenney is still absent from the history books, so it might be safe to say that he has kept his cover very well.

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The Middle East and World War One

Nowhere in the world did the First World War have such profound or long-lasting effects than the Middle East. Carrie Dunn reports on an Early Career Fellowship that’s helping to shine a light on a crucial period of world history.

An AHRC-funded research project is the first study of the ideas behind the West’s attempt to replace the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and their consequences.

Dr James Renton of Edge Hill University is looking at the British Empire’s development of the concept of the ‘Middle East’, a system based on the principle of nationality – which also resulted in a plethora of violent ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts.

He argues that the work is vital to understanding the problems across the region today.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in how the West has understood the Middle East, and the relationship between that understanding and imperialism and colonialism, and it was clear to me that there wasn’t a recognition that there was a massive change at the time of the First World War.”

The British hoped to mobilise support for the Allies and secure post-war control of strategically important areas in the region by claiming that they were fighting for a new era of national freedom. They embarked on a huge propaganda campaign to make that case. Renton’s project also examines how the idea of a new age of nationality and freedom succeeded in increasing nationalism among Arabs and Jews.

“I came to realise that this new vision was being presented for political reasons to mobilise the Middle Eastern world behind the war effort,” Renton says. He suggests that the British never expected the Middle East to be genuinely independent because of their racial stereotypes about the people living there – that they were somehow inferior and incapable of governing themselves.

Yet the promotion of national self-determination had the apparently unforeseen effect of mobilising widespread calls for immediate independence, and when that didn’t happen, there was widespread protest and violence.

'Map of the Middle East, 1918
‘Map of the Middle East, 1918’

“Political elites across the Middle Eastern world started to have new expectations of complete national freedom, and so although the British and their French allies stimulated a new vision of the future, it took on a life of its own,”

However, these roars of dissent did not succeed. Instead, the British and French Empires, with the approval of the international community in the newly-established League of Nations, imposed a new autocratic system that remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century.

Renton stresses the complexity of the interactions between the Middle East and the “outside world”. He points out that to attribute many of the current conflicts in the region solely to the impact of the 2003 Iraq invasion or the Arab Spring – as many media debates do – is far too simplistic.

“It’s a picture of complexity that goes back to the First World War,” he says, and he is keen that today’s policymakers understand that, adding: “I’m not talking about some trite effort to learn lessons from the past.

“It’s not about drawing parallels with then and now – it’s making the case that the war marked  the beginning of a system of political instability, with the interaction between this attempt at control and the unleashing of an expectation for national freedom. It’s a wider story that began in 1914 – and it hasn’t ended.”

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Research

Letters from the Front, hospitals and Hun Stuff

In this blog article Matt Shinn investigates what it was like for the families left at home during the First World War and the moving way in which one woman’s experience has been re-created in the form of song.

What must life have been like for the millions of women and children who were left at home during World War One – waiting for loved ones to return, waiting for news?

For Kent Fedorowich, who is Reader in British Imperial History at the University of the West of England, one of the stand-out stories from the World War One at Home project is about just this kind of private torment, which must have taken place, behind closed doors, in countless homes during the First World War.

Unusually, this particular World War One at Home story takes the form of a song. ‘Last September’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Bristol from singer-songwriter Daisy Chapman. It is a love song, accompanied by piano and strings, based on letters that were sent home from the Western Front to Lizzy Brain, in Bishopsworth in Bristol. The letters brought news of the death of her husband James, and gave details of his funeral: Lizzy also died a few months later, of what her family said was a broken heart.
‘I imagined her gazing out of her window to the East,’ says Daisy Chapman, ‘trying to pick up a sense of what her loved one was doing.’ The song includes lines from the letters that Lizzy Brain received, and it ends: ‘your coffin wrapped in the Union Jack – I’ll see you on the other side.’

The technological war
While Lizzy Brain’s experience was common to many across the UK, other stories from the BBC West region are more specific to the area. Life in Bristol, for example, was very much affected by the fact that the city was a major manufacturing centre, with new technologies being put to military use.

