Millions of men and women from different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles made a contribution to help Britain during the First World War. This article highlights the stories of four men and women who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The stories are taken from Lives of the First World War, our permanent digital memorial. 

Ethel Mary Smyth

Ethel Mary Smyth © George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Ethel Mary Smyth © George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Ethel Mary Smyth was born in Marylebone, London in 1858. She decided at an early age that she wanted to become a composer and struggled for many years to get her parent's consent. In 1877 Ethel arrived in Leipzig to study music, an exceptional achievement in that era for a girl of 19. 

Throughout her life, Ethel had romantic relationships with women and frequently wore male clothing. After a difficult end to a relationship in Leipzig, Ethel returned to Britain in 1885.

Ethel was a suffragette and was briefly imprisoned for her activities in 1912. During the First World War she served with the British Red Cross in Italy and France, and trained as a radiographer. She was attached to 13 Division of the French army as a volunteer in the huge hospital at Vichy. In 1918, she became ill and returned to England.

After the war, she wrote her memoirs and was made a Dame for her services to music. Ethel died on 8 May 1944.


Edward Morgan Forster © National Portrait Gallery, London - NPG Ax140742.
Edward Morgan Forster © National Portrait Gallery, London - NPG Ax140742.

'Howard's End' author Edward Morgan Forster was born in London in 1879. He was a pacifist and served with the British Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt during the First World War. His job was to interview the wounded in hospitals for information about fellow soldiers who were reported missing.

Although he never declared it in his lifetime, Edward was homosexual.  Whilst serving in Egypt he had a three-year relationship with a young Egyptian, Mohammed el Adl. Their relationship ended in 1918 when Mohammed was forced to marry. Mohammed paid tribute to his lover by naming his son Morgan. After his death in 1922, Mohammed's widow sent Forster her husband's gold ring as a keepsake. Edward, by now back in Britain, slept with the ring under his pillow every night. 

He continued to write novels and plays, and was nominated for 20 Nobel Prizes for Literature. Edward died in 1970. 

May ‘Toupie’ Lowther

May ‘Toupie’ Lowther Wikipedia public domain.
May ‘Toupie’ Lowther Wikipedia public domain.

May Toupie Lowther, known as 'Toupie', was born in 1874 in London. Before the First World War, she was a talented tennis player and fencer. 

In 1917 Toupie set up an all-female ambulance unit, recruiting women from Britain, France, Ireland and America. The group travelled to France, taking their own cars or those donated by other women. In France the unit stayed close to the German front line to collect the wounded. Toupie was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her contributions to the war effort and mentioned in dispatches.

It is believed that Toupie's story was an inspiration for the character of Stephen Gordon in the lesbian novel 'The Well of Loneliness'.

Toupie died in 1944, at the age of 69.

Joseph Randall Ackerley

Joseph Randall Ackerley © National Portrait Gallery, London - NPG x2404.
Joseph Randall Ackerley © National Portrait Gallery, London - NPG x2404.

Joseph Randall Ackerley was born in 1896 in Kent. At the outbreak of war, he was commissioned as an officer in 8 (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment. During training he met his best friend of the war, Bobby Soames.

Joseph took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was injured and lay in a shell-hole for six hours before eventually being taken to the safety of a first-aid post. Bobby was killed in the attack.

In May 1917 Joseph was injured again, and once more found himself trapped in no man's land alongside the dead and wounded. He was eventually collected by a German stretcher-bearer and after hospital treatment was sent to prisoner of war camps.

Joseph finally returned to England in December 1918. His brother, Peter, had been killed in France, August 1918 and Joseph was haunted by 'survivor’s guilt', feeling that the wrong brother had returned from the war.

Joseph was profoundly affected by his First World War service and his experience in POW camps inspired his play Prisoners of War (1925). The play reflected his homosexuality as did his other books and poems. He became a high profile gay personality and in 1942, spoke out against the unfair treatment of gay men. He died in 1967.

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