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Watson says views of women's roles
in WWI changed in post-war era
(March 30, 1999)

or Britain, World War I was the first war in modern times to be fought practically at home and it occupied the attention of the British people as no other war had done.

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"There is this level of intimacy with it, an interaction with the war front," says Janet Watson, assistant professor of history, whose research focuses on that period. "You can get there - it's just across the channel in France. Women go to nurse in the hospitals. People come home on leave, letters and packages get through very quickly."

A war that involved a much larger percentage of the British population in one way or another than any previous conflict, it provides a rich panoply of collective memory and cultural identity, as well as a case study in how retrospective accounts change to serve intervening history.

Watson's interest was first sparked after reading Vera Brittain's 1933 best seller, Testament of Youth. A memoir of the author's wartime service as a volunteer nurse, it describes her experiences in London, Malta and France, from the summer of 1915 until after the Armistice. As a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse, she was one of many women without previous nursing training, who were recruited to fill a greater than expected need, brought about by heavy artillery casualties and prolonged fighting.

What intrigued Watson was the ongoing antagonism between the volunteers and the professional nurses who were also part of the war effort. Alhough both did fundamentally the same work of caring for the wounded in hospitals, they had decidedly different views about how the job should be done. The nurses regarded the VADs as threatening and were defensive. At the time, their fight for professional status was troubled by an internal debate between those in favor of registration and those who thought it would damage nursing, which they considered essentially "a calling."

VADs undoubtedly reminded those nurses seeking professional status of their opposition. "The professional attitude was very unempathetic - you know, we're here to heal them, not be their friends," explains Watson. "The volunteers, who were offering a service to a nation, often saw themselves as doing parallel work to the soldiers. So there was a lot of identification with them." Procedures important to a professional, such as how to make a bed, or in what order to put instruments on a tray, "seemed totally pointless to women who were in the hospitals to serve the soldiers."

In her examination of the social construction of work - specifically, the extensive and varied involvement of Britons in war work and service - Watson looked first at wartime representations, including narratives of the war by major literary figures, and the letters and diaries of ordinary citizens. She was fortunate, during her Fulbright year in London, in 1993-94, to come across the letters of the Beale family - a find that gives her work a very personal dimension.

A prosperous family from Sussex, the Beales found themselves caught up in the war effort in a number of ways - two daughters were nurses, a niece was an ambulance driver, and the sons were in the army. Through their correspondence, as well as the archival letters and diaries of many others, Watson has produced an account of how a cross-section of people viewed their involvement, both as it was happening and in the immediate post-war period.

During the war, Watson found, "the country needed women to do all the things that they did. So, there is a language of equality of service, of women doing the gendered equivalent of the men's work. You hear it repeatedly, that women are just as important as the soldiers. That it won't be clear to whom the victory is due - the men fighting or the women, who are doing all these things they were never expected to do."

A decade later, however, the change in such views is startling. Revisiting the war years through narratives written from the vantage point of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Watson has found a different story - one of horror and disillusionment. Women in particular, lost place in the revision.

By the end of the 1920s, there was an increasing sense of fruitlessness . "It was quite clear that this wasn't the "war to end all wars, and it all felt quite wasted," she says. "This is when you start hearing about disillusionment. There's a standard story about young idealists who volunteered out of patriotism and a sense of honor, who experienced the horrors of trench warfare, and were either killed or came home emotionally devastated."

With the need to revise history in these worsening times, almost all who wrote of the period conformed to the new script. "It became very polarized," she notes. "Either people were supporting this trench disillusionment story or they were seen as criticizing it, and there was not much room to say something else." Women's stories, too, changed. Now, everybody they knew, male and female, died or came home emotionally shattered, and the women were victims as well, devastated by the whole experience.

When Eric Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front appeared in British bookstores in 1928, it was a huge success. "It touched a chord," Watson says, of the reaction that seemed to intensify the feeling that many may have died in vain. It also solidified the insistence among trench soldiers that if you didn't experience their kind of war, "you were one of those who didn't understand." Women's efforts to rewrite their narratives to match men's were marginalized.

"Women weren't allowed to claim the truth of a war experience unless they faced the risk of death," she argues. "That became the way you said, 'I served in the war.' So they tried to claim that risk but, of course, all the statistics showed that they didn't have a right to it. Rather than later, saying, 'We all did things in different ways,' they got dismissed."

Looking at the changing relationship between history and memory, Watson adds, "It is quite remarkable how differently people talked about the war at different points." A field that captivates her, social constructions of history will continue to be the focus of Watson's research as she turns her attention to changing representations of World War II in Britain and how, in particular, they reflected ideas of national identity.

Janet Barrett