Singer and writer Jessica Walker‘s new commission for Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, Not Such Quiet Girls premieres in the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 29 November, as part of our programme of events commemorating the centenary of the Armistice. Here she tells us about the forgotten stories that inspired the piece.
“When I was asked by Opera North to write a new piece centred around women’s experiences during World War I, I was nervous that I would find nothing to say, that had not already been said. So much is known today about that terrible war, not only from a revisionist historical point of view, but also in the form of myriad television, cinematic, theatrical, radio and fictional adaptations of events during that time. In this, the centenary of the end of the War, there has, naturally, been an even greater emphasis placed on adaptations of war stories.
In fact, I realised pretty quickly I needn’t have worried. If the Great War has been exhaustively examined across art forms, it is predominantly the Great War of men that we know about, and not of women. There are good reasons for this; men went to war, and men died – the war is their story, over and above anyone else’s. The testimony from that time – in poetry, prose and factual accounts – was written almost exclusively by men. But if it was the men who lost their lives, it was the women who took their places in the factories, held the fort at home, and who suffered the loss of their loved ones. The most well known account of women’s loss we have is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which recounts her devastating wartime experiences, including her time spent as a voluntary nurse behind the front line in France.
There are, however, other women’s stories from that time, that have not found their way into the public consciousness at all. Director Tim Albery pointed me towards the Helen Zenna Smith novel, Not So Quiet, and to Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, both of which are accounts of the experiences of young British women who volunteered as ambulance drivers behind the front line in Belgium and France, and about whom I knew nothing at all.
The image at the top of the page became the starting point for the piece I decided to write. It shows five of these volunteer drivers, known by the rather unfortunate acronym of FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), who are all, rather incongruously, wearing fur coats over their uniforms. This image gives an insight not only into how cold it clearly was, but also into the fact that the women who ended up stationed just behind the battle lines of places like Ypres and the Somme, were the kind of women who owned luxurious fur coats. These young girls, often barely in their twenties, were from the upper echelons of society. They became the drivers because they were from families rich enough to own cars in 1914. Their mothers and fathers, anxious for their girls to be seen to do their bit for the war effort, paid handsomely for the uniforms, provisions, and travel, that propelled their daughters into the almost unimaginable horrors of the front line.
In an Ambulance, painted by Olive Mudie-Cooke between 1916 and 1918 © Imperial War Museum
With very little training or life experience, the drivers risked their lives daily, carrying and driving the dead and wounded from behind the front line, to the field hospitals in the surrounding countryside. They drove in pitch black, through endless mud; they cleaned up the remains of men from their ambulances; they slept on flea-ridden mattresses, in tents, with no washing facilities; they tended to soldiers with grotesque injuries, and themselves risked injury from mustard gas and bombing. They acted with such courage, in fact, many of them were awarded the Croix de Guerre and Legion d’Honneur at the end of the war.
Zenna Smith and Borden were my portal into the world of these women, but it soon became clear that they did not tell the whole story. The Borden testimony is the only one that readily admits to the visceral nightmare of life behind battle lines. The Zenna Smith book is casually homophobic, which, although in keeping with the times in which it was written, is not perhaps a true reflection of life in wartime. In Radclyffe Hall’s version of events behind the front line, in The Well of Loneliness, there is a passionate romance between two of the women. Hers is the only admission I found of this kind of relationship. Other testimony from women who were there goes to great pains to stress both their modesty and heterosexuality, despite the fact they often gave themselves men’s names for the duration of their service.
Through staged scenes and music from the time, Not Such Quiet Girls reads between the many lines of the accounts I sourced, and reimagines not only the daily horror of what the ambulance drivers had to cope with, but also the tremendous experience of freedom and liberty from convention. Away from home and societal pressure, these women discovered they could do whatever they wanted. And many of them did.”
Not Such Quiet Girls opens in the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 29 November.
The Women’s War Work silk patches illustrated here can be seen in Goodbye to All That?, an exhibition telling the stories of the impact of the Great War on the people of Yorkshire, running at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, University of Leeds, until Thursday 31 January 2019.