A facility at Chittening, just outside Bristol, was used to fill gas shells with the blister agent mustard gas, also known as Hun Stuff, which was manufactured nearby at Portishead. Situated in the middle of farmland, the factory needed good transport links, and so it was given its own train line and station to ferry workers and munitions to and fro.

The site also had to have its own hospital. Workers at the factory suffered from extremely high rates of sickness, which resulted in their being given one week’s holiday for every twenty days worked – something that was almost unheard-of at the time. Nevertheless, over 1,200 casualties were reported at the site during the war. As Kent Fedorowich says, ‘the gas shells that were produced at the factory probably did more harm to the people who worked there than they did to the Germans.’ The story is a reminder that it was not just those on the front line who found themselves in harm’s way, during the First World War – and yet now, there is hardly anything left at the Chittening site, to indicate what happened there.

The gas shells did more harm to the people who worked at the factory than they did to the Germans

Other new technologies that Bristol was associated with include motorcycle manufacture (the Douglas factory in the city made some of the best motorbikes in the world, and turned over pretty much its entire production to making machines for the front).
And then there’s the association of Bristol with aircraft. The World War One at Home project includes the story of Frank Barnwell, who developed the single-seat Bristol Scout before the war, as a private racing plane, but then had his design commandeered by the Royal Flying Corps, for use on reconnaissance missions. After serving as a pilot himself on the Western Front, Barnwell was recalled to Bristol to work on what is widely seen as one of the outstanding aircraft of the First World War, the Bristol Fighter. Generally known as the Brisfit, by the end of the war over 1,500 were in service in the Royal Air Force.
And Bristol is still associated with aircraft manufacture today: in 2010, apprentices at Airbus built a working replica of the Bristol Fighter, while in 2013 the company named its new engineering headquarters in Filton in Barnwell’s honour.

The road to recovery

As a busy port, and with excellent road and rail connections, Bristol was also the place that many wounded servicemen were brought to, to be treated. Charles Booth, Associate Professor at the Bristol Business School, points out that the city was ‘at the forefront of medical advances during the First World War, with pioneering surgery and medical technology being developed.’
A number of new hospitals were established in Bristol, with several even being donated by private individuals. One such was Bishop’s Knoll War Hospital which was converted at his own expense by a former Australian wool-baron, Robert Edwin Bush, and which treated Australian wounded servicemen In its own way, Bristol Zoo also contributed to the recovery of wounded servicemen: by the end of the war, some 32,000 had attended morale-boosting events there.

Kent Fedorowich and Charles Booth discussing their research at the World War One at Home roadshow at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta

Kent Fedorowich and Charles Booth discussing their research at the World War One at Home roadshow at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta

The crossroads of Empire

Elsewhere in the region is what for Charles Booth was one of the most extraordinary places in the First World War. Taking up around a ninth of the county of Wiltshire, the army training areas of Salisbury Plain ‘give you a sense of the truly international nature of the conflict. It was here that civilians from all over the Empire – from India, South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand – found themselves, and where they were turned into soldiers.’ Photos from the time show soldiers of many different nationalities passing through.

 Salisbury Plain gives you a sense of the truly international nature of the conflict

With its wide-open spaces lending themselves to large-scale manoevres, Salisbury Plain became the British army’s main training ground. That training itself was hazardous – the area contains the graves of soldiers who were killed in accidents. And you can still see traces of the dummy trenches, built to give recruits an idea of the kind of combat they would be facing in this War to End War – trenches that now sit alongside remnants from more recent times, and subsequent wars.

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Research

Heroes in stone and bronze

  Jagger, The Driver, Royal Artillery Memorial, 1921 - 1925
Jagger, The Driver, Royal Artillery Memorial, 1921 – 1925

The effect of the First World War on British figure sculpture was enormous, not least because it led to hundreds of commissions for statues of servicemen, to be included on war memorials. And the way that those servicemen were depicted was to have a lasting impact.

Jonathan Black is a Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Dorich House Museum, Kingston University. Through a Fellowship funded by the AHRC, he has produced a book and accompanying exhibitions on the work of the British sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, best known for his statues, dotted around Whitehall, of Clement Attlee, Viscount Slim and Viscount Alanbrooke, as well as that of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, which was famously given a grass Mohican by anti-capitalist protestors. Roberts-Jones also produced a statue of Rupert Brooke, now in Rugby, Warwickshire, which shows the poet (in Jonathan Black’s words) as a ‘barefoot hippy neo-pagan,’ before he enlisted.

