19 Real Life WWI Heroes Who’ll Inspire You To Find Your Inner Wonder Woman

Spoiler alert: Men got in the way a lot.

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1. Princess Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya, who became the first woman military pilot in 1914.

Bain News Service / Via en.wikipedia.org

Princess Eugenie was the cousin of Russian Czar Nicholas II, and they’d go on to have one of the illest family squabbles. She had the $$$, so she funded her own flying lessons and started doing reconnaissance missions for cousin Nick, but he ended up charging her with treason and sentencing her to death! She was freed during the Russian revolution, only to become addicted to drugs. Eugenie ended up getting shot in a narcotic-induced gunfight with some colleagues, like the badass with questionable decision-making skills she was. RIP, lady.

2. Edith Cavell, a Red Cross nurse who became a symbol for Allied troops when she was executed by firing squad by German forces at age 49 for aiding Allied soldiers in escaping enemy territory.

Virginia Commonwealth Libraries / Via gallery.library.vcu.edu

Edith took on some big risks by helping to sneak Allied soldiers out of her hospital into Holland. Most of her other conspirators were sentenced to hard labor when caught, but she was singled out for death by firing squad, which horrified pretty much anyone with a heart. In an only half-expected move, British propaganda portrayed her as younger and prettier to stir the hearts and loins of soldiers. It’s estimated that her death resulted in 40,000 extra recruits.

3. Gabrielle Petit, who was an Allied spy responsible for passing on intelligence about the German 6th Army.

Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, Documentation Centre / Via encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net

Gabrielle “And What?” Petit gave no fucks when she was caught and had no problem letting Germany know it. She was said to be “extremely insolent” during her trial and refused to sign an appeal to signal her rejection of German military justice. Despite being a delightful badass, her death went largely unnoticed, since Germany didn't want another Edith Cavell situation on their hands.

4. Marthe Cnockaert, who was a double agent for Allied forces and parlayed her spy experience into a career as a novelist.

Unknown / Via womenheroesofwwi.blogspot.com

Marthe was originally a nurse for Germany who pulled a complete 180 after earning an Iron Cross for her service. She went from healing soldiers to arranging the murder of a German spy and blowing up a German ammunitions depot. Later, she’d go on to write the weirdly peppily titled I Was a Spy!, with a forward by one Winston Churchill. Work that trauma, Marthe!

5. Maria Leontievna Bochkareva, who formed the Women’s Battalion of Death under the Russian army.

Unknown / Via en.wikipedia.org

Despite hostility (read: misogyny) from her male counterparts, Maria was recognized three times for bravery and once killed a German soldier with only her bayonet. Picture icing a dude with this tiny thing in the midst of battle. She was the real deal. In To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, Adam Hochschild notes that when she started the Women's Battallion of Death, recruits "shaved their heads, slept on bare boards during training, endured the same corporal punishment as male Russian soldiers, and sported a skull-and-crossbones insignia." A BAMF with style to boot.

6. Flora Sandes, who was the only British woman to (officially) fight as a soldier in World War I.

Library of Congress / Via cdn.loc.gov

According to Flora, joining the Serbian army was pretty chill. She got separated from her nursing unit while stationed there, and ended up staying with a nearby platoon. She could ride a horse and shoot a gun, like a lady does, so they just kind of assumed she was part of their troop.

7. Elisabeth of Bavaria, Queen of Belgium, who earned the title of “Queen Nurse” for her care and attention to the Allied troops.

Bild Bundesarchiv / Via encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net

Elisabeth of Bavaria was probably the most-loved lady with a German background in WW I. She transformed the Royal Palace of Brussels into a pimped-out Red Cross hospital with 200 beds, X-ray equipment, and operating theaters. She did the same for an abandoned hotel, and regularly paid visits to wounded soldiers. Who wouldn't fall in love with her?

8. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who turned her home into a hospital after finding out war was declared on her birthday.

Richard Stone / Via en.wikipedia.org

In what might be the saddest teen birthday ever, war was announced at the end of a vaudeville show Elizabeth was trying to enjoy. She stepped up in a way 14-year-old me never could, running errands for wounded soldiers and saving her home-turned-hospice from a huge fire in 1916. Hats off, Queen Mother.

9. Anna Coleman Ladd, who used her skills as an artist to sculpt new faces for soldiers wounded in battle.

Unknown / Via rarehistoricalphotos.com

Anna moved all the way from Massachusetts to Paris just to donate her time to what was, essentially, tricked-out facial reconstruction. She’d include tiny details like mustaches or lips parted to hold cigarettes for wounded soldiers. Each mask took a month to make, but the lady changed lives!

