The role of women during the First World War or even the Second World War has never been fully recognized as that of men. There are only a few literary and academic pieces which depict the roles that they played and their significance to it. In this regard, children who are tasked to read history books get the notion that women did nothing significant during the war. However, in reality, there are many women who played important roles during the war, their effort were just left unrecognized by historians. Women, just like men also participated in the war and exerted tremendous effort just to get through it.
Many of them also served in the battle grounds fighting for their country and helping their countrymen who are risking their lives just to raise the flags of their country and protect their interests. The book Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith mirrors one of the significant roles that women played during the First World War. The story is a funny and lively story of a group of women who served as ambulance drivers for the British army. They had the privilege of bringing the wounded soldiers from the freezing cold of the war zone.
These women were sent by their parents to serve in the army in order to signify their patriotism for the British crown. Their parents are very proud of their children who are in the army. However, they just don’t know the pain and hardships that they are going through just to be considered as patriots. These women were under the tutelage of their Commandant, who they named as “Mrs. Bitch”. As the name itself signifies, Mrs. Bitch is not a very good Commandant in the eyes of the girls. She is very watchful and strict. She wants the girls to be always on the go while the girls at times would want to rest from their heavy work.
For instance, they want to take a decent bath but they cannot because they do not have the sufficient facilities that would allow them to and even of they had, Mrs. Bitch would not allow them. Moreover, Mrs. Bitch was very cruel that she would take every pain they complain of as “mere feminine affectation”. Tosh, one of the female ambulance drivers, decided to cut her hair short because her hair is starting to be a house of lice. This act was frowned by many of her colleagues since she looks like a boy. To them, the hair reflects a lot about feminity.
It is a crowning glory of every women and thus should be preserved as much as possible. However, for Tosh, the hair is not much of a big deal especially if she cannot have the resources in order to care to it. Although Smithy is serving hard in the war, she does not see the point of going to war and shedding tons of blood. Unlike those people who are so engrossed to becoming a patriot, she holds the view that wars are pointless and useless. It is a gruesome manner of taking away limb parts from a human being and ending many innocent lives.
Everyday, she takes the bodies of men screaming from pain. They are full of blood and some parts of their bodies are even missing. She somehow empathizes with their cause but she cannot do anything but to bring them to where medical services are available. In addition, wars also put women like her on the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week just to serve the needs of her countrymen, regardless if they are sick. “Ambulance drivers have no fixed hours. They can be called out any one of the twenty four,” Helen said. The total war changed Helen’s life in so many ways than one.
First she was exposed to the realities of life. Living in their home with her parents and siblings, she had not idea how the war zone is like and what patriotism is all about. The war zone is not a place for those who are weak and afraid. It is a place for strong and determined individuals. In addition, the war zone is a not place for those who do not have regard for patriotism. Although not a self-acclaimed patriot, she has done much for her country to consider her one. She has to work in field even if she is sick or had not even experienced a complete rest.
Moreover, her work requires her to adequately take care of the sick and injured soldiers while they are not yet being attended to by medical practitioners. Ambulance drivers are not simply drivers. They also need to take extra care in dealing with the needs of the people the transport. “We have no fixed rest times after driving all night, and consider ourselves lucky to get consecutive hours’ sleep…” “We are supposed to have an afternoon off weekly…I never had mine once,” Helen claimed. There was even an instance wherein she is sick but had to spend only a few hours of rest as this is the Commandant asked her to.
Another change that Smithy had to deal with is to eat the food served on the table. In the comfort of her own home, she has a caring mother to take care of her meals. She eats palatable and satiable food. However, her service in the war forced her to eat whatever the cook serves them, the taste be it good or bad. Eating as a matter of fact has become a joy for the drivers as they do not eat anything if they are on the road. “Any driver out on duty during mealtimes simply misses the meal,” Helen said. Moreover, Smithy was raised to become prim and proper.
She was educated with the proper ways of speaking and acting in front of many people. She was raised well, however, in the war zone, she had to be accustomed to the brutal manner of speaking and dealing with other people. It is a man’s world and she needs to let go of her desire for sophistication just to survive and be the hero that her parents expect from her. She can only whine about the changes that she is facing. “My conversation daily is growing less refined,” Smithy said. Having a woman in the war zone is entirely difficult. There are many adjustments that the woman needs to face just to survive the war.
The first thing that she should get accustomed with is the fact that she does not have the luxury of time to pamper and beautify herself. In the case of Smithy, they are ambulance drivers who are always on the go. They can be called anytime thus, they cannot get their hairs done or apply make up on before they leave otherwise, their patients will die. In addition, they also do not have the option to have a decent bath or to care for themselves. They have to satisfy themselves with whatever is available. “We have not had our garments off for nine days…,” Smithy claimed.
Compared to men, women are very conscious of their looks, the clothes that they wear and the appearance that they exude to the public, however, Smithy and her co-ambulance drivers had no room for any of these feminine routines. They need to suffer in the itchiness of their heads and bodies. “We have been itching furiously for days past,” Smithy uttered. Aside from their looks, women who are serving in war zone also need to get accustomed with a light diet while working the tasks of a man. They had to content themselves whatever is available be they stale biscuits or the bad food in the canteen.
As Smithy said, “we are always hungry in varying degrees”. Another difficulty that they faced but encountered is dealing with bloody screaming men. At first they had difficulty completing their tasks but as they went along, they got used to dying men inside the carts of their ambulance. The women in the story may have faced difficulty in completing their task as ambulance drivers but they managed to pull it off. While being a woman gave them several difficulties in dealing with their job, they did not use these in order to back off and leave their dying countrymen in the war zone.
These women only show that men and women are just as capable in doing anything for their country. These women survived in a man’s world and became instrumental in saving the lives of their soldiers. In this regard, women should never be forgotten in history books. They should be seen in equal light as men are for they too have their own contribution to the liberty that many nations now enjoy. Reference: Smith, H. and Marcus, J. (1989). Not so quiet: stepdaughters of war. New York: Feminist Press
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