Though war is still a predominantly male activity (curse you boys stealing all that death based fun) women have played a diverse range of roles in warfare…
Mrs Jones. Written about by Daniel Dafoe, this Irish woman dressed up as a man, and went off to war. Unlike many of the fighters in this section she didn’t join up for ideology. She joined to find a man. Not just any man. The man she had bought and paid for (aka her husband) whom the armed forces had kidnapped and stolen away into service. Sadly not especially uncommon, but apparently Mrs Jones was not sitting back and letting anyone take her man. After moving through several regiments she eventually made it to the one her husband was serving in, and they were secretly reunited. Alas Mrs Jones was injured, and in the course of repairs, was found to be of the lady variety. Rather than the expected gentleman type. Remarkably, or perhaps pragmatically, the commanding officer did not send the missus packing. He instead insisted that the couple had a formal battlefield marriage, and that Mrs Jones be redeployed. As a vivandiere. The early modern equivalent of the lady in the NAFFI.
Mrs Jones was not the only female combatant to be immortalised in literature. In 1655 a ballad called ‘The Gallant She-Soldier’ was written about one Private Clarke. With such catchy rhymes as “She would drink and take tobacco, and spend her money too, When as occasion served that she had nothing else to do.” Whilst Phoebe Hessel fought as both a private soldier, and under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, and this was no secret. It was proudly recorded on her gravestone after her death at 108.
Flora Sandes was a young English-Irish woman who decided, in 1914, that she wanted to save people’s lives. She was rejected as a nurse applicant, even though she had trained with the Nursing Yeomanary, and so instead joined St. John’s Ambulance. As the Austro-Hungarian front moved backwards into Albania Flora ended up lost from the medical unit. A Serbian unit took her ‘in’, but for safety she was required to look like a soldier not a medic. As she spent time with the, somewhat beleagured, Serbians she became more interested in their cause and was fully commissioned as an officer. Injured in 1916 she was awarded Serbias highest military honour. Regarded as a national heroine she remained in Serbia until after the second world war, and after having spent WW2 interned by the Nazis she returned to the UK.
Milunka Savić, conversely lived her post World War I life as a cleaning lady. Despite having been awarded a raft of medals, including being the only woman to receive France’s Croix de Guerre, after she opted to take her brother’s place when Serbian men were called up in 1913, her bravery was largely forgotten until the 1970s.
Staying in the eastern end of Europe…Maria Bachkarova joined the Imperial Russian Army as a woman. No dragging up necessary in the Russian military. She formed and led the Russian Womens Death Batalion. Like all good titles it sums up the whole essence in a few words. Unfortunately over a third of the death batalion took the ‘death’ part very seriously and died.
Indeed Russian women have played such a strong role in their twentieth century warfare that they account for some of the most celebrated snipers in history. For example Roza Georgiyevna Shanina was a World War II sniper with 54 confirmed kills, Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko is credited with a whopping 309 kills in her sniper career and lest you think girls don’t do big guns, Kazakh gunner Mänşük Jïenğaliqizi Mämetova was the first woman to receive the prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
Whilst Marina Mikhailovna Raskova was a renowned air navigator and founded three womens air units which saw service during the Second World War. She died in January 1943 as she crashed whilst attempting to land of the Volga banks.
Boudicea, famously led the Iceni tribe in 69 AD/BCE to a not terribly victorious revolt against the romans. She may not be the most successful warrior in terms of, well, actually warrioring, but her status as a legend rivals that of her mythical Roman counterpart Britannia. Whilst the maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, inspired by the voice of God, or madness, depending on which side of the Fence you sit on, led the French army; again, though, not tremendously successfully. Whilst through the centuries of crusading and Euro-battles there were several women leading and commanding troops. These included Countess Alrude of Bertinoro whose army, in 1172, broke a siege at Alcona, Countess Matilda of Tuscany, and Duchess Gaita of Lombardy who both commanded in the Italian Crusades. Muslim commenters recorded women actively in battle during the crusades, though how much of this was truth and how much propaganda, historians are unsure of. The unfortunate Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem was killed whilst the city was under siege, whilst Richard the Lionheart’s wife Princess Berengaria became a hostage, and was so battled over that she never set foot in England.
The American Revolutionary and Civil Wars are filled with tales of women in combat. Indeed historians have suggested that hundreds of women were unmasked as soldiers when injured. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and Sophia Cryder were two such women. Wakeman was found
Deborah Sampson, however, was apparently never unmasked. She served in a light infantry unit in the revolutionary war, using her brother’s name. She was sustained injuries in both her head and thighs. Fearing discovery she left the hospital before they could treat her leg, and pulled one musket ball out herself.