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Research

Dr Isabella Stenhouse, a Woman Doctor in WW1

In this blog, Katrina Kirkwood tells the remarkable story of a woman doctor who helped the war effort at home and abroad. Isabella Stenhouse gained experience as a surgeon, and her story has inspired a community art installation to mark the centenary.

Dr Isabella Stenhouse had only recently qualified when WW1 broke out, yet she served in military hospitals in France, Malta, and Egypt.

At the outbreak of WW1, less than 0.024% of actively practising doctors in Britain were women, but while nurses tended wounded soldiers and untrained women morphed into VADs, women doctors were told by the War Office, the British Red Cross and even feminists such as Millicent Fawcett to stay home and take up the slack created by male doctors leaving for the Front.

While this gave them temporary access to a wider range of medical practice than usual, it failed to satisfy some. These women made their own way to the war-zone: patriotism apart, they hoped that proving their skills in wartime would force male doctors to allow them into every specialty of their profession after the war.

Isabella took a post in a French Red Cross hospital in 1915. She gave anaesthetics, dressed wounds, operated and fought gas gangrene. When the hospital closed that autumn, she took a post as an anatomy demonstrator to improve her surgical skills.

By summer 1916 the Army desperately needed more doctors and was forced to ask for a few medical women to work alongside the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in Malta. On 24th July, as the Battle of the Somme raged, Isabella signed up. She embarked for Malta three weeks later.

Although a few of the 40 women doctors who arrived in Malta that summer had, like Isabella, crossed the Channel to tend the wounded of Britain’s allies, most had little war experience. They were an impressive bunch. Among others, there was a former President of the Association of Registered Medical Women, a suffragist who had taken part in the 1911 census protest, and an expert on the health of munitions factory workers.

Malta had become the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’. Buildings all over the island had been converted into hospitals to care for more than 25,000 men injured in Gallipoli. By 1916, similar numbers of men suffering from infectious diseases were arriving from Salonika. Isabella, training as a surgeon, was posted to a surgical hospital.

DR Isabella Stenhouse_2_CROPPEDThe Army soon requested more women doctors, and by the end of 1916 about 80 medical women were working in Malta. However the increasing German U-boat activity of 1917 made it too dangerous to ship patients to the island and, while other women were sent to Salonika, Isabella was posted to Egypt.

The conditions under which the women were serving in these larger theatres of war became a serious problem. While male doctors who volunteered with the RAMC received temporary commissions and the right, among other privileges, to wear uniform and RAMC badges, female doctors received none of these privileges. With letters censored, they could not even complain. Incensed, one woman refused to renew her contract and spoke out. The Medical Women’s Federation (MWF), supported by the British Medical Association (BMA), investigated and, early in 1918, a consensus emerged.

1)    We need rank for our patients’ sake as we each have to maintain discipline among 130 men.
2)    We need it for the sake of the profession as a whole, that no one section of it may ever be considered inferior to another. (Dr C.M. Astley Meer, Egypt, MWF Archive)

By this time medical women were also working alongside the Army in various capacities in Britain and France. Reluctantly, the Army agreed to permit the ladies to wear uniform, but said they had no power to offer commissions: legislation was required. The campaign moved to Parliament, but with the war ending, a new government installed and the Army reassessing its medical services, the MWF and BMA had to let the campaign drop.

Far away from London and the politics of campaigning, Isabella’s war in Egypt had an unexpected ending – she got married. She continued to work, but not as a surgeon – like so many other women, medical and otherwise, she was unable to build on her experience in a male-dominated sphere after the war. Side-lined into mother and baby work, she maintained until her dying day that she was a Captain, the rank she would have had if she had been a man.

She also left behind a mysterious string of beads, the gift of a grateful patient, so to celebrate the mark left by women like her on the nation’s ‘cultural DNA’, individuals and communities are decorating beads to create an installation which will ultimately consist of 46 ‘strands of DNA’.