Monday February 20, 2017

Firing Lines: How three Canadian women became war reporters in WWI

Beatrice Nasmyth notoriously defined censorship mechanisms in WW I, risking treason to get her content directly to her editor from across the ocean.

Beatrice Nasmyth notoriously defined censorship mechanisms in WW I, risking treason to get her content directly to her editor from across the ocean.

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During World War I, many women found work outside the home, from munitions factories to nursing.

But some Canadian women also went to the frontlines and military hospitals — as war correspondents.

Debbie Marshall chronicles some of their stories in Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War, which has a foreword written by The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore and Elizabeth Montizambert were journalists and suffragettes, who wanted to open doors for women in their field. 

But they also brought a specific female perspective to writing about the fighting, and its effects on soldiers. 

"I think that they had a real empathy for the men," Marshall tells Anna Maria Tremonti.

"They were very concerned with intimate details — how they were doing in hospital, their loneliness that they suffered overseas, the sacrifices that they were making ... And often they would hear the less savoury sides of war too. Because the men would trust them — you see, as women, they weren't so scary to the men, they weren't seen as being as serious in some senses."

Elizabeth Montizambert  London editor for the Montreal Gazette

Elizabeth Montizambert became the London editor for the Montreal Gazette after her coverage of WW I.

Over the course of the war, as they talked to more soldiers, the tone of their reporting changed as well.

Beatrice Nasmyth even went to great lengths to smuggle stories back to Canada past the censors, who would have extracted anything that shone a negative light on the war efforts.

"As the war progressed, the sense of patriotism was dulled," Marshall says. "I think they began to get a very realistic sense that war wasn't just this heroic great thing with the British Empire riding in and saving the day."

A century after the war, Marshall wants to make sure these three reporters are not forgotten.

"I couldn't bear the thought that these three women were out there writing these incredible stories," says Marshall. "They had thousands of readers — and now we know nothing about them."

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli and Karin Marley.