A Century On from the Great War

Women in First World War Photography

The predominantly amateur, spontaneous and candid, photography records various moments in soldiers’ lives – both trivial and of historic importance.

As part of the celebrations marking the centenary of the Great War, so-called personal documents – diaries, letters, and autobiographies – have been retrieved from the Polish State Archives to be published in book form. The whole series, as signalled by its very title1, is meant to present wartime “everyday non-everydayness” seen from the perspective of those who did not take active part in military action. Among the archived materials, those that merit particular interest are memories of women left at home during the war, with their families and children. Both looking after children and managing goods or supervising a small household were particularly difficult tasks in the unstable reality, affected by armies marching through, troubles with provisions, as well as constant concern for the lives of fighting relatives. As women’s personal writings show, their lives had their own rhythm, as if counter to or despite the worrying news from the front, to which, after all, the women were not indifferent.

The sanitary unit of the Polish Legions, on a par with the men, women are a vital part of the professional team, 1915 © Tadeusz Pawlas, Muzeum Historii Fotografii

Thanks to the new developments of the times, even before the war many women chose different roles for themselves – they engaged in politics and social issues, only to put on military uniforms in 1914 to actively fight for independence2. Eliza Ludwika Daszkiewiczówna gave up her position as a factory clerk in order to assume a man’s name, Stanisław Kepisz, and become a medical orderly. Similarly, Leopoldyna Stawecka, after quitting her studies in a teachers’ college, joined the army disguised as a man. It was only after being wounded that she left the battlefield. Upon recovery, she completed sanitation training and signed up for the Voluntary Legion for Women, resuming her active service.

Women and legionary “non-everydayness”


An equally interesting record of “everyday non-everydayness” is a collection of photographs documenting wartime events as well as soldiers’ lives outside the front, military equipment, and sanitary infrastructure. The collection can be seen in Kraków’s Museum of History of Photography, where the centenary of the First Cadre Company’s departure from Krakow has been marked with an exhibition titled The Legionary Shots3. The predominantly amateur, spontaneous and candid, photography presented at the exhibition records various moments in soldiers’ lives – both trivial and of historic importance. Particularly interesting are photographs of women engaged in the army as nurses or captured on camera as simply accidental participants of historical events, e.g. as witnesses to legions marching through.
One shot showing the sanitary unit of the Polish Legions reveals only a portion of the transport on a railway platform somewhere in Ukraine in January 1915. It is not a moment of particular mobilisation, thus the medical staff are calmly standing by the entrance to a coach. In the crowd we can see several women dressed in military shirts and caps with bands bearing the symbol of the Red Cross. On a par with the men, they are a vital part of the professional team.

A staff of the military hospital in Wadowice, 1915 © Muzeum Historii Fotografii

The crucial role played by women in the medical infrastructure is demonstrated by a photograph of the military hospital in Wadowice in 1915. It shows five women – nurses and presumably doctors (judging by their age and central location in the group). Only in the second row are four men in military uniforms. This group portrait is interesting not only because it is a portrait of medical, mainly female, staff, but also because one of the subjects used the photo as a postcard and sent it to a male friend – as we can gather from the text on the reverse.
The short message begins with the information that this is the second missive of this kind, since the first one had clearly failed to be delivered – at least this is the sender’s presumption, since there had been no reply. Therefore, she is sending another “postcard” – as she writes, “an even prettier one”. She puts the word “prettier” in inverted commas, as if to indicate that at the moment “prettiness” is not the most important category, but still, she is certainly glad that the picture has captured her well. On the other hand, the inverted commas compel us to pay more attention to the “postcard” itself. If it is not really meant to be “pretty”, perhaps it is significant, since it records the woman’s professional activity, showcasing her competence, independence and bravery. Although not directly on a frontline, the woman is nonetheless directly engaged in war action, which defines the rhythm of her life. This is also something she writes about, mentioning that, even though she has plenty of work, “the spring is lovely, and owing to the latest news, [it is] even quite cheerful”.
Equally interesting among the legionary shots are those which depict brief moments of “everyday non-everydayness”, when soldiers have an opportunity to take a breather and enjoy a moment of “normal life” during stopovers in villages and manor houses. Most often they are met there with a friendly welcome by women, who offer hospitality and pleasant conversation. It is such a moment that was captured in a photograph taken in Ukraine in 1915 and in the exhibition titled A Chat in Old…. In the scene two women are keeping company with a serviceman. One of them is sitting with the man on a bench in front of the house; the other is standing beside them, occupied with sewing or darning, but she is certainly listening to the conversation between the other two with interest. Another photo, titled Courtship in Łukawica, shows a soldier chatting up a woman somewhere in a Ukrainian farmyard, where perhaps, in different circumstances, they would never have met.

Refreshments, Czerniowce 1915 © Muzeum Historii Fotografii

Both photographs clearly show the division into two worlds that the subjects belong to: the military one, governed by military strategies, and the domestic one, bound with the routine of household chores. Both of these realities, so distant from each other, nonetheless remain intensely connected, especially since the women living in the villages and cities that armies march through thirst for news both of what is happening on the fronts and of their loved ones involved in these actions. A picture taken in Sławków in January 1915 depicts a woman welcoming soldiers stationed in the city. She must have believed that the new arrivals were the best source of current information and at the same time that they were in need of words of support. An even more cordial welcome was given to soldiers in Czerniowce in 1915. Here, the photographer captured a scene of a stopover meal: servicemen, surrounded by young women, are smilingly enjoying chocolates, most likely saved for a special occasion, which has now finally arrived together with the legions.

