Women in War in Belgium: Uniformed or Not?

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:10 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Ilse Bogaerts, Royal Musuem of the Army and Military History
On August 4, 1914 the German army invaded Belgium. The German advance was brought to a standstill on 22 November 1914 and the occupation of part of Belgium was then a fact. The war was not over in a few months as initially expected, but lasted four years and the world had to face a “total war” in which not only the armed forces but society as a whole were implicated, women included.

The parts women played in our Belgium depended on their geographical location, whether behind the River Yser (the front-line) or in occupied territory. Women were mobilized by the Belgian Red Cross, and as volunteers they tended to countless casualties or assisted doctors and surgeons working for the Belgian army medical services. The Belgian Red Cross and the Belgian army medical services evolved over the course of the Great War. Women were trained and all female workers received a uniform.

Many women also participated in private charity initiatives assisting orphans, distributing food or clothing and generally helping those in need. Some women became voluntary nurses and received training, which enabled  them to see to wounded soldiers at the front. They received regulated equipment to perform these tasks. Economic life had come to a standstill, as men were fighting at the front and the enemy occupied the country. Women therefore stepped up to the plate in all economic sectors. Those working in military hospitals, pharmacies or other military logistic services such as military laundries were also ordered to wear a uniform.

In this contribution, we wish to find out not only which uniform was worn for which activities, but also who took decisions in these matters in Belgium.