In last week’s blog, our curator Holly Roberts explored how in World War I many women faced up to the blood and bullets of the front line - not to mention prejudices about what they could, and should, do - to serve as ambulance drivers and medics on the Western Front. One of the most remarkable of these female pioneers was the aristocratic Lady Dorothie Feilding, whose bravery led her to become the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal as well as a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre and a Knight of the Belgian Order of Leopold II.
Born into a large family - she was one of 10 siblings - Dorothie had a privileged upbringing as the daughter of an earl. When war broke out she, like many of her brothers and sisters, felt she had to ‘do her bit’.
At that time the British authorities did not allow women to serve on the front line. To get around this many joined voluntary units that were attached to the French or Belgian armies, such as Dr Munro’s service or the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs). So, after a short period of training in England, Dorothie arrived on the Western Front in 1914 as part of Dr Hector Munro's Ambulance Corps, an all-volunteer unit driving ambulances donated by the Red Cross.
So it was that this aristocratic 24-year-old found herself on the battlefields of Flanders, transporting wounded men from the front line to field hospitals. It was a challenging and dangerous job for anyone and living conditions were austere, particularly for someone used to the finer things in life. Yet despite her privileged background Dorothie had an easy demeanour and was liked by everyone; her 'five o'clock teas' proving popular with officers and enlisted men alike.
Dorothie’s courage and devotion to duty was evident from her earliest days in Flanders. In December 1914, after only a few months on the front line, she was recognised by the French army in a ‘special order of the day’ which commended her for 'showing, almost every day, the finest example of devotion and of disregard for danger’. For this, she would later be awarded the Croix De Guerre. In early 1915 she was also decorated by King Albert I of Belgium with the Order of Leopold II, Knights Cross (with palm) for service to his country's wounded.
In 1916 the pressures of war finally forced the British Army to accept female ambulance units, paving the way for Dorothie to receive her Military Medal. In recommending the award a Royal Navy Commander, Henry Crosby Halahan, wrote to Prince Alexander of Teck, head of the British Military Mission in Belgium, ‘(She) was frequently exposed to risks which probably no other woman has undergone. She has always displayed a devotion to duty and contempt of danger which has been a source of admiration to all.’ This citation ultimately resulted in Dorothie becoming the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal, which she received from King George V himself.
This ‘contempt of danger’ came at a price, however. Although she would ultimately serve on the front line on and off until June 1917, the constant pressure took its toll. She wrote home to her parents regularly, reflecting on the horrors of war and on the day-to-day trials of being a woman on the front line; from lice and lack of food, to unwanted marriage proposals. Early in the war she described how, 'The town and villages and farms around were burning...I just had to drive through as quick as I could and how the tyres didn't get cut to blazes by glass or burnt by embers oftener than they did I cannot understand.'
In 1915, her health already suffering, Dorothie came home for two months’ leave. She returned to the Western Front but in 1916 was heartbroken by the news that her brother Hughie had been killed at sea; the sadness, she said, 'worked its way into my very soul.' She also struggled to deal with the impact her experiences had on her Christian faith, and particularly her belief in an afterlife. Little wonder that she wrote to her mother, ‘I am feeling so small and storm-tossed, I couldn't bear any more just yet. I need just a little bit of peace and happiness so badly. Now I seem just to have crumpled up and I couldn't stand any more just for a little while.'
In 1917 Dorothie returned to Britain for good where, on 5 July, she married Captain Charles Moore of the Irish Guards. However, growing tired of feeling ‘merely ornamental’ she returned to service, ferrying the wounded across London until the end of the war.
When the conflict ended Dorothie and Charles moved to Ireland and had five children. It was there that she died in 1935, aged just 46. Her determination to serve on the front line during World War I and her willingness to face the most extreme danger was totally contrary to what was expected from a young, upper class woman at that time, and in the eyes of many had helped to redefine what women were thought capable of. We’re proud to recognise Lady Dorothie, and others like her, in our Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights exhibition.