Friday 19 July 2024

Casting my vote by Maggie Brookes

Whenever I cast my vote I feel I can hear the cheers of all the women suffragists and suffragettes who worked so hard to win that right for me, but when I was posting my ballot paper this time, I wondered how many countries in the world still don't give women the right to vote. 

I was amazed and pleased to discover that technically it's only one. In Vatican City elections only cardinals of the Catholic Church (all men) are allowed to vote for a new pope. However, in looking this up, I discovered that the right to vote and the experience on election day can be two different matters. For example in Kenya, a 2019 United Nations report registered concern about harassment or violence against female voters. Voting can also involve a long and sometimes dangerous walk to a polling station, and in some areas it's culturally unacceptable for pregnant women to be seen out in public, which obviously limits voting.

At the recent UK election, voters were asked to present ID at the polling station for the first time. This seems sensible, but in some countries it can work against women. A report from the Borgen Project said that in Egypt women are less likely than men to have an ID card, and even if they do, their husbands often 'look after them' and simply refuse to hand them over, preventing them from voting. Also, having to reveal their faces in public can also put women off voting if they normally wear a niqab. Not to mention the attitudes of the men. In Nigeria in 2016 President Muhammadu Buhari said, 'I don’t know exactly what party my wife belongs to. Actually she belongs in the kitchen, the living room and the other rooms in my house.'

President Muhammadu Buhari

Of course there are countries where there is no suffrage at all. Brunei hasn't held a national election since 1962, there haven't been elections in Eritrea since its independence in 1993, and a recent election in the United Arab Emirates granted suffrage to only 12% of all men and women.

But hang on. I've disappeared down a research rabbit-hole (this happens all the time to us novelists) and this is supposed to be a history blog, so when did women first get the vote? I've always assumed it was after the first world war, but I realise I'm looking back through a Western, patriarchal lens.

In 1639, a young nun called Marie Guyart (later known as Marie of the Incarnation) set sail for Quebec in 'New France' where she was keen to convert the 'savages.' 

Marie of the Incarnation

Working with the Iroquois women, she discovered, 'These female chieftains are women of standing amongst the savages, and they have a deciding vote in the councils. They make decisions there like their male counterparts, and it is they who even delegated as first ambassadors to discuss peace.' It turned out that many First Nations peoples of North America had a matrilineal system, where belongings and wealth were passed down from mother to daughter and yes, they even had voting rights. Unfortunately, the settlers did not adopt this system, and when women were given the vote in Canada in 1917 that did not even include First Nation people, who weren't allowed to vote until 1960. Canadian First Nation people did not win the vote until 1960.

Back in the Old World, I've always thought of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, as being the very first call for equality for women, but a limited form of women's suffrage had already been introduced in Sweden during Age of Liberty (1718–1772) and also in the Corsican Republic in 1755. 

Mary Wollstonecraft

Sometimes women were given the vote by accident: in a new British Colony called Sierra Leone, all heads of households were given the vote in the 1792 elections because nobody expected a third of them to be African women!  In a similar way in New England in 1756, Lydia Taft became the first legal woman voter when her husband Josiah died, leaving her as the largest landowner in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. In a community calling for 'no taxation without representation,' they had no option but to allow her to vote in local town meetings, 164 years before women were enfranchised in the USA.

Uxbridge, Mass.

Coming into the 19th century, there are odd instances of female suffrage on small islands and territories. The Pitcairn islanders who were the European descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty were allowed to vote from 1838 – including the women – and some women on the Isle of Man had the vote from 1881. In the United States in 1869 the Territory of Wyoming decided to try to attract new settlers by giving women the vote. It's not clear whether that was a success!

A little later, in 1893, the British colony of New Zealand became the first country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections, though they were not allowed to stand for election. In the following year, South Australia allowed women both to stand for election and to vote.

But of-course it took women's huge contribution to national life during the First World War, before the UK Parliament finally passed the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act. It was only one page long and gave women the vote if they were over the age of 30 or property owners or UK university graduates. (At a time when most universities did not confer degrees on women, no matter how brilliant!) Unfortunately, although my own grandmothers were working, married women, they were not yet 30 in December 1918 and very far from being property owners or graduates, and so would not be able to vote for another ten years.

It took some other countries a lot longer to give women the vote, the most surprising laggard being Switzerland. It took till 1991 for The Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden to give women the vote, and women as a whole in Switzerland only gained the right to vote at federal level in 1971.