Presently women have a variable role in combat across the world. Women in Eritrea are estimated to make up around a quarter of all military personnel and have played a significant role in border disputes with Ethiopia, whilst in Gadhafi era Libya the man himself had a 200 woman strong troop of bodyguards. However, in UK, US, French and Australian military operations women are essentially banned from most front line duties. General Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody is the United States military’s only four star female general, and is presently in charge of Army Materiel Command; which is largely logistics. Whilst Médecin Général Inspecteur Valérie André, in the more active part of her career did pilot helicopters into Vietnam/Indochine during the conflict, this former resistance fighting neurosurgeon (oh yes, she is that cool) is unlikely to see any of her younger female officers be allowed to do the same in the near future.
This part of combat is frequently associated with women. Few people in the UK, and further beyond, would have missed out on the tale of Florence Nightingale. Indeed, if you are a resident of Derby (small city in middle England), let me assure you, you can’t get away from the wretched woman. In recent years there has been growing awareness of one of Nightingale’s contemporaries, Mary Seacole, a mixed race Jamaican born nurse who, failing to be amongst those Nightingale chose to nurse alongside her, raised her own capital to go to the Crimean front.
If you were attempting to pick an acronym most designed to amuse your front line, you couldn’t get much better than the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. A group of well to do ladies who didn’t really set First World War battlefield medicine on fire, but pave the way for those that did dig in a bit more. Feeling somewhat limited by the lack of actual on the front medicine aristocrat Ernestine Hunt founded the Sick and Wounded Corps which did go out to the front, whilst Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker made their way to the front despite the War Office. Denied the opportunity to officially go out of the acceptable parts of France, self-funded their nursing efforts on the frontline.
Whilst across the pond in the American Civil War Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton led nursing into new territory. Clara Barton, a former patents office clerk initially worked on the supply side of the war, then received permission to travel in ambulances, before finally being appointed lady in charge of Union hospitals. In her post-war career she was the first president of the American Red Cross, a woman’s suffragist and was involved in activism for civil rights of African-Americans. Whilst Clara’s contemporary, Dorothea Dix, was a health campaigner from very early on. In her youth she had been sent to England in an effort to cure a reoccurring illness, and she saw the burgeoning British mental asylum system. Convinced that a state mediated response was the way to deal with insanity, and after much to-ing and fro-ing with state authorities a bill passed congress, but failed at the president. After an investigative sojourn in Scotland she returned to be Superintendent of Army Nurses, and instigated some rather unusual rules: nurses had to be 35-50, plain, and to dress plainly. Apparently this was to prevent temptation to patients and apparently sexually ravenous doctors. However, her zealous approach to everything, led to clashes, and her eventual resignation.
As Firebrands and Fanatics
A moment of nostalgia dear readers, if I may. When I was a young slip of a girl, well less of a slip more of a lumpen collapse, there were two books which would make it onto my list of life changing books. The first was ‘Shoot the Women First’ by Eileen MacDonald, a collection of interviews with female rebels and terrorists, from the infamous Astrid Proll to lesser known ETA revolutionaries. Women fighting was no surprise to me, but this defending an ideology was a new world to thirteen year old me. So too was Martha Gellhorn’s war correspondent work, not only for the human side of the horrors, but because she was working in what was very much not a womens’ sphere. This section, is about those kind of women in wartimes. The ideologues.
Dorothy Lawrence was World War I’s Martha Gellhorn. Of sorts. She was determined to be a war correspondent. However, in those years prior to the extension of the voting franchise the might of Fleet Street and Whitehall gave a resounding no to this young girl’s request. Not to be defeated she toddled off to Paris under the guise of a tourist, since apparently going on holiday to a war zone is totally okay. Once there she managed to get a uniform, haircut, paper and a quick lesson in marching and went to infiltrate. Unfortunately she was discovered, and initially suspected to be a German spy. However, once it was established that she was not she was sent home, after having agreed to keep the infiltration a secret for the duration of the war.
She would qualify just as much for the previous section (fixers), but Edith Cavell is much better known for the way she died rather than the way she lived. Her first career was teaching, but after looking after her sick father she decided to retrain as a nurse. Highly successful at this second career she trotted off to Belgium to help establish a nursing training school. However, when war broke out she was forced to return home. Not one to stand by and wait she returned to Belgium to help at the hospital, and to help allied soldiers to safety. Understandably the Germans were a little miffed about that sort of behaviour, and when a Belgian collaborator told them she was arrested. Apparently believing in being a good sport, queensbury rules and all that sort of thing when the Germans asked her what she was up to she told them. Consequently on 12 October 1915 she was shot as a spy.
