March is both Women’s History Month and International Women’s Month, which includes the marking of International Women’s Day on March 8th. In particular, as a history graduate and a feminist the former appeals to me greatly, and I decided to dig out a blog post I wrote way back in May 2007 (on the subject of one of my historical heroines) in honour of the occasion. Almost three years on, it naturally needed a little dusting off, a little editing and a few slight re-writes in places (and it’s also a little long) – but I hope you are as fascinated by the story of Noor Inayat Khan as I am.
“Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of these obliged her to take her position in the war. However she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable, an invincible courage” – Madame de Gaulle-Anthonioz at the memorial service for Noor Inayat Khan.
The memory of Noor Inayat Khan is, in the main, ignored in this country; unlike in France, where she is justly considered a heroine – ‘Madeleine dans la Resistance‘. But who was this girl with the pretty, exotic name, who is so revered by the French? And why should we care about her today?
We should care because this woman did something amazing, something most modern women (and men) would probably find almost impossible – considering our pampered 21st century lives.
BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914 – 1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
Inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey
The Western Front, 1916:
The Reverend David Railton is doing his rounds as a frontline chaplain for the British army in France, providing spiritual and pastoral support for the young men in his care, many of whom have been fighting in the trenches for upwards of two years. His is not an easy job, but, as a Church of England clergyman, he feels he has both a calling and a responsibility to look after these soldiers, some of whom are no more than boys.
He is rapidly becoming more and more appalled by the death and destruction he sees around him, and is particularly moved by a simple, makeshift grave he comes across in a garden near Armentieres that day. The grave consists of a rough wooden cross, carefully inscribed in pencil: “An Unknown British Soldier of The Black Watch”. The simple inscription and the care taken in commemorating a fallen comrade sets Railton thinking, and eventually results in one of the most famous and moving war memorials of them all…
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak out for me” – Martin Niemoller.
Martin Niemoller was a controversial figure, whose motives and actions are still debated by historians, theologians and political theorists to this day. But his words (above) ring as true today as they did in the 1940s. Like many Lutheran pastors (and other religious leaders) in 1930s Germany, Niemoller was an anti-communist who opposed the democratic experiment of the Weimar Republic and its associated ‘decadence’, welcoming the Nazi accession to power in 1933 even to the extent of apparently having official meetings with Adolf Hitler.