French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front

French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front

French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front

French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front


Despite acts of female heroism, popular memory, as well as official memorialization in monuments and historic sites, has ignored French women's role in the First World War. This book explores stories that were never told and why they were not. These include the experiences of French women in the war, the stories they themselves told about these experiences and how French society interpreted them.The author examines the ways French women served their country - from charity work, nursing and munitions manufacture to volunteering for military service and espionage. In tracing stories about war heroines, but also about villainesses like Mata Hari, this fascinating study shows what these stories reveal about French understanding of the war, their hopes and fears for the future. While the masculine war story was unitary and unchanging, the feminine story was multiple and shifting. Initially praised for their voluntary mobilization, women's claims of patriotism were undercut by criticisms as the war bogged down in the trenches. Were nurses giving solace or seeking romance? Were munitions workers patriots or profiteers? The prosecutions of Mata Hari for espionage and H¿l¿ne Brion for subversion show how attitudes to women's claim of patriotism changed. French women's relationship to the war called into question ideas about gender, definitions of citizenship and national identity.This book is the first study of women at war to treat both their experiences and its representations, which shaped nationalism, war and gender for the rest of the twentieth century. It makes an important contribution to the burgeoning history of collective memory and of the First World War.


It seems paradoxical to unite these two words: woman and war.

Women and war … if there are two words made not to go together, it is these two: war and women.

The first quotation is from a speech to a women's organization in Paris in 1912; the second, from an article in L'Opinion Publique, appeared early in 1940. How little the First World War had done to reconcile French women and war! Even the title of the L'Opinion Publique article, “Women and the War, ” mirrored that of numerous First World War publications. Although a few writers had placed women “during” or, most daringly, “in” the war (such as Gaston Rageot, The French Woman in the War (1918)), the most common connection was “and.” Women and war could be juxtaposed, but what had the one to do with the other? Although the trenches of the First World War ran through northern France, ensuring that some French women lived in its midst, and although many French women worked to support the war, those who made public opinion in France had difficulty envisioning a relationship between women and the war.

This difficulty did not result from lack of effort. During the war, many French men and women wrote about women's wartime activities. And there were stories, novels and plays about marraines de guerre who “adopted” soldiers by correspondence (see Chapter 3), and about battlefield nurses (see Chapter 5) and spies (see Chapter 8). Even the wise fool, Bécassine, had four First World War cartoon adventures. Some French women published diaries or memoirs of their war experiences. But none of these stories “stuck.” With the exception of Bécassine's adventures, reissued in 1947 and again recently, French women's stories of the war quickly disappeared. No French counterpart exists to Vera Brittain's war memoir, Testament of Youth, a bestseller when it was first published . . .

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