Women are 'forgotten victims of First World War'

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Britons who died doing their duty in the First World War remain unheralded, a historian said today.

Those overlooked who made the ultimate sacrifice included an unknown number of women killed in Europe and munitions workers who lost their lives in factory explosions across Britain during the conflict.

University of Manchester historian Dr Anne-Marie Claire Hughes said they were not officially recognised by the Government or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

None of the victims' families received the death plaque or a scroll or letter and they also lost out on state benefits, she said.

Dr Hughes, from the university's School of Arts Histories and Cultures, said: "Though very sad, the omission of women working as munitions workers was not a result of any hostility towards women workers or prejudice by the authorities.

"Indeed, many of the women who died were recognised during the war by their own communities and buried alongside their male comrades.

"Instead, I think it was a natural result of the authorities struggling to cope with the huge numbers of British servicemen who were killed in the war - approximately 757,000 in all.

"They weren't prepared for the number of servicemen who died, let alone the other types of war workers and civilians killed - and the system of official recognition grew in an ad hoc way.

"This responsiveness actually made for a fairly successful system in the end."

One example she cited was Gertude M Powicke whose name is listed alongside male servicemen on the University of Manchester's World War One memorial.

Gertrude, a modern languages teacher at Manchester High School, died of typhoid while working for a relief organisation in Poland.

Though her sacrifice was also commemorated at Heaton Chapel Church's war memorial, she was not listed as one of the 655 British women officially recognised as war deaths by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Dr Hughes said she had found other examples of women who died on active service but were not classified as war dead.

In one case she discovered two sisters sharing one Commonwealth War Graves headstone in a cemetery in Willingham, Cambridgeshire.

One of the sisters, Dorothy Hart, died in Britain in 1916 while working in a munitions factory and was not officially entitled to a commission headstone.

However, the other sister, Sarah Hart, died in the UK in 1919 while serving with the Women's Royal Air Force and did qualify for the official honour.

The women's parents used Sarah's headstone to remember both of their daughters.

"There are in all probability a number of women who died in action, but are not listed as official war dead," said Dr Hughes.

"So it would be great to hear about any others who are out there - as well as any other deaths connected to the Great War - but not officially recognised.

"I would particularly like to find out whether there were men killed in munitions work who were remembered on their brothers' Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones."