Joni Buchanan introduces Elisabeth Shipton, right
The first evening event to be held at the new Museum and Archive beside the newly restored Lews Castle in Stornoway on Saturday night (October 17th) was about the role of women in World War One.
This was a talk by Elisabeth Shipton , author of the groundbreaking book Female Tommies - the Frontline Women of the First World War, first published last year and already reprinted.
The brightly-lit meeting room beside the newly restored courtyard was full of members of the Islands Book Trust and other people interested in hearing about the vital role of women in the war effort, including the career of Flora Sandes who ended up as a fully-fledged frontline member of the Serbian army, on the southern front of the Allied campaign against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The meeting was introduced by Joni Buchanan, from Uig, who spoke of various known examples of Island women who made major contributions during the world wars but whose role tended to be overlooked or forgotten in the main histories of the period.
Elisabeth Shipton - assisted by a series of contemporary images displayed on screen - then explained how the women's war effort fitted into the contemporary campaign to win women the right to vote, along with the developing role for women both in nursing, and in medical practice overall. She highlighted how women fought battles with bureaucracy to get as close to the Front Line as possible, and how they found an almost total failure to provide care for the wounded brought away from the Trenches - at one stage, the wounded were simply tipped off the ambulance stretchers on the roadways of towns behind the Front Line and effectively left to die because provision had not been thought through.
Elisabeth Shipton pointed out that a lot of research had been done to expose the horrors inflicted on soldiers fight on the Front Lines, and a lot of research has looked at the changed roles of women on the Home Front, where they moved into jobs vacated by the men who were away fighting. However, little had been done to look at the women "who blurred the boundaries between the gender division and the ones that wanted to go to the Front Line…they wanted to challenge the social parameters they faced at the time."
She explained her own interest was started by the stories of her grandmother Catherine O'Donnell who served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War Two. When she started studying World War One, she originally assumed they would have been similar female auxiliary forces…but at the start of the war, that was not the case. Around 200,000 women served with the armed forces, largely as nurses, during World War One - but the formal structures only came into existence towards the end of the war.
So women's involvement was largely through voluntary organisations that they set up and ran to provide hospitals and nursing services - one of the most influential of these was the Scottish Women's Hospital. At the start of the war there were about 1,000 women qualified as doctors in the UK, with Scotland leading the way as it had two medical schools which admitted women.
Elisabeth Shipton said the campaign for women's right to vote had brought women together, got them used to organising movements, sharing experiences and creating institutions. She highlighted how initial opposition to female involvement by the UK forces and government meant that the women's organisations often got the front-line having been sponsored by other governments, such as those of Belgium, Serbia and France.
Female Tommies - the Frontline Women of the First World War. Elisabeth Shipton, the History Press, £18.99
Available as an e-book - http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/index.php/female-tommies-24483.html