In the UK the 1918 Act also gave women to right to stand for Parliament and seventeen women took up the opportunity, though only one was elected: the Sinn Fein candidate Countess Constance Markievicz, who never took up her seat. The first woman to actually take her seat was the American Nancy Astor after a by-election in December 1919. Two years later Margaret Wintringham joined her in the House of Commons.

Margaret Wintringham MP

I wish I'd talked to my grandmothers about how this huge change seemed to them. I do remember my maternal grandmother's excitement when Margaret Thatcher was elected as our first female Prime Minister in 1979. I wasn't aware at the time that the first ever female PM in the world had been elected almost twenty years before! Sirimavo Bandaranaike had become Prime Minister in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in July 1960 after the assassination of her husband.

Sirimavo Bandara

 Then the first woman was elected president of a country in 1980. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland won the 1980 presidential election as well as three subsequent elections, remaining in office for 16 years.

A quick look at the number of women in government in any given country gives a clue to the levels of equality and the likelihood of women exercising their right to vote, though the countries with biggest percentages of women in parliament might be surprising. The Interparliamentary Union report of 2019 cites Rwanda ahead of the front runners with 63%, and Cuba and Bolivia not too far behind with 53%. The UK came in with 32% at the time. Down at the bottom of the league table were Solomon Islands with 2%, Oman with 1%, Yemen with 0.3% (one woman - go you!) and Micronesia and Papua New Guinea with none.

Chile's first female president Michelle Bachelet has observed, 'When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies.'

Michelle Bachelet

In June 2024, there were 27 countries with women as Heads of State and/or Government. However, points out this means that 'at the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.' It also notes that the 'five most commonly held portfolios by women cabinet ministers are Women and gender equality, followed by Family and children affairs, Social inclusion and development, Social protection and social security, and Indigenous and minority affairs.'   So, we still have a way to go.

However, the good news is that following the UK election two weeks ago in July 2024, 263 women were elected to the British parliament, representing taking  40.5% of the total seats, including 50 black and minoritised women MPs. I can hear those cheering suffragettes now!

Maggie Brookes. Novelist and poet. Author of Acts of Love and War and The Prisoner's Wife.
Instagram Maggie__Brookes  Facebook: Maggie Brookes-Butt

Friday 12 July 2024

Polish Resistance in World War II by Kathryn Gauci


Polish Resistance in World War II


Members of the Polish resistance (Polish Institute of National Remembrance)

June 6, 2024, marked the 80th anniversary of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings in Normandy and although it was a success, many people lost their lives prior to that in the struggle to fight Nazi tyranny. From the very beginning of World War II, resistance groups started to form in every occupied country in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, but the first organisation was in Poland in the winter of 1939, and was led by a Major Henryk Dobrzański, known as Hubal.

Henryk Dobrzański, 

In March 1940, this group completely destroyed a battalion of German infantry in a skirmish near the Polish village of Huciska. A few days later, in an ambush near the village of Szałasy, it inflicted heavy casualties upon another German unit. As time progressed, resistance forces grew in size and number. To counter this threat, the German authorities formed a special 1,000 man-strong anti-partisan unit of combined SS-Wehrmacht forces, including a Panzer group. Although Dobrzański's unit never exceeded 300 men, the Germans put at least 8,000 men in the area to secure it


Witold Pilecki 1901-1948

In 1940, Witold Pilecki of the Polish resistance, presented to his superiors, a daring plan to enter Auschwitz concentration camp, gather intelligence on the camp from the inside, and organize inmate resistance. The Home Army approved this plan, provided him with a false identity card, and on 19 September, he deliberately went out during a street roundup in Warsaw and was caught by the Germans along with other civilians and sent to Auschwitz. In the camp he organized the underground organization. From October 1940, his network sent the first reports about the camp and its genocide to Home Army Headquarters in Warsaw.

Witold Pilecki as KL-Auschwitz prisoner, KL Number 4859, 1940

On the night of January 21–22, 1940, in the Soviet-occupied town of Czortków, the Czortków Uprising started. It was the first Polish uprising and the first anti-Soviet uprising of World War II. Anti-Soviet Poles, most of them teenagers from local high schools, stormed the local Red Army barracks and a prison, in order to release Polish soldiers kept there.

1940 was also the year of establishing Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland. Among the many activities of Polish resistance and Polish people one was helping endangered Jews. Polish citizens have the world's highest count of individuals who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem as non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust.

