Gender and War in the Twentieth Century Essay

Gender and War in the Twentieth Century

Nancy Wingfield and Mary Bucur

Through the Essays


The Nurse in Camp
After the War
Through the Essays


 The period between 1913 and 1946 marked a new era in human civilization. Never before had human beings deliberately and with murderous intent come together for the destruction and the obliteration of the world as it was known then. Almost every continent and nation was involved. Women, children and men temporarily forgot how to live normal lives.

 Everything belonged to and was owned by the war. Factories were but in which to make ammunition, women left home to go overseas and be nurses in friendly camps. Thoughts of children were left. The whole world awoke to find a different kind of civilization, one that wrote terror and vended death, mistrust, poverty and animosity. Europe suffered the most from these, with bombings in all major cities, destruction of war and merchant ships, strain and near collapse of the countries’ economies, stripping of colonies from countries, loss of countless lives, punishments and fines for some countries and the outright display of the brutality of the human race.

The Great War, as the First World War was called was termed “the war to end all other wars.” It was gruesome and nasty and those who lived through it seldom want to tell the tale.

 The effects of the wars were not only in the trenches and in the fields, nor in the fighter jets that constantly patrolled the sky. War was everywhere, from the radios that blasted nationalistic, often agitated slogans, to the newspapers that carried men in their uniforms marching down streets, to the lame or wounded men who returned home before the end of duty, to the absence of men from homes, to the gun factories where the women worked, and the makeshift hospitals with nurses who saw more than their fair quota, to the silence that was observed every so often and the rise of great men to power and fame such as Sir Winston Churchill and the little bastard and orphaned children who littered the street, and the gaping craters that had once held structures where people had worked and lived. War was, therefore, every where.

 The common story is of the men who went into the battle zones and either came back in one piece, amputees, or never came back at all, while their women stayed at home to work diligently in the factories and maintain a hope for their lovers’ return.

 The book Gender and War in Twentieth Century Europe seeks to tell a new story, not new in the sense that it happened recently, but new in that it is seldom told for the


tellers as few and far spaced. It tells the story of the women who lived in, through and with the war, emphasizing on the story of the Austro-Hungarian “nurses” who

were employed by their government to be their ambassadors in enemy territory.

 Gender plays a crucial part in this book. It is the gender of the women that makes them stand out within the goings on of the war and gets them due recognition. Women in the period preceding the Great War were secondary where matters of Nationality, patriotism and fighting for the sovereignty of their countries were concerned. It was thought of as the man’s job to do that. The use of “nurses as spies and ambassadors to the countries with which their home country was having

Hostilities was the first step in the liberation of the woman and her coming forward, though later her involvement in the war is what is blamed for the loss of the war by the Easterners.

 Quoting from page 48

Maureen Heady, Civilizing the Soldiers

“In the defeated countries, the loss of order in gender relations were woven into explanations for the loss of the war itself”

The Nurse in Camp

“In the course of World War I, enemy forces captured a total of 2.77 million Austro Hungary soldiers. This astonishingly high number constituted about one third of the 6.32 million men mobilize by Austro-Hungary during the war and about 11 percent of the male population of the Dual Monarchy…. Thus in addition to fighting a war in a massive and unprecedented scale, the belligerenant countries on the western front had to deal with what would be called today a humanitarian crisis of tremendous scale. The endeavor to assist the multitude of displaced, interned, and distraught people required enomourous financial, physical and emotional mobilization at a time when all three resources were in great demand. And as the case often is with assistance, it involved not only succor, but also control, distrust and friction along class, national and gender lines.”

[Alon Rachamimov, in the introduction, page 23]

The above excerpt gives a little light to how the humanitarian crisis of millions of soldiers filling the streets forced the warring nations to contrive a plan to sort themselves out so as to be able to carry on. In the same page, we are told how this plan came into action with the use of the nurses whose work was to do everything other than “personally treat the sick and the wounded.” The full description of their roles is quoted below:

“Assigned the auxiliary appellation of nurses, these women were expected to do almost everything except to treat the sick and the wounded. They were supposed to report on the loyalty of the imperial and the loyal captured soldiers, reinforce hierarchy and discipline in the camps, negotiate with high ranking officials in Russia, assess authoritatively in scores of POW camps, distribute large amounts of money


according to local needs and embody the maternal caring and the goodwill of their monarchial state

[Alon Rachamimov, in the introduction, page 23&24]”

“They [Austro-Hungary nurses] were expected to provide concrete suggestions for imprisonment… negotiate directly with the authorities,… defeat strong prejudices which had gained a threshold [among the prisoners]…

[Female Generals and Serbian Angels, page 25]”

 It has now become clear that these women were not there for humanitarian effect as the term “nurses” forces one to think. Being women, they were allowed the comfort of far much less scrutiny than would have followed the masquerading of a man as a nurse, and this allowed them to not only get in touch with the prisoners to whom they were “assigned” but to also serve as ambassadors from their Monarchy to Russia and also as spies on the moves of the Russians.  They social monarchial status as aristocratic women also served to enforce a touch of the monarchy within the camps which at the time were disorderly with the men in bad need of repair. Their mission was in the way of their tagging, ineffective. This is because few gained the trust of the prisoners of war and also because none could squarely fit into the shoes of an ordinary nurse.

