On the Firing Line: Women Journalists at War

On the Firing Line: Women Journalists at War

Posted on March 17 by Debbie Marshall in Non-fiction
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A group of women wrapped in furs and warm winter cloaks stands on the quay at Boulogne. Around them surges a blue, red, and khaki sea of French, British, and Belgian soldiers. White-veiled nurses run alongside patients being carried on stretchers onto waiting ships. There are shouts, marching orders, and whistles as the women stand silently watching, absorbing the details of what they are seeing, overcome by the reality that they are on the doorstep of the Great War.

They are the first party of female Canadian journalists allowed into France to visit the lines of communication.

Only a small group of accredited male journalists is now based in France, watched over carefully by the British army and stationed a comfortable distance from the front. At last, with the support of military authorities and prominent politicians, female writers from Canada are to be allowed to view life behind the veil that separates the home front from the war front.

The party includes Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore, and Elizabeth Montizambert. They are “special correspondents,” posted overseas to provide a female perspective on the conflict.

It is a time when fewer than two hundred Canadian women are working as journalists, compared to about 1,500 men.

The women will send home hundreds of articles describing the impact of the war on women on the home front as well as women living and working near the fighting. Their stories will also include rare insights into the emotional and physical lives of the men in the trenches — in particular, Canadian men. The portrait they will paint of the war will be distinctly different from those created by their male colleagues; instead of stories of sweeping battles and (sometimes fabricated) heroism, they will draw intimate, compelling, and sometimes funny views of a world at war.

Recently, an interviewer asked me why these women’s stories of the First World War have been virtually unknown, except for some short references in a few scholarly articles. I believe the answer is twofold. As Canadians, we often don’t quite believe we have the kind of exciting, compelling figures in our history that our more bombastic and uber patriotic culture to the south seems to produce. The second answer is simply sexism. 

All too often we accept the prevailing wisdom that women of the past really weren’t doing the adventurous, compelling, risky work that societies of the past seemed to think inappropriate and even scandalous.

Some women have always found ways to get around the prejudice and obstacles placed in their way in order to create lives filled with meaningful (non-traditional) activities and work. In the case of the First World War, while they faced significant obstacles, some intrepid Canadian women did manage to get close to the heart of the conflict and send their reports home for everyone to read. Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore, and Elizabeth Montizambert were among their number. Their story is told in my new book Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War.

Debbie Marshall

Posted by Dundurn Guest on June 22, 2016

Debbie Marshall

Debbie Marshall is a writer, editor, and playwright with a special interest in women and the First World War. Her work has appeared in anthologies such as Dropped Threads II and in magazines such as The Beaver, as well as other publications. She is the author of Give Your Other Vote to the Sister: A Woman’s Journey into the Great War. She lives on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.