From April 1941, the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Union for Armed Struggle started in Poland. Operation N was complex organisation of sabotage, subversion and black-propaganda activities carried out against Nazi German occupation forces during World War II

By the beginning in March 1941, Witold Pilecki's reports from Auschwitz were forwarded via the Polish resistance to the Polish government in exile and through it, to the British government in London and other Allied governments. These reports were the first information about the Holocaust and the principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies.

In July 1941 Mieczysław (Mietzislav) Słowikowskii (using the code-name "Rygor"—Polish for "Rigor") set up "Agency Africa" one of World War II's most successful intelligence organizations. The information gathered by the Agency was used by the Americans and British in planning the amphibious November 1942 Operation Torch landings in North Africa.

General Jacob Devers with Major Mieczysław "Rygor" Słowikowski, on awarding him the Legion of Merit for his invaluable contributions to the Allied North African campaign.

Operation Torch

On 20 June 1942, the most spectacular escape from Auschwitz concentration camp took place. Four Poles, Eugeniusz Bendera, Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanisław Gustaw Jaster and Józef Lempart made a daring escape. The escapees were dressed as members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, fully armed and in an SS staff car. They drove out the main gate in a stolen automobile Steyr 220 belonging to Rudolf Hoss with a smuggled report from Witold Pilecki about the Holocaust. The Germans never recaptured any of them.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and The Warsaw Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the Grossaktion Warsaw during summer 1942, in which more than a quarter of a million Jews were deported from the ghetto to Treblinka and murdered, the remaining Jews began to build bunkers They built dozens of fighting posts and smuggled weapons and explosives into the ghetto. Next they executed a number of collaborators, including Jewish Ghetto police officers, as well as Gestapo and Abwehr agents (such as Judenrat member Dr Nossig, executed on 22 February 1943). Józef Szeryński, former head of the Jewish Ghetto Police, committed suicide.

Photograph from SS General Juergen Stroop's report showing the Warsaw ghetto after the German suppression of the ghetto uprising.

The uprising started on 19 April when the ghetto refused to surrender to the police commander, who then ordered the burning of the ghetto, block by block, ending on 16 May. A total of 13,000 Jews died, about half of them burnt alive or suffocated. German casualties were probably less than 150. It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.

The Jews knew that the uprising was doomed and their survival was unlikely. Marek Edelman, the only surviving commander of one of the groups, said that the motivation for fighting was "to pick the time and place of our deaths". According to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, the uprising was "one of the most significant occurrences in the history of the Jewish people".

Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, Commander of the Polish Home Army

The Warsaw Uprising which took place in the summer of 1944, was a major WWII operation by the Polish underground resistance, led by the Home Army. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance. While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance and to raze the city in reprisal. The Uprising was fought for 63 days with little outside support. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement in WWII.

Warsaw Old Town after the uprising. 85% of the city was deliberately destroyed by German forces

Initially, the Poles established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to make radio contact with them and did not advance beyond the city limits. Intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles continued. Unfortunately, there were strong allegations that Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish resistance to be crushed

Home Army soldier from the Mokotów District surrenders to German troops.
Warsaw's Old Town Market Place, August 1944

The Warsaw Uprising which took place in the summer of 1944, was a major World War II operation by the Polish underground resistance, led by the Home Army. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance. While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance and to raze the city in reprisal. The Uprising was fought for 63 days with little outside support. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during WWII. 

Polish red-and-white flag with superposed Katwice ('anchor') emblem of the Polish Underground State and Home Army 

Initially, the Poles established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to make radio contact with them and did not advance beyond the city limits. Intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles continued. Unfortunately, there were strong allegations that Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish resistance to be crushed

Winston Churchill pleaded with Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Britain's Polish allies, to no avail. Then, without Soviet air clearance, Churchill sent over 200 low-level supply drops under British High Command, in an operation known as the Warsaw Airlift. Later, after gaining Soviet air clearance, the U.S. Army Air Force sent one high-level mass airdrop as part of Operation Frantic. 

Warsaw in flames. 

 Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. Jews being harboured by Poles were exposed by German house-to-house clearances and mass evictions of entire neighbourhoods. German casualties totalled about 2,000 soldiers killed and missing. Approximately 25% of Warsaw's buildings were destroyed and following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Together with earlier damage suffered in the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when the course of the events in the Eastern Front forced the Germans to abandon the city. 


