History Goes On
Seeing the contribution of Welsh women in the First World War
Dr Gethin Matthews | @WelshMemorials @CofebauRhyfel
A seminar given to staff and students in the History Department at Swansea University, 26 March 2020.
This presentation makes a contribution to the question of how the First World War was understood at the time by focussing upon how women in Wales were seen (literally) to be contributing. Although there are problems with the evidence – as of course, we have to rely principally on photographs – we can get an indication of how women were portrayed as making a contribution to the war effort and how that fitted in with the dominant contemporary narrative of the war. One particularly striking piece of evidence, found in a Swansea newspaper in May 1915, shows a groups of girls, each wearing a military cap, marching underneath a banner declaring ‘If you won’t go we must’. This ties in with the messages of the official recruiting campaigns, which sought to shame men into volunteering by questioning their masculine virtues.
Throughout the early months of the war, the South Wales Daily News had a page dedicated to war photographs, and in these we see that women are present, typically in the traditional roles of caring for and supporting their men (eg. knitting socks). Another prominent trope was that of the ‘proud mother’ seen to be sending her sons off to do their duty for king and country. Also, photographs of nurses were often seen in Welsh newspapers, sometimes with them being described as ‘noble’ or ‘heroic’.
In contrast, photographs of named female munition workers are seldom seen in the
newspapers, although there is a striking image in a Swansea newspaper from January 1916 of nine ‘happy girl munition workers’. Further evidence of how these women saw themselves comes from private family collections and from the photographic record of the funeral procession in August 1917 of a young woman killed in a munitions works accident.
In terms of commemoration after the war, it is acknowledged that the images of participants in the war are most often male soldiers, yet it is possible also to find images of nurses.
Dr Gethin Matthews is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Swansea University, where he has been since 2011. His PhD explored the history of the Welsh in the Gold Rushes, but for the past decade he has been researching the impact of the First World War upon Welsh society and culture. His edited volume Creithiau (2016) provided an important assessment in Welsh of the effects of the war upon Wales and his latest book, published in 2018, is Having a Go at the Kaiser: A Welsh Family at War. From 2014 to 2019 he was involved with the Living Legacies 1914-1918 WW1 Engagement Centre, running a project on ‘Welsh Memorials to the Great War’.
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