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The Bravest of the Brave: Women of WWI

Published: January 12, 2015

Even after the German army was pushed back out of their region of northern France, life was hard for the women who remained there. The Germans had taken all livestock in their retreat, forcing the women to personally replace their missing horsepower. (Library of Congress)

Even after the German army was pushed back out of their region of northern France, life was hard for the women who remained there. The Germans had taken all livestock in their retreat, forcing the women to personally replace their missing horsepower.
(Library of Congress)

Once again journalist Corra Harris slipped past military checkpoints to report on conditions in the French countryside.

In “The Bravest of the Brave” (The Saturday Evening Post, January 16, 1915), Harris was particularly interested in sharing how the women of Europe were enduring the war. She pitied the Belgian women whose homes and families were torn apart by the German invasion. And she was deeply impressed by the women of France, who refused to be cowed by the Germans.

Many of these women chose not to flee when the German army entered their towns. They stayed in their homes, where every day was a struggle to protect and feed their children. Overall, Harris wrote, they showed a tough, resourceful spirit. They could endure much that the Germans inflicted on their property, but they were particularly angered by the German soldiers’ theft of their preserves.

Harris asked a French housewife about having to share a house with German soldiers (before they were driven back by French troops):

“Of course, they drank all the wine, and they ruined the piano; they played it all night — all night! Such awful thunder they make on the poor thing that now it gives out only a bombardment of noise.”

“The Germans are fond of music?” I suggest.

“Yes; but awful! I do not call it music. I am in the cellar, I put my fingers over my ears, I cannot endure it. And the poor piano, it cannot, either. Its feet” — pedals — “are dead. All that, I can bear; since they did not kill us or burn the house; but why have they stolen my jam — my little, little pots of jam! It is wicked. They did so.” She cupped her fingers and pretended to empty something into her mouth. “One after another, that German he licked out my little pots of jam.”

The story is the same everywhere. They break into the stores and eat all the candy and every sweet cake, even when they do no other damage. … It may be that when men revert to savages they get an abnormal appetite for sugar!

Despite their hardships, the French women devoted themselves to caring for the wounded, both Allies and non-Allies alike. One anecdote Harris gathered from a nurse in Paris shows that as much as the French despised the Germans, they could still admire individual courage:

There is a certain hospital near Paris where every bed in the big ward has a locker in which the patient may keep his few possessions; along with the bullet or fragment of shell that has been taken from his wound. And it is the fancy of these men to stick the flag of the nation to which they belong above their lockers; so that ward is very gay with French and British colors.

Recently a desperately wounded German soldier, in this hospital, lay in the corner bed at the end of a long row. Naturally he had no flag above his locker — not until the pain left him and he was able to perceive his inglorious condition.

One day, when the nurse came to take his temperature, she was amazed to see an English flag sticking out of his locker. She was scandalized.

“Where did you get it?” she cried, snatching the sacred emblem.

The German only grinned up at her, wan and invincible. He had stolen it sometime during the night from the sleeping Englishman lying next to him.

The following morning he had it again.

Laughing, Mademoiselle explained, “It is very good for him — stealing that flag. We thought he would surely die, so dreadfully wounded was he; but he has kept himself alive just to do that.” There was no spite against this fallen foe; only a whimsical French sense of humor at the situation, a woman’s kindness, so delicate and so intelligent.

Harris slipped past the military checkpoints to interview an exceptional woman — Jeanne Macherez. When the Germans swept through the French town of Soisson, this 61-year-old women saved the town’s food supply by stepping in and assuming the role of mayor. When Harris asked how she had accomplished this, Macherez told her—

Everybody was gone from the town. I was alone, very busy in my house. The door is open. The Germans see it and they come — officers in a big car, with the streets full of their soldiers. They ask for the mayor … I am not willing to tell them that the mayor is absent. So I make some excuse. Then they say they must see a representative of the mayor. If there is no government they will go and break open the shops and take all. They must have food, everything, at once.

Portrait of Jeanne Macherez (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Jeanne Macherez
(Wikimedia Commons)

“I thought of what would happen if no one went with them to save a little perhaps for the women and children, hiding in their cellars. So I said: “I am the Mayor of Soissons. I will go with you.”

“Were you frightened?” I asked.

“But no, not for myself — for the people who might starve. The bridges had been destroyed — no trains; no more supplies.

“We could not live if they took all we had. So I got into the car with those Germans. We went to every shop. They wanted all of this and all of that; but I said: ‘No—you can’t have all the flour in this shop.’ I laid my hands on the sugar; I held back all I could. And the lard … they want all of that. I could save only a little.
“The next day,” she went on, “they came again. They demanded to know why I had not delivered the stores — 50,000 cigars; 50,000 pounds of flour; 500 pounds of sugar — all the lard. But they were absurd. I told them so. ‘How can I, messieurs? You have killed all the horses which you have not taken. Shall I send the women and children to your trenches with these things? But no; it is too much for them. Besides, they shall not go!’

“They were very angry. They made a great fuss. I was frightened then; but I stood before them. Let them kill me too! At last they agreed that we should place all the stores in the railroad station. We did that.”

She began to smile. It was like sunlight on an old gray wall — that smile.

“The next day they were all gone; the French came and drove them out. Then we went and carried all the stores back to the shops.”

This, however, was only the beginning of her gallant defense of Soissons against the ravages of the war. So far as the food supply was concerned, it was nearly as bad to have the French troops quartered there. …
[Since then] she has somehow managed to secure food and clothes for the people for three months. It is not an easy task, with no railroads, and almost no horses to bring in the provisions for them.


Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post January 16, 1915 issue.

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