As the world commemorates the centenary of the end of the First World War this year, it is timely to remind ourselves that the conflict widely described at the time as “the War to end all wars” put more people in dangerous situations than at any previous point in human history. As millions-strong armies, navies and air forces clashed on battlefields, seas and in skies across the globe, the people on the front line of the war often had no choice but to summon supreme courage to deal with the immense challenges put before them. In doing so, they often saved the lives of others but sacrificed their own.
The First World War created new definitions of the word “hero”. Many were people who would never have found themselves in the thick of previous conflicts. They weren’t just male soldiers, sailors and airmen – though plenty of extraordinary acts of courage were performed by men – they were women and, in some cases, young people considered scarcely more than children. The history of the 1914-1918 war is full of awe-inspiring examples of ordinary people living ordinary lives who, when called upon to do so, did extraordinary things.
Inevitably, many stories of the most supreme acts of valor performed in the most deadly and challenging of circumstances during the First World War will have already died untold with those who performed and witnessed them. This article sets out only a small handful of them which history has thankfully saved. As we reflect on them, it’s tempting to consider how we would behave were we to be thrust into the same situations of mortal peril, bullets and immense pressure: would we crumble and freeze, too afraid to move? Or would we find from somewhere inside ourselves the ability to stand strong and perform feats so brave the annals of history will immortalize them and us forever?
The individuals in the stories summarised in this article found the courage necessary when it counted. With any luck, one hundred years on, they are capable of inspiring us to confront and overcome the challenges we face in life today.
1. Mary “Molly” O’Connell-Bianconi
At the time of the First World War, not many people would have regarded Mary O’Connell-Bianconi (or “Molly”, as she was known) as the likeliest of war heroes. Born on December 22, 1896, she grew up in County Clare in Ireland and was descended from two prominent Irish figures of the nineteenth century: Daniel O’Connell, a leading proponent of the efforts to repeal legislation binding the parliaments of Britain and Ireland, and Charles Bianconi, known among other things for bringing public transport to Ireland.
O’Connell-Bianconi was educated at Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick before moving to finishing schools in Paris and Southern Belgium. Her education came to an abrupt end during the First World War when she swapped what was no doubt quite a genteel existence at finishing school for life enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a voluntary unit of civilians established to give nursing and medical care to the military forces of the British Empire during the First World War. She was one of thousands of women to step forward and offer to do what she could. As the war dragged on and the carnage spread, the help volunteer nurses such as O’Connell-Bianconi provided, often in field dressing stations and hospitals cose to the fighting, proved vital in saving the lives of many wounded servicemen.
As leading First World War historian Lyn MacDonald puts it, “If the ghost that haunts the towns of Ypres and Arras and Albert is…the British Tommy…then the ghost of Boulogne and Etaples and Rouen ought to be a girl. She’s called Elsie or Gladys or Dorothy, her ankles are swollen, her feet are aching, her hands reddened and rough. She has little money, no vote, and has almost forgotten what it feels like to be really warm…She sleeps in a tent…She is twenty-three. She is the daughter of a clergyman, a lawyer, or a prosperous businessman, and has been privately educated and groomed to be a ‘lady’. She wears the unbecoming uniform of a VAD…She is on active service and as much a part of the war as Tommy…”.
Having been trained in the ins-and-outs of driving and car mechanics during a “Motor Car Maintenance Course” (rare among men during the early part of the twentieth century left alone women), Molly later joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs), another significant unit providing medical support to the armed forces during the First World War.
In August 1917, at the age of 21, O’Connell-Bianconi was sent as part of her unit of the FANYs to the front at Amiens, in Northern France. Here her work was to drive ambulances to where they were needed, often under seriously dangerous and hostile conditions of enemy fire and bombardment, to administer medical treatment to wounded men and transport them away from danger, carrying out the necessary repair work to her vehicle when required. All available accounts indicate that O’Connell-Bianconi was exemplary among her peers in her hard work, courage and innovation.
The moment for which she is best remembered came in 1918. Deployed to St Omer at the start of the German Army’s final major offensive on the Western Front (known as Operation Kaiserschlacht), she was forced to drive her ambulance in hostile conditions during a period in which the Germans came perilously close to smashing through the Allied lines and winning the war. As the Allied armies retreated under heavy bombardments, reeling from the full force of the desperate German assault despite being ordered to hold the line “to the last man”, she and her fellow FANYs drove her ambulance in the other direction, responding to the danger and going straight to where soldiers wounded and endangered from the enemy’s violence needed her the most.
On the occasion in question, O’Connell-Bianconi drove through a heavy barrage of enemy artillery to an ammunition dump where there were multiple casualties. In the face of sustained and ferocious bombing from the air, O’Connell-Bianconi worked tirelessly for hour after hour, doing her very best to save the lives of men injured and buried in caves and dug-outs by pulling them from the earth, providing them with on-the-spot medical attention and helping to evacuate them from immediate danger.
For her courageous efforts in saving multiple lives, O’Connell-Bianconi was awarded the Military Medal by King George V, along with a citation for bravery. General Plumer also mentioned her in dispatches for her bravery, making one of the very few women to be honoured in both ways during the First World War.
It seems O’Connell-Bianconi simply went home, got married and lived a humble life after the war, with no ceremony or films made about her actions during the conflict.