One hundred years ago, in November 1920, thousands of women wrote letters to the government asking to be part of the ceremony at Westminster Abbey on 11 November. They were convinced that the Unknown Warrior being buried there that day was their son. This was just one of the stories our young team unearthed in our quest to find out how the Great War affected women’s mental health. We wanted to find out what has changed for women in the past 100 years and which challenges women still face today.
Our project, We Are Poppy, was set up by Make (Good) Trouble CIC, and has a team made up of teenagers from Hove Park School in Brighton and the East Sussex Youth Cabinet, and local volunteers. It is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Whilst Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, just after the start of the project, presented us with huge logistical problems, the situation gave our team some insight into how women might have felt when faced with a national crisis. We wanted to discover what was known about how trauma affected women during the war and what had been covered by historians since – very little, as it turned out. Slowly we unearthed records that pointed to the trauma women suffered, if not naming it as such directly. Finding and (virtually) meeting up with Denise Poynter was a real turning point. Her thesis about nurses and shell shock introduced our young team to contemporary accounts of women’s lives.
“Nobody seemed to remember that women had been affected too. Nurses working on the front lines saw terrible things. Women at home had their houses destroyed and workers in ammunition factories often had life-changing injuries.” Daisy, 14
Lockdown meant that we had to cancel our planned trips to the Imperial War Museum and National Archives and rely on what was available online. We spent hours looking through photographs, posters and films in the Women’s Work Collection at IWM; we looked at online records in The National Archives about nurses’ experiences and their difficulties in getting pensions after the war; and articles in the The British Newspaper Archive. We also found wonderful diaries and historical records on websites like Scarlet Finders and The Fairest Force.
We heard about Mabel Lethbridge, a 17-year-old munitions worker who lost her leg in an explosion at work; about Mary Cleverly, whose medical records note that she suffered from shell shock; about Elsie Bowerman, a nurse who endured long shifts and “terrible sights and sounds” on the wards; we heard how women nursing at the front would simply be sent home if they suffered from, what we call today, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All these stories helped to build a picture in the minds of our young team of the experience of war for women.
We interviewed experts over Zoom to get a deeper understanding of the war and of trauma. These fantastic interviews (with Professor Lucy Noakes, historian and therapist Denise Poynter and, for a 21st Century perspective, trauma therapist Darren Abrahams) are all available on our project website and provide a wealth of detail about how the trauma of war affected women then, and how it is still affecting people now.
To bring our research to life, we created a one-off podcast called Dear Poppy which imagines a conversation between today’s young people and the young women who lived through the First World War. In it we hear excerpts from letters, diaries and medical records of women living through the war and we found and created sound effects to bring the era to life, contrasting them with the sounds we hear today. Our sound editor, 22-year-old Alvy Vincent, said, “I loved the creativeness of listening to someone speak, imagining the settings that they would be in and then layering lots of SFX (sound effects) to create a world that the person speaking could sit in. I was forced to think about what noises you might hear at that time. I used old aircraft soaring overhead and air raid sirens but I also liked the SFX that are more generic but still created a soundscape that felt old fashioned, so I used things like church bells ringing in the distance, horses hooves on cobbled streets, dogs barking, wind blowing in the trees.”
Our young team devised a fictional character called Poppy who lived during the First World War. They looked at how the war might have affected Poppy’s mental health: how she might have been empowered by going out to work but also perhaps traumatised by her nursing experience overseas or by having lost a close relative. Our team found it a really useful way to understand and engage with the history of the Great War.
“I feel like it's opened my mind more than it would have been because we don't learn much about women in our lessons in history. The project really expanded my view of what women were doing and how women felt in the First World War.” Arielle, 14
“Just imagining her as a real person helps with empathy, putting myself in her shoes because usually you just hear about these people from the olden days and you think, ‘oh that's a bit sad’, but when you imagine them as real people, you can put yourself in their shoes, see how they were feeling and really imagine what they were going through. I knew about the men and their shellshock and how mental health wasn't such a well-known thing back then, so how they were all discovering what that was but it hadn't even occurred to me that the women would get shellshock or PTSD from working on the frontline.” Amelie, 14