Apart from their fighting spirit, we must also remember that the Poles played an important role in the Enigma machine. Three Poles, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki, and Henryk Zygalski disclosed their Enigma results and handed their allies-to-be copies of the Enigma machine. On 1 September the war broke out. The three genius mathematicians fled Poland and later joined the French cryptographers in France. The knowledge they had provided considerably contributed to the cracking of the more complicated wartime Enigma codes used by the Germans. This happened at Bletchley Park. 

 Memorial at Bletchley Park commemorating three Polish mathematicians. 

(Photo by Magda Szkuta)

Krystyna Skarbek, OBE, GM 

Poland also gave the Allies one of the best female spies. Krystyna Skarbek, OBE, GM, also known as Christine Granville, was a Polish agent of the British Special Operations Executive during the WWII. She was the first to bring back photographs of German troops amassing on the Polish border ready for Operation Barbarossa.

These people, numbered in their thousands, were exceptionally brave and their heroism must never be forgotten.

There is a currently a film about Witold Pilecki on Netflix.

Kathryn Gauci is a historical fiction writer whose WWI and WWII novels are set in France, Austria, Greece and Turkey. Three of her books are the recipients of the CIBA Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction.



Friday 5 July 2024

The Dead Man's Penny by V E H Masters

 Writing books can be quite a lonely business. In the past few years, post COVID, I've occasionally taken a table at Fairs, along with fellow historical fiction author Margaret Skea, to sell my books and chat to readers, or potential readers – and to other stall holders.

 Recently I found myself at an Antiques Fair – my books are historical fiction so I thought it was roughly a fit to sell them there – and grew curious about some of the memorabilia the neighbouring stall holder was selling.

One particular display drew my attention. 'It's a Dead Man's Penny,' said Neil Watson, the stall holder,  and went on to explain the sad story associated with it.

The official name for the Dead Man's Penny, also known as the Widow's Penny, was the Memorial Plaque. Cast from bronze it was sent to the next of kin of everyone who died serving overseas with the British Empire forces in WWI, along with a scroll and a message from the king. 

This plaque came into being as a way to give the family something tangible in memory of their loved ones. A competition was set up in 1917 and the winning design, by Edward Carter Preston, was chosen from more than 800 entries. Almost inevitably it includes Britannia and a lion although the significance of the dolphins is lost on me and as for the olive branch, which Britannia is extending… perhaps that is a prayer for the future.

In all 1.33 million were sent out, of which 600 were in memory of women who died in service during WW1.

The Dead Man's Penny which I saw was particularly poignant since it came with pictures, medals and the letter notifying his mother of the lad's death. His name was William Towers, which was inscribed on the plaque. None of the pennies had the rank included since it was considered that no life lost was more or less important than another. (The cynic in me also wondered if it saved on the costs to limit engraving.)

William, a soldier in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was only eighteen years old when he died in April 1918. He had been at the front for four months. The collection associated with William's Dead Man's Penny is for sale because his family line has died out – which likely would not have happened had he survived.

I'm always drawn to war memorials. Here's the one in the very small village where I used to live. There are two things of significance for me about it. Firstly the far greater numbers who died in WW1 as opposed to WW2 and secondly the numbers sharing a surname – which likely meant brothers, father and son, or cousins gone from the same family. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief.

Proportionately Scotland lost more men in WW1 than any other country fighting as part of the British Empire. I've always been curious why.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who was in command on the Western Front from 1915 onwards, believed the bravado and tenacity of his Scottish regiments could win the war for him. A Scot himself from Edinburgh, whose family owned the successful whisky distillers, he had little patience for trench warfare and wanted to push through. In the frequent assaults it was often his 'favoured' Scottish regiments that were sent out first. Lauded as a hero at the end of the war this perspective changed in the 1960s when his war record was re-examined and he was given the epithet Butcher Haig.

My grandfather fought on the Western Front from 1915 onwards. On the single occasion as a child when I persuaded him to speak of his war experiences, he told me that he heard a bullet whistle past his ear at the battle of the Somme. Miraculously he survived three years of war uninjured – else I wouldn't be here!


V E H Masters is the author of four historical fiction novels following the adventures of the Seton Family as they navigate their way through the perils of 16th century Europe. She is the winner of the Barbara Hammond Trophy and her books are regularly on the Amazon Bestseller lists. She lives in the Scottish Borders.

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