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Light shone on unheralded sacrifice of war dead

10 Nov 2010

A University of Manchester historian has shone a light on the hundreds of people, killed doing their duty in the First World War but unrecognised as official war dead.

Gertrude Powicke is named on The Univeirsty of Manchester war memorial

The overlooked include an unknown number of women killed in Europe and the munitions workers who perished in factory explosions across Britain during the conflict.

Though more than 400 munitions workers were probably killed in accidents or died of poisoning, says Dr Anne-Marie Claire Hughes, their sacrifice - in the main long forgotten - was not officially recognised by the British government or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

None of the victims' families - both men and women - received the death plaque, scroll or letter, still treasured by relatives of the official war dead today.

They also lost out on state benefits - which provided enough income for bereaved families to survive on.

Dr Hughes, from the University's School of Arts Histories and Cultures, said: "Though very sad, the omission of women working as munitions workers was not a result of any hostility towards women workers or prejudice by the authorities.

"Indeed, many of the women who died were recognised during the war by their own communities and buried alongside their male comrades.

"Instead, I think it was a natural result of the authorities struggling to cope with the huge numbers of British servicemen who were killed in the war – approximately 757,000 in all.

"They weren't prepared for the number of servicemen who died, let alone the other types of war workers and civilians killed -and the system of official recognition grew in an ad hoc way.

“This responsiveness actually made for a fairly successful system in the end."

One example includes a woman listed alongside male servicemen on the University of Manchester's World War One memorial called Gertrude M Powicke.

Gertrude, a modern languages teacher at Manchester High School, died of Typhoid while working for a relief organisation in Poland.

Though Gertrude's sacrifice is also commemorated at Heaton Chapel Church's war memorial, she was not listed as one of the 655 British women officially recognised as war deaths by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Dr Hughes has found other examples of women who died on active service and not classified as war dead.

Despite being overlooked, their families found creative ways to commemorate their lives.

In one case she discovered two sisters sharing one Commonwealth War Graves headstone in a cemetery in Willingham, Cambridgeshire.

One of the sisters, Dorothy Hart, died in Britain in 1916 while working in a munitions factory and was not officially entitled to a CWGC headstone.

However, the other sister, Sarah Hart, died in the UK in 1919 while serving with the Women’s Royal Air Force and did qualify for the CWGC official headstone.

The women’s parents used Sarah’s headstone to remember both of their daughters.

"There are in all probability a number of women who died in action, but are not listed as official war dead," said Dr Hughes.

"So it would be great to hear about any others who are out there - as well as any other deaths connected to the Great War - but not officially recognised.

“I would particularly like to find out whether there were men killed in munitions work who were remembered on their brothers’ Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones.”

Notes for editors

Dr Anne-Marie Hughes is available for interview

Extra details on four infamous factory explosions available

Images are available.

For media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk