Blog: Jude Wright
and Mick Martin

Bradford co-writers and directors on their new play about the women behind the end of the First World War

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The First World War ended at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Germans surrendered. We won game, set and match.

Well, I don’t know about anyone else but that’s definitely what we were taught.

But what if it’s not actually true? What if we didn’t win the war at all?

Whilst working on our 2014 project, England, Arise!, which told the story of Huddersfield’s socialist conscientious objectors and their opposition to the First World War, we met Professor Ingrid Sharp of the University of Leeds. Ingrid, who has a specialism in German women’s history, wondered if we could unearth similar stories from over there.

A couple of research trips and many conversations later, we realised the First World War is much less significant to Germans than to the British. Furthermore, women’s role in it was, apparently, virtually non-existent.

We began to dig and, via the power of Google Translate, stumbled upon a collection of interviews with women from Kiel – a port town in northern Germany – recollecting their lives and, importantly, dating back to the war. The title of the interviews, unsurprisingly, was Grandpa was a Revolutionary; the views and experiences of the women themselves were pushed to the background. Nevertheless, we started to scratch beneath the surface.

The revolution to which they referred was the Kiel Revolution of 1918, a people’s revolution that, it turned out, began a chain of events that, within days, led to the abdication of the Kaiser and the end of the First World War.

Traditionally, the story is told from an entirely male perspective. A group of sailors revolt, are sent to prison in Kiel, lots of men break them out of prison, take to the streets and thereby it begins to end.

Look a little harder, and you realise that conditions in Germany were much harsher than here. After the winter of 1916-17, people were surviving on just over 800 calories per day; over 700,000 civilians died, not from fighting, but from lack of food during the war.

Riots were breaking out in food queues, people were beginning to organise, trade unions were getting more and more active, and strikes were taking place. In January 1918, more than four million strikers were protesting in the streets.

That no women were involved in any of this is patently ridiculous. We travelled to Kiel to visit the archive where they had a set of Gertrude Vӧlker’s memoirs, one of the interviewees who had worked in the trade union in Kiel. Having braved the nonplussed expression of the archivist who assured us there were no such memoirs (“please can you just check for me?”) we were pleased and relieved when he found them.

And there began the most fascinating journey. A grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, along with the support of the University of Leeds, allowed us to uncover the stories of over 200 revolutionary women who were active in Germany at the time. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Theatre gives us a space to tell untold stories – something the renowned playwright and champion of the northern working classes, Joan Littlewood, understood. Indeed, it turns out one of her first professional jobs was working on a play about the revolution in Kiel. When she first arrived in Manchester and met the singer and playwright Jimmie Miller (aka Ewan MacColl), they worked on Draw the Fires, prior to forming their Theatre of Action. Written by the German revolutionary Ernst Toller, the play is definitely left wing and definitely not about women. But something about it clearly inspired Joan.

The original script of Oh, What A Lovely War in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive finishes by showing German soldiers and sailors rejecting the monarchy, forming soviets and inviting the British to follow their example. This had to be changed, so that the play finishes with a medley of songs – a more palatable conclusion to the war for us loyal Brits?

Women of Aktion is a revolutionary play. Yes, it’s about a revolution, but it also turns what we think we know on its head. Joan, Gertrude and their radical sisters challenge us to reconsider who makes history and perhaps, hopefully, inspire us to recognise our own role in changing the world.

Women of Aktion is at the Stage@Leeds 3-5 October

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