Revealed: Great War heroine who found social whirl ‘simply topping’

Trilby on a motorcyle with a fellow volunteer near the Front
Trilby on a motorcyle with a fellow volunteer near the Front
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She was the daughter of a wealthy gentleman farmer in the Scottish Borders and could have spent the years of the First World War attending extravagant parties and holidaying in the Highlands.

But instead, 20-year-old Arabella Isobel McDowall, known as “Trilby”, set off from Craigmullen in Dumfries for the Front and became a volunteer ambulance driver.

Her courage was recognised by a host of medals including the Croix de Guerre with silver star from the French and the Queen Elisabeth Medal from Belgium.

McDowall’s story is revealed in the book, A Military Inheritance, by retired major Jeremy Yeoman, whose sister married into the war volunteer’s family.

In letters to her mother, McDowall describes the defiance of the Germans following the Armistice, tending the wounded, and driving an ambulance during the night across an abandoned battlefield.

Because of her background she mixed with high-ranking officers and generals enjoying the entertainment, fine wine and dining offered by the remnants of the Belle Époque.

The British Army was reluctant to accept female volunteer First-Aiders and Trilby and many other women, mostly from similar backgrounds, who had joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry were accepted by the Belgian and French armies. McDowall spent most of the war with Unit V, which became a formal unit of the Belgium Army, at a field hospital in Calais.

In November 1918, she drove through the night to Courtrai with a colleague to reunite a Belgium man with his family.

“Even then, we did not understand that we were starting over the battlefields of the Scheldt, where no women had ever been before... Then we came to a region where there were no roads at all, having all been blown up by the Bosch on his retreat,” she wrote.

Following the Armistice, McDowall helped feed around 1,400 Allied prisoners of war released by the Germans. “I never saw such a strange crowd as the prisoners. They seemed absolutely dazed, not a cheer among them, and scarcely a smile,” she wrote.

McDowall was then sent to Gladbach, where she witnessed the German reaction to the Armistice. After riding with a Belgium cavalry regiment, she recorded a memorable encounter with a German woman on the path.

“As we go along here all the men take off their hats, but you can feel how they hate us. You cannot accuse the Germans of cowardice: on two occasions yesterday we met a woman coming along the road, we were trotting hard six horses abreast, and she never moved off the road but walked right through us. I must say I admired her pluck.”

But harrowing war experiences did not curb McDowall’s enthusiasm for her social life: “I have never enjoyed myself so much,” she wrote after one evening out. “Simply topping men, nearly all brass hats with four generals. A wonderful old chateau with a beautiful garden with a lake and everything. A top hole dinner with a band, and then such a dance.”

Yvonne McEwen, professor of history, war and conflict studies, at Wolverhampton University, explained that most women who went out to the war were financially supported by their fathers or had family money.

“In many ways they were naive. They were taken in by the ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’ mentality.

“The British Journal of Nursing reflected some views that these women were a liability, never having been in an exposed environment and that there should have been far more co-ordination.”

As to why more working class women didn’t volunteer, she said: “Working class women at home were often running two jobs – taking over the work of men now at the Front and then trying to keep things going on the domestic front.”