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Women who helped win the First World War

— March 2015

Associated media

Sgt Major Flora Sands, the only recorded British woman to serve in WWI. Wounded by a hand grenade while serving in the Serbian Army & afterwards decorated with Cross of Kara-George for bravery in the field. Salonika, Jan.1917. © IWM

100 Years of Women

IWM North celebrates inspirational women for International Women’s Day 2015

From motorcycle riding medics pioneering front-line care to a courageous soldier-smuggling nurse, IWM North, part of Imperial War Museums, in Manchester, is sharing remarkable stories from its collections this March to celebrate International Women’s Day 2015.

A century on from the First World War, objects on display at IWM North reveal unique stories of women on the front line.

Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, often referred to as the most photographed women of the First World War, are among the extraordinarywomen whose wartime contributions from a century ago still have relevance today.

Already defying convention before the outbreak of war as keen motorcycle racers and enthusiasts, Mairi and Elsie volunteered as Red Cross ambulance drivers in France. Elsie, a trained nurse, believed thatmore lives could be saved if wounded soldiers were treated closer to the front line,soat huge personal risk they set up their own First Aid Post to reduce response time for injured soldiers.  This crucial window of time is now well known in medicine as the Platinum 10 Minutes.

Visitors can see Mairi’s uniform and the crucifix she carried on the Western Front in IWM North’s Main Exhibition Space.

Others who broke the mould include Flora Sandes – the only British woman to serve as a soldier during the First World War – and Edith Cavell, the courageous nurse who helped over 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers to escape German occupied Belgium, before being executed in 1915. Flora’s revolver and a copy of the last letter Edith Cavell wrote to a fellow nurse are among the items on display.

Visitors can also discover a collection of Dr Elsie Inglis’ personal items in IWM North’s Women and War display. Dr Inglis’ medical expertise was ignored, when she was told by the War Office to ‘go home and sit still’– this led her to start her own medical outpost instead.

Drastic changes to women’s lives brought about by the First World War are explored further in special exhibition From Street To Trench: A World War That Shaped A Region.  Ahead of the General Election, learn of the Suffragettes’ response to the outbreak of the First World War, led by Manchester’s famous Pankhurst family. Discover how women demonstrated their ability to work in a wealth of occupations previously reserved for men and how their contributions to the war effort were an eventual catalyst for gaining women the vote.

100 years since the First World War, visitors can discover more stories of inspiring women during times of conflict through new ‘A Closer Look: International Women’s Day’ tours of IWM North’s exhibitions, daily between 2–31 March at 3.30pm.

Charlotte Czyzyk, First World War researcher at IWM North comments:

There are so many incredible ways in which the First World War marked a turning point for women in society and they began to exceed in roles previously reserved for men, becoming technicians, mechanics and even bus conductors.This March is a chance for us to share even more stories from our collections of women like Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, who pushed the boundaries in the way that they defied authority, but always for what they believed were the right reasons.

IWM will be encouraging the public to join this campaign, remembering inspirational from the First World War to the present day. Ground breaking and radical women who lived through exceptionally challenging circumstances will be remembered across IWM North’s social media channel @IWMNorth using the hashtag #100YearsOfWomen. 

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