The best books on women and the First World War

Alison Fell Author Of Women as Veterans in Britain and France After the First World War
By Alison Fell

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the First World War ever since I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth at the age of 19. When I lived in France in my twenties I started to read French nurses’ memoirs and diaries, and for the last fifteen years or so have continued to read and write about women’s experiences during and after the war as a university academic researcher, often from a comparative perspective. Men’s stories and memories of the First World War still dominate our understanding of it, but I believe that women’s perspectives give us a vital and often overlooked insight into the war and its consequences.


I wrote...

Women as Veterans in Britain and France After the First World War

By Alison Fell,

Book cover of Women as Veterans in Britain and France After the First World War

What is my book about?

This is the story of how women in France and Britain between 1915 and 1933 appropriated the cultural identity of female war veterans in order to have greater access to public life and a voice in a political climate in which women were rarely heard on the public stage. The 'veterans' covered by this history include former nurses, charity workers, secret service agents, and members of resistance networks in occupied territory, as well as members of the British auxiliary corps.

What unites these women is how they attempted to present themselves as 'female veterans' in order to gain social advantages and give themselves the right to speak about the war and its legacies. Alison S. Fell also considers the limits of the identity of war veteran for women, considering as an example the wartime and post-war experiences of the female industrial workers who led episodes of industrial action.

The books I picked & why

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Women and the First World War

By Susan R. Grayzel,

Book cover of Women and the First World War

Why this book?

This is an excellent introduction to the varied experiences of women in the war, both those on active service as workers or volunteers, those who were victims of the war, fleeing their homes as refugees, and those who remained at home, carrying out domestic roles as wives and mothers in what were often difficult circumstances. It is a book I regularly recommend to my students. Although no book could cover all nations and contexts in a four-year global war, it shows not only how the war had an impact on millions of women’s lives, but also how women’s actions had significant impacts on the war and its legacies. It has a useful chronology of the war, and a good bibliography for further reading.


Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918

By John Stevens, Caroline Stevens,

Book cover of Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918

Why this book?

Although it’s not as well-known as Vera Brittain’s powerful 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, British military nurse Kate Luard’s letters deserve to be widely read, for the vivid and moving picture they paint of life in a front-line hospital in the last two years of the war. Luard had already worked as a military nurse in the Boer War, and was a confident and highly skilled nurse, but it is clear that four years of nursing seriously ill and wounded soldiers often stretched her to her professional and emotional limits. There are lighter moments, too, and Luard pays tribute not only to the men she nursed, but to the courageous and tenacious women she worked alongside. Make sure you also read nurse historian Christine Hallett and Tim Luard’s excellent introduction.


They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution

By Laurie S. Stoff,

Book cover of They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution

Why this book?

Although they are largely forgotten now, the five to six thousand Russian women who enlisted as soldiers were amongst the most photographed and written about women in the First World War, especially the charismatic but tyrannical leader of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, Maria Bochkareva. Stoff’s book gives a highly readable and fascinating account of their formation, their military action, their ill-fated involvement in the defence of the Winter Palace when it was stormed by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, and their reception by the rest of the world as the only battalions of women to carry out officially sanctioned combat roles in the war.

Stoff uses their own memoirs alongside other first-hand accounts by American, British, and French diplomats stationed in Russian in the tumultuous year of 1917, and her book provides a balanced and nuanced analysis.


A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

By Patricia Fara,

Book cover of A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

Why this book?

This book shines a light on a lesser-known but key group of participants in the First World War: scientists. Fara’s book considers both the opportunities offered by the war as well as the challenges and prejudices faced by a select cohort of British female scientists. I found it particularly interesting reading it during a pandemic, at a time when scientists’ skills are once again crucial in a national (and global) emergency, but equally when scientists have a very high public profile. This book shows that historical precedents can provide relevant contexts for addressing questions that are still being asked today about gender inequalities between the career prospects and public reception of scientists.


Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

By Sophie de Schaepdrijver,

Book cover of Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

Why this book?

British people have often heard of Edith Cavell, who has been commemorated in Britain as a national heroine of the war after she was executed by the Germans in 1915 for her role in running an escape network in Belgium for Allied Soldiers. But Cavell was only one individual amongst hundreds who resisted the authorities in occupied France and Belgium. Like Cavell, young Belgian woman Gabrielle Petit was remembered as a national heroine after her execution during the war. De Schaepdrijver’s book vividly brings her story to life, explaining how she was became involved in espionage, as well as showing how a cult of remembrance grew around her in the decades following the 1918 armistice.


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