Fighting to be heard Kate Adie
Acclaimed war correspondent Kate Adie tells Compass editor Jennifer Cox why she is now reporting on the women who fought on the Home Front in the First World War.
Kate Adie is synonymous with war zones. In nearly 20 years as a BBC correspondent, including 14 as chief news correspondent, Adie reported from the front line of some of the world’s most notorious events: from the protests of Tiananmen Square to the Gulf War, Bosnia and Rwanda.
Born in Northumberland and brought up by adoptive parents in Sunderland,
Adie’s career with the BBC began in 1968, when she joined BBC Radio Durham as a studio technician. Switching to production then moving to television news, it was her coverage of the 1980 siege of the Iranian embassy in London that brought her to national prominence.
Awarded an OBE in 1993, Adie has won numerous awards for her broadcasting as well as for her bestselling books, which include her autobiography The Kindness of Strangers (2002) and Nobody’s Child (2005). As the anniversary of the start of the first world war approaches, Adie now publishes her fifth book: Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One.
Jennifer Cox: What prompted you to write this book?
Kate Adie: I always thought, when you report from places experiencing a civil war or conflict, you shouldn’t only concentrate on the boys with the toys: that’s the crude journo description of the front line, the weaponry, the tactics…. Because although that’s the very stuff of war, it doesn’t add up to the whole picture.
Conflict involves everybody, whether they like it or not. For example, 1993 in Sarajevo, a whole city the size of Bristol – modern, extremely sophisticated, or so it was – became besieged. The water supply was cut off, there was very little electricity, no petrol… This modern city went back to medieval standards, all the while being shelled, snipers on street corners, food running low… Yet after a while parents started sending their children back to school. They reasoned that the children might get killed at home and they might get killed at school, but at least at school they’d be learning something. The fact there was a war on didn’t stop parents wanting their children to get an education. Despite the gun fire and blackouts, normal life was carrying on. And that is what modern warfare is like: it’s no longer a scheduled battle between two sides meeting on a field. It happens any time, day or night, in the places where we live. And that first started to manifest itself a century ago.
JC: I wondered if there was a degree of ambiguity with your title Fighting on the Home Front here. At a time when a woman’s place was firmly in the home, did the first world war give them an opportunity to start fighting their way out?
KA: Absolutely. Previous wars had been Imperial noises off, you sent men to far off places like Africa and didn’t hear anything for months. In the first weeks of the first world war, there was a great surge, a rush for the colours as men enlisted to fight. Back then posters were the great form of communication by the government – no radio, no television – and thousands went up commanding men: ‘Your Country Needs You’. But posters aimed at women went up too: proud mothers praising their smart sons in dressed uniforms. Other posters asked: ‘To the Women of London, is your best boy wearing khaki? If he does not think you and your country are worth fighting for, do you think he is worthy of you?’ Women were being directly targeted as part of the recruitment campaign. Although this makes complete sense now – targeting advertising at women – back then it was unheard of: women were barely considered citizens, they really didn’t have a social role at all.
JC: What jobs were women doing at that time?
KA: Huge numbers were in domestic service. But as vast numbers of men went to war, increasingly small family businesses were taken over by wives and daughters. So not only were these posters targeting women, even odder, they were being pasted up by the women themselves.
JC: The suffragettes must have been delighted.
KA: The suffragettes decided on the very first week of war that they would halt hostilities. As Mrs Pankhurst said: “What was the point of campaigning for the vote, if there wasn’t going to be a country to vote in?” Instead, the suffragettes poured their energies into demanding the right to work and there were many marches up and down the country. But again, this was contrary to what women were meant to do. If middle-class women worked once they were married, it was considered demeaning to their husbands, who were meant to support them. So these educated women became good at charity work, in fact welfare work, as there was very little government welfare at the time. And boy did these women know how to organise: in the first six months of the first world war around 120 national organisations sprang up, all part of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve.
JC: And these organisations were quickly put to the test, as between August and October 1914, 200,000 traumatised Belgium refugees arrived into England by boat.
KA: There was a wonderful woman called Flora Shaw. She was married to Lord Lugard but had previously been a journalist for The Times reporting on the Boer War. She was one of what can only be described as the Organising Upper Classes: a small number of titled, influential, wealthy women who were married to everyone who had anything to do with running the country (from parliament and the House of Lords to big business). So they pulled strings, got things ready, and within days of hearing that hundreds of thousands of Belgium refugees were on the way, these women had commandeered warehouses, factories and hotels. They raised money through advertising in newspapers, getting rich people – including the royal family – to write cheques, instantly pulling in thousands of pounds. These grand ladies found beds, crockery, cutlery, food, interpreters, people who would look after children, and within weeks were on top of the problem. They then dispersed the refugees across the country.