The 1857 Indian Rebellion was essentially a revolt against the British East India Company, the corporation which had been left to run the country on behalf of the crown. Lakashami Bai was the Rani (no getting excited Doctor Who fans it just means queen) of Jhansi. A relatively quiet part of India for the start of the rebellion Lakashami concentrated on keeping her region quiet, and attempting to allay fears about the British. Until March 1858, when the British came to ‘relieve’ her of her post. The Rani decided she really would rather not be relieved, and fought back. Much like that other warrior queen, Boudicca, she was sadly very unsuccessful and was killed in battle, her region being captured afterward, and the British noted her beauty and danger.
One of my fictional heroines has always been the amazing Mrs Peel from The Avengers. However, there was an even more amazing real life Mrs Peel. Andrée Peel worked as a resistance agent in Second World War France. At the start of the war she had been running a beauty salon, but once she joined the resistance she moved quickly through the ranks from newspaper delivery girl to leading a section that rescued airmen. She was captured by the Germans and initially taken to the notorious Ravensbrück camp (for female prisoners), later being transferred to Buchenwald where she was about to be shot when the Americans liberated the camp.
The Special Operations Executive was the British spying and problem causing agency and worked in a similar way to the French resistance. Didi Nearne was a wireless operator, dropped in France, captured by the Gestapo, and heavily tortured, she accidentally implicated a British businessman in the spying (presumably it didn’t work out so well for him). She was then sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, and transferred to the Silesia work camp, which she and two French girls escaped from. On the run in Germany they hid in woods until being yet again caught by the SS, and then once more escaping from them. They survived till the end of the war hiding with a priest. Lilian Vera Rolfe was another SOE operative, originally working for the British embassy in Rio de Janeiro she worked as a radio operator, but was involved in gun battles supporting the French resistance. Her commanding officer was captured by the Gestapo after the D-Day landings but Rolfe continued operating, and was herself captured. She was heavily tortured and was so ill that at Ravensbrück she was barely able to walk. Nonetheless she was executed at the age of 30.
Maria Skobtskova’s tale is less cat and mouse, but no less heroic. A twice married Russian noblewoman turned nun she and the parish priest Father Dimitri offered Jews an escape route by baptism. Upon discovery by the Nazis they were arrested and sent to camp Dora. Maria was transferred to Ravensbrück, where she died after taking the place of a Jewish woman who had been selected for the gas chambers.
Though the French Resistance is well known (even if it is only the Allo Allo pastiche version), the German resistance is lesser known, and Orli Wald was one of their members. She was imprisoned on a charge of High Treason (nobody ever gets charged with low treason I notice), and initially held in gaol. However, she was later moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and was selected to work as a functionary. This meant she assisted in the hospital, and often would support prisoners whom she knew were going to be selected for the chambers or some medical horror. Her camp experiences caused her great distress though, and as well as suffering from depression after the war, she also found that music reminded her too much of the Auschwitz-Birkenau orchestra. She died in a psychiatric unit after several suicide attempts.
Germany’s other resistance movement was the more famous White Rose movement. Led by a university professor and his students their protest, unlike most resistance movements was much more peaceable. They leafleted, scrawled graffiti and generally made their opposition toward the Nazi party known. Driven by a mixture of morality and Christian influences they wanted peace, and an end to the increasingly xenophobic legislation. Sophie Scholl was a student of biology and philosophy at the University of Munich, after working as a nursery assistant with hopes to become a teacher. She believed strongly in passive resistance and participated in the White Rose group with her brother. She, and the other five main leaders of the group, were charged with High Treason, and despite their youth were guillotined in 1943.
Better known in the history of wars is the roles women have played as the backbone of the huge war machine. And it is a huge machine. Going to war, particularly these days is no small task. You need your weapons, you need to move your troops and you need to stick them back together when the inevitable happens.
