As you’re probably aware, this year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and, as such, there has been any number of events remembering and celebrating the men who took part in WWI. There has, however, been almost no mention of the women who also played a huge part in the conflict and the winning of the war. To which end, the Winchester-born singer Louise Jordan has put together her own project, a collection of 11 songs telling the stories of the women so often overlooked in the history of the Great War.
The title, No Petticoats Here, comes from a comment made by Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Sloggett who, following suffragette Dr. Elsie Inglis’s suggestion of a female medical corps on the Western Front, told her to go home and sit still, remarking that “we don’t want any petticoats here.” The project itself was sparked by Jordan’s discovery of the 18th-century smuggleress Lovey Warne, a Hampshire hero with a beer named in her honour, and, in the wake of the huge response to the song about her on the last album, set out to research other female heroes.
One of the first was Dorothy Lawrence, a seventeen-year-old orphan with journalist ambitions, who, determined to report on conditions at the front, travelled to France by bicycle and spent ten days and nights as Private Dennis Smith before illness forced her to give herself up. She wrote a book but was refused permission to publish until after the end of the war. Her story is recounted here in two songs, Freewheeling, which, featuring mandolin and double bass and using words from Lawrence’s diary, talks of her setting out to the front, and, with Jordan on piano and cello, the closing number Who Will Remember? tells how, following the war, her stories were dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic, and she was detained under the 1890 Lunacy Act, spending some 40 years in Harwell Asylum without a single visitor.
The album opens with the waltzing Pride of the Army, Jordan’s crystal pure voice backed by double bass, accordion and banjo, telling the story of Ada Yorke who, unable to become a doctor on account of her gender, trained as a nurse and was invited by Florence Nightingale to become Senior Sister of the Army Nursing Service in the Sudan. During the Great War, she lectured for the British Red Cross and the War Office appointed her Staff Matron-in-Chief of the Southern Command of the British Army. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross for exceptional services in military nursing in 1883 and, as Matron Ada Hind, received a bar to it in 1918 for her extensive services in the Great War.
Set to jittery pizzicato violin, double bass, trilling piano and cello, Perhaps concerns Vera Brittain, the writer and feminist best known for her novel Testament of Youth, and is a setting of a poem she wrote in 1919 in memory of her fiancé of four months, killed by a sniper.
Sharing its title with the new While and Matthews album, Shoulder To Shoulder (FRUK review here), clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes and built around an accordion drone, spare piano pattern and strings, is a slight departure from the fighting in that, a song about taking back power and control, it tells of how, when the FA suspended men’s football teams from competition in 1915, women munitions teams organised matches to raise money for soldiers’ families and POW organisations. It mentions Lily Parr, a fourteen-year-old who scored 43 goals. Rather inevitably, following the war, the FA banned women’s football in 1920, one that lasted until 1971.
Returning to the Front, Endless Days is the first of two numbers concerning Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisolm, keen motorcyclists who joined Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps attached to the Belgian army medical corps, earning themselves both Knights of the Order of Leopold II and The Military Medal, the number, played on piano, reflecting the fact that there was one at their post, played by the officers and visitors.
It’s not only British contributions that are recognised, led by piano and accompanied by strings, Queen of Spies celebrates Louise de Bettignes, a French woman employed by the British army to gather information on the German army who had overrun her home town of Lille in 1914. Operating under the alias of Alice Dubois, she built a network of some eighty agents before being arrested and sentenced to death. Commuted to life imprisonment on account of her family’s connections, she was placed in solitary confinement in Siegburg prison where she developed pleurisy, dying just weeks before the end of the war.
After the delicacy of the preceding tracks, Toil, Women, Toil is a strident work-song chant featuring just a snare drum beat and massed voices, a tribute to the army of women who worked, often in dangerous and unpleasant (“clean the khaki of brain and hair”) conditions, in factories and workshops the chorus of “if the women stop work we’d lose the war” echoing the comments of Lord Kitchener.
The following track, Ripple and Flow, featuring piano and clarinet, returns to the more tranquil pace and again steps away from the war somewhat to focus on inequality and is sung in the voice of Hertha Ayrton (born Phoebe Sarah Marks) who received a certificate from Cambridge (women were not accorded degrees) and became the first woman to be elected a member of the Institute of Engineers and (although gender politics saw her nomination as a Fellow of the Royal Society rejected), her contribution to the Great War being the invention of the Ayrton fan which was used to clear gas from the trenches.
With a piano sounding more like a harpsichord, Mairi returns to the story of Knocker and Chisholm and takes the form of an imagined letter from the former to the latter, who, after working together for four years, returned from the war and, for whatever reason, never spoke to each other again.
Once the war was over, there was much speculation that women who had lost husbands or lovers were now somehow redundant, as they had no prospect of raising a family and fulfilling their traditional role. Written as a drinking song with an all-female chorus, accordion, guitar and egg shaker, Surplus Women challenges the notion and (borrowing a phrase from Jordan Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding) gives a knowing sexual liberation wing to the chorus “I was born to be a spinster and by God I’m gonna spin.”
Musically, it’s a terrific and highly accomplished piece of work, but its worth far transcends the album to stand as a landmark in the fight to not only illuminate the overlooked role women played in the Great War, but also to serve as a reminder that conflict in the name of right is not the monopoly of the patriarchy.
No Petticoats Here is released on 30 September via Azania and tours in October and November 2016 across the UK.
Visit here for more information and dates: www.nopetticoatshere.co.uk/tour-dates/