 Traditionally, the nurse in the camp was only required to heal the sick and to be a source of comfort to the wounded and the distraught, and be assistants to the doctor. These women with their aggressive nature and elevated air and their ability to stand their ground and tread where no woman had before, signaled a great change in the definition of the role of the woman.

 The woman’s role as the demure and quiet, almost passive observer, who absorbs everything but only takes not of what is required of her in the goings on of her world was thus decimated and dismembered. The image of the maternal nurse somehow lost its face in the Austro-Hungarian nurses who were strong willed and hard skinned though not unkind but also not too maternal. This brought about a great confusion both within and without the camp and in a way must have contributed to their loss of confidence and trust from the prisoners.

After the War

Quoting from Maureen Heady,

 Civilizing the Soldiers

“Among ads for prosthetic limbs, gravestone engraving services, training services for returning soldiers, and artificial glass eyes(indistinguishable from the real thing), we find an ad in an Austrian newspaper from 1919 that reads “civilize yourselves”

Der Invalide, the newspaper carrying the ad, had many articles and announcements of interest to Austria’s returning soldiers, the “war damaged”……”

Gender and War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe. Page 47

“Except for the relatively small number of officers and soldiers who were drawn into the Republic of German-Austria’s new army, most Austrian men who fought in the


Hapsburg armed forces would be making a transition back into civilian life Demobilization did not take place at the instant a man was discharged from war, rather it was a gradual transformation from soldier to civilian in their everyday lives.”

Gender and War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe, Page 47

Maureen Heady, Civilizing the Soldiers

In 1919 the Great War was over but with its death it brought about a whole new bundle of problems that had to be dealt with. Not only was infrastructure, housing and health at the top of the list but there was the question of order that had to be addressed. Before the war there was a systematic way in which to do things and this was the order by which everyone lived by. But with the use of women during the war, they were not ready to be relegated back to where they had come from. They had found a new sense of voice and identity which caused great social despair.

The women and men were finally as equals, both were responsible for winning or losing the war and both had their experiences and tales to tell. The problem of order was not only in one European nation. Two women undertook the task of studying postwar Europe.

Mary Roberts

“The discourse of French reconstruction focused on female identity and the figures of the “modern woman”, the “mother” and the “single woman””

Susan Kingsley Kent

In her studies of postwar Britain,

“…many saw in the reestablishment of sexual difference the means to create a semblance of order.”

 What is clear through these two observations is that through out Europe the empowerment of the woman was associated with disorder in the society. Add this to the massive destruction that the governments of the time had to contend with, the social strata that had been present before was now none existent.

 The mending of the broken was a major factor in the in this new unstratification. Not only broken bones and minds, but also spirits. Women’s repair was best though of as going back to the former in order to retain the previous feeling of sustainable “order” in the society.


Through the Essays

 Through the essays of this book we get an insight into war from the woman’s side, and a story hitherto fore ignored. Historians had previously not delved into this other side of history.

The Essays are written concisely and powerfully, not to make heroes of anyone, yet not undermining anyone either. The role of the woman is constantly revised and overturned not as we know it today but as was the expectation of the life of the time.


The themes that keep on recurring in all the essays are the empowerment of women and the disintegration of the common man’s expectation of his woman and also the increase of the demand of the woman in terms of expectations from herself. Those who had been content to being secondary now were at the forefront and what was previously held on to as strictly defined roles for example the role of the man as the head of the family, the sole provider and the father and the woman being the stay at home mother who takes care of the children lost some of their color.

The experiences that women had were in almost every sector differed from those of the man, from their entry into the war as spies and ambassadors in an almost illegitimate action that would have landed any man dead, to their constant contact with the enemy power’s officials who no man was willing to confront, and to the demand of the men for whom they were to care for and provide strength for while at their weakest, and their return home to be faced with threats of being devoiced once again after enjoying the privilege of being heard, women surely had a much differed view of the war from the men. Yes, the deaths and bombings were common, and disease did not discriminate and hunger knew everyone’s name but the divide still lay as clear as the day. Women we therefore forced to embrace a different kind of civilization than the one they were accustomed to. Moving from the home to the boardroom to deliberate new ventures was no easy transition. But not all women changed. There were those who chose to remain as they were though conscious of the changes going on.

 Through the undertaking of the in-depth analysis by the Essays on the war’s effect on the woman, we understand that the woman’s voice is as important as any other and that through her unique ways she impacts the world. This story is therefore tells a tale whish was not told before and that in itself is a whole new insight as never seen before