Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Finding the forgotten women of history’s front lines

At the Battle of Magenta, in June 1859, two Austrians seized the flag of the second regiment of Zouaves. It was not French infantrymen who recovered the regiment’s colours, and its honour, but Annette Drevon, a cantinière who usually sold food and drink to its soldiers.

Newspaper reported that she despatched one Austrian with a sabre and shot the other twice — causing the regiment’s grateful colonel to pin his own Cross of the Légion d’honneur on her chest.

Over a decade later, when she was in German-occupied territory during the Franco-Prussian war, she objected to “certain remarks” of a burly Bavarian. According to one press account: “Annette’s retort left the Bavarian crumpled up on the pavement with a neat little hole in his brainbox”. She was spared death only thanks to the intervention of a German prince, and she later sold cauliflowers and other vegetables in the markets of Les Halles.

Drevon may have been extraordinary, but she was far from a one-off. According to a new book, history’s battlefields were packed with “a secret legion” of women who have been forgotten as a result of relatively recent social changes and military reforms.

An engraving depicting Gesche Meiburg, one of the women who helped to defend besieged Braunschweig in 1615. Image: courtesy of Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbuettel

Author Dr Sarah Percy, who is seeking to remedy this amnesia, said she was surprised in her research by the sheer volume of evidence for women’s frontline involvement. She said: “There was a whole bunch that I had to leave out because the book had to be a manageable size.”

Of the many Forgotten Warriors of her book’s title, Queen Njinga of Ndongo is one of her favourites. The 17th-century ruler in what is now Angola waged guerrilla war against the Portuguese, defeated them in pitched battles while allied with the Dutch, and secured a peace treaty that recognised her authority. She was described by one appalled European missionary as “the most barbarous & cruel woman that there had ever been in the world . . . I will only add that she was a sea of lust . . .”

Percy, an international relations expert at Australia’s University of Queensland, said: “Njinga is fascinating. She was a queen and a general in a military context that makes Game of Thrones look like a kindergarten. It was absolutely vicious, with constant changes of power and having to play off colonial powers and local powers. The fact that she managed to rule for so long and so successfully in that period suggests that she was an extraordinary individual and military leader. But because of her gender and her race, and the way she subverted so many western expectations about what womanhood was like, we have completely forgotten her.”

An engraving depicting Queen Njinga using a servant as a chair, from Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi’s Istorica Descrizione De’ Tre’ Regni Congo, Matamba et Angola, 1687

That is not to say that western women avoided the military life. Percy notes that sieges were the most common form of warfare in Europe between the late 15th and early 18th centuries, and women were almost always involved. They shored up fortifications, delivered munitions to men manning walls and, not infrequently, joined in the fray. Such were the women defenders of Braunschweig in 1615 who “indefatigably among the foe threw stones and fired balls” and “blackened many a man’s nose” with burning pitch.

Meanwhile, noblewomen often found themselves in command of siege defences when their castle or fortified house became a target. Percy gives the example of Charlotte de La Trémoïlle, the Royalist Countess of Derby, who, in 1644, defended Lathom House in Lancashire against a Parliamentarian army for 18 weeks before the besiegers withdrew. Allegedly, she scorned a surrender demand, saying: “Tell that insolent rebel he shall neither have persons, goods, nor house” and vowing to burn with her children and soldiers rather than endure capture.

Despite all this, Percy says that, because a siege is often not regarded as a “battlefield”, the discipline of military history has not counted the women defending their homes as soldiers.

Nevertheless, women were active on open battlefields and in marching camps too — in large numbers from the 16th to 19th centuries. In these contexts they have frequently been labelled as “camp followers” or even “whores”. Percy says they were often accompanying husbands or common-law husbands and some indeed sold sex. But to dismiss them as only prostitutes and hangers on is to ignore their contributions in supplying essential provisions as well as nursing and laundry.

They sometimes fought too. Women such as the cantinière Drevon might provide water or a tot of alcohol on the field and could easily be caught up in the action.

Percy shows that numbers of women travelling with armies declined over time as commanders sought to streamline unwieldy baggage trains while still maintaining essential supplies. Yet even in 1813, during the Peninsular War, about 4,500 British wives accompanied the Duke of Wellington’s army of 60,000 men. There were also 700 Portuguese and Spanish women selling food and provisions to soldiers — bringing the ratio to about nine women for every hundred men.

If such women occasionally engaged in combat, it was a result of circumstances and not their primary role. However, there were also women who served as fighting soldiers by masquerading as men. Percy says that such cross-dressers were not a “titillating sideshow” but commonplace, with hundreds known from archives and many others likely lost to the historical record.

In Prussia, young Frederike Krüger joined an infantry regiment disguised as a man in 1813. She was unmasked when she cried out in an especially high voice during an attack but was permitted to remain in service, won the Iron Cross and survived battles including that of Ligny.

