Mummy, what did you do in the War?

The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) during the First World War
The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) during the First World War
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This year marks the centenary of World War 1, making it a poignant time to visit Europe’s battlefields. Nel Staveley takes a trip to Flanders to look at the role of the war’s lesser known heroes: women.

On a late autumn evening, the watery sun low in a greying sky, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery is beautiful, bleak and completely overwhelming.

It might be nearly a century since the last earth was scattered on the last grave, and you might have read the history books, studied the poetry of Wilfred Owen and watched the grainy BBC documentaries, but nothing can ever really prepare you for the jolting sadness of actually standing here, in a war cemetery, just 12km from the infamously bloody Ypres Salient.

What’s perhaps even harder to absorb is that Lijssenthoek was a hospital cemetery, serving the biggest evacuation hospital in the Ypres Salient.

So the 10,784 men lying here would not have died in some romantic, baying glory on the battlefield, but in slow lonely agony with wounds modern medicine would baulk at, let alone the meagrely equipped tents of World War 1.

There are the obligatory unnamed graves too – 24 in total. That’s actually relatively few for a war cemetery, and yet that’s still 24 families who never knew where their sons, fathers and brothers lay.

On the southern tip of the cemetery, you come to 223 German graves. They are all neatly kept, as every grave in every war cemetery across the world always is, but they lie – unsurprisingly – a little apart. You can understand it, of course, and yet, whatever the rights and wrongs of Germany’s part in the Great War, there’s no escaping the enduring loneliness of men buried apart from comrades, unwelcome outsiders even in death.

In what seems like endless sadness though, one headstone in Lijssenthoek gives out a strange ray of hope.

“That one is Nellie Spindler’s,” our guide smiles, pointing to a cross at the cemetery’s front edge.

Nellie, a staff nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, was just 26 when she died while she was sleeping, bombed by a German shell at 11.15am on August 21, 1917.

At first her story seems an unlikely one to lift the mood. But her role in the war effort was a very admirable one.

Because in 1917 – a year before UK women over 30 got the vote and 11 years before Nellie, being under 30, would have got the vote – women undoubtedly had fewer rights than men.

And yet there was Nellie, fighting – and dying – with an equal honour to men. She wasn’t the only one either.

Throughout the war, thousands of brave and selfless women like Nellie were ‘doing their bit’ in hospitals across Europe’s battlefields.

And although traditional history lessons might not have told us much about them, in 2014, the centenary of The Great War, it’s perhaps about time that changed.

All over Flanders, you don’t have to search very hard to find similar stories of female heroism.

Most local guides can tell you about how legendary scientist Marie Curie drove her early radiology vans for miles, training other nurses and helping X-Ray otherwise helpless wounds. Flanders Field Museum, just off the enormous town square in Ypres, has video reels with actresses reciting nurses’ letters. Some of these words are reflective, some humorous, some desperate – but all courageous.

There are new interactive display pods too, that let you ‘be’ famous names from the war, such as Edith Cavell, the nurse executed by German soldiers in 1915 after helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium. A few years ago, a book by Diane Atkinson entitled Elsie And Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women On The Western Front, celebrated the lives of two irrepressible young nurses, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisolm.

The pair first joined the war effort as part of a small band of female nurses on motorbikes called Munro’s Ambulance Corps, but gradually, frustrated by how many men were dying before they could even reach a hospital, they decided to set up their own first aid post on the front line in Pervyse, just a few miles from Ypres.

Driving round the now pretty village of Pervyse, you can see the bumpy roads they rattled their ambulances down, you pass the tiny cottage that became their hospital and home for nearly four years, and a little further afield you can see the small damp dugouts on the front line, where they ignored any risk to their own lives and ferried tepid cups of tea to desperate, weary men.

And it is at these seemingly unspectacular places - a narrow road, a now modernised house, a hole in the ground covered with sandbags - that you truly see the spectacular history of World War 1, and learn how both men and women desperately tried to survive hell with some sort of humanity. Throughout 2014, crowds of tourists will visit Flanders. It undoubtedly has a lot to offer.

There are amazing museums, all well balanced with modern interactive displays and genuine, tear-jerking photos, letters home and even school reports of slaughtered soldiers.

The vast, flat, green countryside is undeniably beautiful.

And Ypres itself is a buzzing, pretty town with an endless array of Belgian chocolate shops, ice-cream cafes, and trendy restaurants.

But behind it all, Flanders is a place that will forever be scarred by its history, and by the still incomprehensible sacrifices made on its soil.

You can feel it in the famous Last Post, rigidly performed every day since the end of the war under the Menin Gate’s towering arches inscribed with 54,894 names of men with no known graves.

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