Legions and “the manor house young lady”


The collection of the Digital State Archive contains a 1914 photograph depicting the famous troops of Władysław Belina-Prażmowski in front of the Zawiszas’ manor house in Goszyce near Krakow. On the night of 2–3 August 1914, the commander together with his soldiers marched from Galicia to Congress Poland, thus, in a sense, paving the way for the First Cadre Company. Their stopover happened to take place in the manor house in Goszyce, where the heroes were immortalised – perhaps by its inhabitant, Zofia Zawisza, who was engaged in the patriotic struggle as eagerly as the newly arrived uhlans.
The next shot taken in the same location – though not until 1924, i.e. on the tenth anniversary of the departure of Belina-Prażmowski’s troops, nicknamed “beliniaks” – now shows Zofia Zawisza, who was not seen in the previous photo, although she took part in the historic event and herself fought for independence. Therefore in this picture she takes her rightful central place in the group, between Belina-Prażmowski and his soldiers, and directly above Józef Piłsudski, seated in the middle of the first row.
On this occasion, Zofia has stylishly coiffured hair and is wearing a fashionable dress. It is hard to believe that this is the same person as the woman portrayed in 1914: with tightly tied-up hair, a cigarette in her hand, wearing a military cap and a uniform, and holding a sabre on her knees, which emphasises her role as a soldier. These very two photographs were presented by Zofia’s great-grandchildren, Marta and Michał Smoczyński, to illustrate their memories published to mark the unveiling of the commemorative plaque devoted to Zawiszanka in August 20144. It was placed next to the plaque devoted to “beliniaks”, unveiled during the anniversary meeting of 1924.
As Michał Smoczyński says, “My great-grandmother Zofia was an extraordinary woman. She was not just part of the rank and file in the pro-independence movement. As a student of agriculture at the Jagiellonian University she co-founded Krakow’s Polish Rifle Squads, was engaged in formulating their status, commanded the Female Squad, and side by side with her male colleagues from the Squads took active part in military exercises.”5 Smoczyński adds to this that her true calling was serving as a courier and working in military intelligence. It was Zawiszanka who, following the departure of Belina-Prażmowski’s patrol from Goszyce, related the news to Commander Piłsudski in Krakow. After the war, she continued her social work, while writing her wartime memoirs.

Women and the tradition of the Cadre

Commemorators of the soldiers of the First Cadre Company during a resting break, 1927 © Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe


An interesting commentary on the situation of women in the times of the Great War and Polish struggle for independence can be found in the photographs documenting the post-war tradition of the First Cadre Company, celebrated in an annual march in August, marking the anniversary of the departure of the Cadre from Krakow. The photographs testify to the political awareness of women, as well as to their sense of community with the tradition of female members of the Cadre and other female participants of military action. The pictures also show changes in society and customs concerning women’s position in society, models for their behaviour, and the roles and functions ascribed to them, which solidified after World War I. In Poland, post-war independence brought women the right to vote, which sanctioned their civic status. Women took advantage of it this by acquiring education and getting involved in the educational system and social work, but also by taking active part in strengthening the historical tradition of the now free state. Hence their presence in the marches commemorating the Cadre, depicted in the photographs collected in the Digital State Archive.

Participants of the march in the Cadre’s footsteps: Maja Augucewicz, Nusia Nowacka, Oleńka Tarnowska, Tusia Wesołowska © Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe


A picture from August 1927 shows commemorators of the soldiers of the First Cadre Company crowded around a field kitchen. A considerable number of them are women in military uniforms and peaked or other military caps; their tanned and tired faces prove that in the ongoing march they do not fall behind their male counterparts.
Another photograph documenting the same event in 1927 depicts a group of four women, identified as Maja Augucewicz, Nusia Nowacka, Oleńka Tarnowska and Tusia Wesołowska. The women stand in relaxed fashion, dressed in military shirts with leather belts; one of them is wearing a skirt, and the others knee-length shorts. It is cle

Maja Augucewicz, who won the individual run during the march in the Cadre’s footsteps. © Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

ar that they are wearing women’s military clothes, and – unlike “girls in Maciej’s caps” – no longer have to endure uncomfortable men’s uniforms, too large for them and only beginning to be adjusted to the needs of their female users.
One of the portrayed women, Maja Augucewicz, in fact won the individual run during the march in the Cadre’s footsteps. This was captured in a photograph, showing her in a modest pose despite her victory. It is not known who took the picture – perhaps Janina Skoczkówna, who on the same day photographed the winning women’s team showing off their award to the camera.
The 1927 march was exceptionally well documented also thanks to the fact that women became owners of conveniently operated cameras and thus were able to preserve for posterity their own and their female friends’ patriotic activities. The women in these shots certainly remembered the actual female members of the First Cadre Company as well as other activists who would run away from home to fight in male disguise. Their presence on the Cadre trail is a symbolic continuation of a tradition initiated, among others, by Zofia Zawisza and the anonymous nurses from the military transport in Ukraine photographed at the beginning of the Great War.

Translated from the Polish by Ewa Kowal