During the First and Second World Wars most of the big exploding lethal objects that chaps were flinging at one another were made by women. To the younger readership used to a world of health and safety this might sound as though the girls were having a very easy time compared to the chaps slogging it out in Ypres. However, whilst Canning Town and Chilwell were usually safer than the Somme (except on a Saturday night perhaps) working in a munitions factory was a very risky business indeed. Firstly you risked changing colour. Yes, changing colour. The girls of Leeds and Nottingham were not nicknamed canaries for nothing, as working with TNT turned their skin yellow. Seemingly amusing, and possibly hard to explain when stepping out with a boy unfamiliar with the area, this toxic jaundice was the tame end of the poisoning that many of the workers suffered. In other factories the combinations of chemicals used in the processing lead to fatal lung conditions. Rarely do the glamorous Hollywood and Elstree portrayals show the beautiful Bessie from Aintree wheezing her way through her date with her heroic Tommy. The risks of course didn’t stop with poisoning anyone who has visited somewhere like Fort Nelson on Portsdown Hill will be familiar with the dangers of filling shells. It is not for awkwardness that the shell fillers got stuck in a room by themselves. The task had got no less risky from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. In fact if anything it was much more risky since gun powder might just kill or maim the unfortunate person filling the shell, but TNT would likely take out the whole room. Which of course leads us to the biggest risk of being a munitions girl, that of being blown up. Remarkably, given how many people they killed some of the biggest disasters of military history have all but been forgotten. In London the Silvertown factory in West Ham blew up one evening in January 1917 killing 73 people, reportedly making so big a bang and so much smoke that it was visible all over London. Except in the interests of morale it did not make the news. A year later a much bigger accident, and not far from us at Arcane, the Number 6 Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell Nottinghamshire exploded. This explosion killed 134 people, but so powerful was the explosion that only 32 of the bodies could be clearly identified, and the remaining 102 were buried in a mass grave. Not all munitions factory explosions resulted in mass deaths, as the Kingsland Factory in New Jersey shows. As a result of sabotage it exploded in 1916, but thanks to the efforts of the factory switchboard operator Tessie McNamara all 1400 staff escaped.
In Britain in World War One and Two there were a plethora of acronyms flying around, and many of the initialled organisations were those for women who wished to support the war effort. A girl could join the WAF, WEC, WL, WAAC, LISC, WSOS, WFA, WNLSC, WDRC, WLA, WFC, and a whole host of other strangely named bodies. Many, such as the Land Army, Forestry Corps, Forage Corps and Land Service Corps, were concerned with making sure agriculture didn’t go to the dogs while the chaps were away. Some were a little more amorphous in their objectives such as the Womens’ Legion and Womens’ Defence Relief Corps which were volunteer organisations that ‘supported’. In practice some of the more vague establishments of the First World War became a collection of well to do ladies practicing bandaging in High Wycombe. Others however, provided a genuine support to the war effort.
The Lady Instructors’ Signals Company and the School of Signallers may have had repeated, and lengthy correspondence arguing about what their roles should be, but they certainly provided essential services.
Where women did get particularly actively involved was in the skies. The army and navy may have shied away from past history and shunned women until relatively recently, lest their feminine charms drive men crazy and compel them to go AWOL, but the newest arm of the military machine seemed unafraid of gals. Maybe they felt secure that their middle class fly boys would not be attracted to dolls who did actual work for a living, or perhaps they were genuinely progressive. Whatever the reason the air created two jobs for the girls. When the RAF was born, so too was the WRAF, making it the only part of the British Armed Forces that has always legitimately had women amongst the ranks. Though during the First World War the A was for auxiliary and they worked primarily as mechanics, by the Second World War the A became Air. However, they might have had air in their name, but they rarely reached the skies. The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary on the other hand clocked up hundreds of flying hours. Responsible for moving all kinds of planes between airfields in the UK, and sometimes to Europe, the ATA had a large compliment of female pilots from all over the commonwealth and beyond, including Americans, Polish and Chilean women. Though technically a civilian organisation these were adaptable women, having to know how to fly far more aeroplanes than many of men in the RAF would ever have to fly. Nor was it without risk. The flights may have primarily been domestic, but they were often forced to transport at night time, or along routes which they were not familiar with. Consequently fifteen of the women died in service, including Hull’s finest lady Amy Johnson.
Women have been involved in wars at all levels, and this is just an overview of the roles they have played. If you would like to find out more about this topic there are several books which may be of interest:
Kate Adie’s ‘Corsets to Camouflage’ for nineteenth and twentieth century history.
Diana Barnato Walker’s ‘Spreading My Wings’ for an aviatrix perspective.
If royal women are your thing Helen Castor’s excellent ‘She-Wolves’, which is currently on BBC Four as a documentary may be just the bag.
For fiction Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration Trilogy includes several significant female war workers, including a yellowed munitions worker.