10. Dorothy Lawrence, who passed herself off as a man to enlist in the British army.

Unknown / Via teachingenglish.org.uk

Dorothy was just a lady journalist who had it rough. Toughing it out in the trenches sucked, but she went at it for almost two weeks to get her scoop. Unfortunately, the British army was full of whiny dudes who wouldn’t let her tell her story until the war’s end. She ended up alone and penniless in an asylum, instead of earning endless glory for an amazing feat.

11. Dr. Elsie Inglis, who set up the first female-run medical units during the war, and traveled all over. At one point she was even captured by the Germans.

Wellcome Library, London / Via thelancet.com

Dr. Inglis was the kind of doctor you'd want to be trapped with during wartime. Finding herself close to a deafening shelling, she turned to her friend and remarked, “We are having some experiences, aren’t we?”

12. Lenah Higbee, who founded the US Navy Nurse Corps with 19 other women and became the first woman to receive the Navy Cross.

Arlington National Cemetery / Via news.usni.org

Lenah and her fellow renegade nurses were known as the "Sacred Twenty." She traveled around the globe training nurses and treating patients (#jetsetter). She became the second superintendent of the Nurse Corps, after Esther Hasson, whose Wikipedia page somewhat dubiously claims she practiced medicine with only one arm. The Navy named a warship after Higbee in 1945, the first to be named after a Navy nurse. A little late to the game, but better late than never!

13. Annie Besant, who thought the beginning of World War I would be the perfect time to advocate for Indian self-rule.

Flickr user dangoat/Allister / Via Flickr: 32409501@N07

Annie was kind of a freewheeling weirdo who was into socialism and a fringe religion called Theosophy. She moved to India and used her activist prowess to advocate for religious, education, and social reform. She thought Indian independence would improve relations between India and the UK during wartime. Congress leaders did not agree. Woke ally, bad instincts.

14. Virginia Gildersleeve, who set up one of the first Women's Land Army camps in Bedford, New York, for Barnard College students and alumni.

Geoff Charles / Via aauw.org

Despite being a lifelong city-dweller, Virginia understood that young women would be a valuable resource for farmers. The government wasn’t willing to organize for *gasp* lady farmers, so she helped unite the tiny factions of "farmerettes" who would eventually become known as the Women’s Land Army. A classic tale of women getting shit done.

15. Idella Purnell, who joined the WLA when she was only 17 and quickly rose to the rank of captain.

US Department of Agriculture / Via Flickr: usdagov

Idella regarded her job with all the fervor of a woman who would one day join the Church of Scientology. She once scolded a slacker picking less-than-perfect grapes, telling her, “One bad bunch ruins a whole box, and that is the same as helping shoot cannonballs at our boys.” She would go on to become a celebrated writer, edit the lit journal The Occident, and, yes, briefly serve as the director of the Center of Dianetics and Scientology.

16. The Hello Girls, who operated switchboards under fire (literally).

Sgt. Abbot, United States Army Signal Corps / Via en.wikipedia.org

They were bilingual American women who were hired because US soldiers hated the local French operators. They resented French women’s accents and their insistence on exchanging pleasantries during battle, which, duh. Hello Girls were often under fire themselves, but weren’t granted veteran status until 1979. Merle Egan Anderson toiled for 60 years (!!) to get that status. By that time most of the original Hello Girls were dead. TL;DR: Americans are rude, uncultured swine during war; Merle Egan Anderson is a hero.

17. Chief Operator Grace Banker, who sat through an eight-building fire to stay at her post as a switchboard operator during the war.

U.s. Army Signal Corp Archives. / Via en.wikipedia.org

Imagine sitting through a fire, in a war zone, to plug through calls on one of those old-timey switchboards. Not a thing I would do, but Grace was a patriot. She later received a Distinguished Service Medal from the Army, despite the Army claiming Hello Girls weren’t part of the Army??

18. Loretta Perfectus Walsh, who became the first American woman to become an active-duty Navy member, thanks to a loophole in the 1916 Naval Act. (13,000 other women signed up!)

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Via archives.gov

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels basically snuck women into Navy service by pointing out that the act never specified that only men could join reserve forces. A fortunate technicality for ol’ Loretta, since this would allow her to become the first female petty officer in Navy history. Thank Josephus.

19. Bella Raey, who became a well-known soccer player while aiding the war effort as a Munitionette.

Yvonne Crawford / Via donmouth.co.uk

In Britain, Munitionettes were women who worked in (hella dangerous) munitions factories. The Munitionettes Cup was a soccer game put in place to keep morale high among women workers, who were paid less than men and whose skin turned yellow due to nitric acid exposure. Seems like a weird trade-off. Nevertheless, Bella's team went unbeaten and she scored 133 goals during their winning season. Finally, a silver lining to dubious labor practices!

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