JC: Matched according to their social status?
KA: Yes, grand people went to country houses, working-class people got stuffed in cottages and terraces. The class system is not an invention of Julian Fellows and Downton Abbey, it was a rigid, finely observed system and everybody knew what was expected of them. But this was one more example of a big change coming: refugees – strangers – flowing into the country. Also thousands upon thousands of men gathered in army camps ready to go to France: getting drunk in ports, attracting a certain kind of woman. This led to the first big moral panic. There were a lot during the war, particularly because women were filling the jobs these men were leaving open, and suddenly earning their own money.
JC: Then Hartlepool and Scarborough were bombed.
KA: Yes, December 1914. Houses were destroyed and people died. There was complete shock and panic: nobody saw it coming. The Germans weren’t attacking a barracks or port, they were attacking people’s homes. Suddenly the war wasn’t something that happened over there, it happened here. And women were being killed by the enemy. That in its awful way was another step upwards for women in society: being subject to the same violence as men. It may not be what the suffragettes had been fighting for but it moved women into the front line: the Home Front.
JC: How important were journalists in the first world war?
KA: It wasn’t journalism’s finest hour. There were only six accredited British war correspondents in the field, and they were told by the general in charge: “You can write anything you like, as long as you don’t write about people, places or events.” The real reporting came from letters home, and the famous poems of soldiers like Brooke and Owen, and volunteer nurses like Vera Britten in her Testament of Youth. The story was not fully told by journalists because – like modern day television war reporting – they thought it so terrible, they could not bear to tell people at home know what it was like. The dreadful conditions at the Somme, Passchendaele, the loss of life: they couldn’t bear to do the job.
JC: Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t been doing your job outside the Iranian Embassy that day in 1980?
KA: There is luck in stories, but then other stories come along.
JC: You have covered many conflicts in your career. It used to be said that: “A good decision is getting on a plane at an airport where Kate Adie is getting off”. Is there an element of truth in that?
KA: Not at all, we used transport planes, military planes, cargo planes … you don’t get ordinary passenger planes going into the kinds of places we were flying to.
JC: People must imagine there is a degree of glamour in your work: travelling far and wide, meeting the world’s most interesting and notorious characters…
KA: There’s nothing much glamorous about meeting war lords, thugs and dictators. It’s certainly fascinating and interesting, but glamorous is not a word I would use. The last 20 years of my life have been spent not getting a good wash regularly. In any modern conflict, the power is off, there’s no running water, there’s little food available. You are living in the rough. You do see some terrific places and stunning locations, but the other things you associate with glamour – like a nice hotel, good food, a warm welcome – don’t happen when the airport is on fire.
JC: How do you pack for a journey like that?
KA: Packing didn’t come into it: you were given no notice, or often were off on another story. Once I was covering a big crime story on the islands off Spain and arrived wearing an anorak and snow boots, having come straight from a funeral in northern Germany. It’s very difficult to pack the right things as you never know where you might end up. One thing I always take is a toothbrush: the army taught me you can do a tremendous number of things with it. You can brush your teeth, even if there’s no water – you can always use alcohol; use it for cleaning things like your shoes and also rifles I am told. And for self-defence you can cause quite a nasty injury jabbing someone with it.
JC: So hard bristles then?
KA: Quite. And a torch, that’s essential. I’ve been to so many places where as soon as there’s trouble the power is attacked. You find yourself in modern buildings with no power and – particularly in hotels – no windows, so no natural light.
JC: What does it take to be a front line reporter?
KA: No idea, I just went off and did certain types of stories. As a journalist you just take what comes.
JC: Was it ever an advantage or disadvantage being a woman?
KA: It doesn’t go either way. You have to work in countries where woman are treated exceptionally nastily: abused by men in public, have no rights. You have to cope with that.
JC: Do you do anything to let off steam?
KA: I don’t have any steam to let off: it’s an absolutely professional job that I’m doing, fascinating and fulfilling. The colleagues I work with are all feet-on-the ground people and we enjoy doing it. It was a privilege to be a reporter.
JC: Was? Do you not see yourself going back out in the field?
KA: The job doesn’t exist anymore: television is a 24-hour news presentational job, the world has changed. I still broadcast twice a week and I write. You move on.
JC: Do you ever go on holiday?
KA: I do, but one of the minor regrets of life is that air travel has become so nauseatingly interfering and difficult. The days when you could race into an airport and jump on a plane seem to be disappearing fast. That is progress. But I’m still curious, I’m still travelling.
Kate Adie presents From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4.
Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One by Kate Adie is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20).