According to Percy, it was only in the Victorian period that modernisation and changing attitudes shut women out of military roles. Armies developed effective centralised organisation and logistics that enabled all roles to be filled by men. Physical examinations thwarted cross-dressing. And, at the same time, a growing middle class cherished a model of femininity centred on delicacy and devotion to family and home.

This led to difficulties for the rival powers in the First World War. Percy said: “Once you’ve established this rule that women must not fight, you have created a problem for yourself when you have the first widespread industrial total war. You are clearly going to need women for the war effort. So the idea of the Home Front allows the state to use women in a way which reaffirms the idea that they shouldn’t be fighting — but at the same time allows them to be mobilised in different ways.”

Field Marshal Lord John French inspects the Glasgow Battalion, Women’s Volunteer Reserve, circa 1915. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM Q 108005

That approach included utilising women’s “auxiliary” organisations, which were created by women and tested the limits of their civilian status. In Britain, the Women’s Volunteer Reserve was quasi-military. Its members drilled twice weekly and wore khaki uniforms. In 1916, Mrs Charlesworth, its acting colonel, wrote: “I have with me 250 hunting women, all hard as nails, and each brought up from girlhood to know and understand horses. Why waste us? The machinery to train and discipline a women’s army is ready and waiting.”

About 80,000-90,000 women served in Britain’s auxiliary services during the conflict, including in mechanical and technical roles, cooking driving and administration. A minority were radicals who were also involved in the women’s suffrage movement and saw their wartime service as advancing their cause.

Commenting on the auxiliary phenomenon, Percy said: “Some men were spectacularly rude about it or damned it with faint praise. But I think it’s a pretty profound demonstration of women’s capacity to organise.”

When it came to the Second World War, the involvement of women in diverse Home Front roles was a given and auxiliary services acquired military status, albeit non-combatant. Among their many duties, women operated anti-aircraft batteries and aimed the guns, although Army rules insisted that only men could fire them.

Women also served behind enemy lines with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had no such qualms. Pearl Witherington, “the daughter of a Northumbrian gentleman with a drinking problem and no money”, commanded a network of almost 3,000 maquisard Resistance fighters fighting the Germans in occupied France. When she was offered a civilian MBE, rather than a military decoration, she turned it down, observing that she had done “nothing civil”.

Percy said: “What’s so interesting about the women of SOE is that they were absolutely engaging in combat, often in command of men, but lots of convenient fictions were made up to explain away what they were doing. There was also the deliberate keeping of a lot of its secret for a long time.”

An Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) spotter with binoculars at an anti-aircraft command post in 1942. A 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun can be seen in the background. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM TR 452

According to Percy, the postwar years saw a doubling down on opposition to woman soldiers.

She said: “People wanted to move past the horrors of war and to revert to a ‘normal’ world. So women got pushed out almost entirely. The Soviets had nearly a million women under arms in one capacity or another but their service was actively suppressed by the postwar Soviet government. Everywhere women’s numbers in the military were extremely limited.”

This carried on for decades. Percy said: “If you ever wanted evidence that the patriarchy actively works to suppress women, you only need to look at what militaries did to try and keep women out of combat through the 70s and 80s — including repeatedly and deliberately reclassifying positions so that, whatever combat was, women weren’t doing it, even though they might end up fighting.”

It was a fiction, she said, that has proved impossible to maintain in large-scale expeditionary wars in the Gulf and Afghanistan. Hence the recent acceptance of women in combat roles by many armies, albeit in low numbers.

For Percy, it is progress nonetheless. She said: “The book’s overriding conclusion — and it surprised me a little that I came to it — is that the suppression of women’s equality is unquestionably tied to the suppression of their ability to serve in combat. A lot of feminist scholarship is very distrustful of the idea of war. There is a strong correlation between feminism and pacifism. And there is a strong belief among many feminists that the military is an inherently patriarchal institution and putting women in it won’t change it.

“I have some sympathy for both positions. But women could be equal in every imaginable way, except in one way, which is combat. And that way really matters, because combat is the thing which shows people’s physical fortitude, bravery and leadership skills. It is the most important thing that we valorise in most nations, and if you say to a woman, ‘You can do everything except this,’ that is quite profound.

She added: “I think it is no coincidence that in modern democracies one of the first things we see as a feature of democratic backsliding is a suppression of women’s rights. And if we look at the war in Ukraine now, we see Russia, which has to mobilise convicts because it won’t mobilise women into combat roles, versus Ukraine, which has 15 to 20 per cent of troops who are women.

“It’s a very interesting contrast about values and about the importance of equality in societies.”

“Forgotten Warriors: A History of Women on the Front Line” is published by John Murray. Its author Sarah Percy will be speaking about the book at the Chalke Valley History Festival on June 27. The top image shows Giovanni Fattori’s painting of the Italian camp at the Battle of Magenta (Alamy)

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