Columnist Col (Retd) EAS BOKHARI looks at possibilities of women in uniform.
Women are generally a weaker and domesticated sex, at least it has been thought so, though there have been instances of women showing singular dexterity and endurance while employed in warlike activities including actual operations.
All the same there are inherent physical handicaps which probably make the integration i.e. total integration of women in fighting teams almost impossible, and a stray induction in the team often adversely affects the cohesion of the team.
All the same these handicaps such as weaker upper bodies and certain unique female problems notwithstanding, women are fast making a considerable part of the armies worldwide these days, and in some current armies as much as 10 to 14 per cent of the total Armed Forces. These intake levels have been reached over a period of time and of course in certain sectors of the Armed Forces naturally the women cannot be employed without loss of efficiency and sustained success.
One can argue for and against the employment of women in the Armed Forces teams but the general consensus is that “Men are violent. The male reaction to anger is violence. It’s the ultimate violent exercise.” Some of the more experienced male fighters have often postulated “How many serial killers do you know who are female?” and “How many women commit rape?” — and then “women are much more loving than men are. It’s women and mothers who grow tired of war, if men are unchecked by women, men would destroy the world...” et al.
The exploits which have been related in the paragraphs that follow may be exceptions but these are all the same relevant and show the other side of the picture. These have been culled from the early British and US military history.
Women at arms is a somewhat emotive and controversial military topic especially when dealt with by men yet it is an important one at that. I had cherished to say a few words about this for a long time, but it took me long to get some material on this. This material is in the form of a presentation by the famous British historian Major Reginald Hargrieves, M.C. which I suppose was a lecture delivered by him in the prestigious RUSI some times in 1955. This is indeed an interesting discourse and covers a number of British and American women soldiers and their exploits at the profession of arms. And of course the term, ‘women at arms’ has been very cleverly invented by Major Hargrieves, as there is no separate military terminology for such soldiers in the military language.
This presentation is confined to what certain number of women did “without any way attempting to explain why they did what they did.” The margin for error should not be too great.
A Frenchman in the 18th Century had observed that “women hate war because they cannot ‘interfere’ in it.” Well perhaps this may pass for gallic wit, but it certainly won’t pass for history. For in one way or other women have been interfering in warfare since the remotest days of antiquity.
It is an acknowledged fact that (authority of Pliny the Elder) that a numerous corps of Amazons was present in the Siege of Troy, “and added very considerably to its asperitis.” They were of Scythian stock and very fierce in battle.”
“They kept up their race with the aid of their male prisoners, whom they proceeded to slaughter off without the slightest compunction; surely one of the most monstrous examples of ingratitude for services rendered in the whole history”. And due to this dastardly act it is scarcely surprising that as a race they gradually petered out almost unsung and unlamented.
After this we hear — and operating behind the scenes — of the women intervention during the times of Crusades. At this time a number of womenfolk accompanied men to the Holy Land and several of them fought alongside their husbands. One of these most famous doughty female warriors was Gildippe, the Flemish wife of a French Knight in the train of Raymond de Chatellon and by all known records she swung a very pretty sword indeed. Yet another Amazonian Crusader with the French Knight who took part in the Siege of Kerak against the repeated assaults of Sal-ed-Din. Here is an amusing episode about her and “In the midst of operations, however, the lady elected to get married to one of the Raymond’s knights; and Sal-ed-Din coming to hear of this happy event through his admirable intelligence service very thoughtfully suspended all warlike operations for a clear three days, so that the honeymoon should have a fair chance of getting into the stride.” Little is known about this warlike marriage after the operations. She must have been hostile domestically too.
There was perhaps little place for women (as warriors) in the mediaeval armies, though a vast number of women as Joan of Arc and Isabella of Castile followed the army train as wives and sweethearts and odd bits and pieces picked up by the army. And it appears that there were a number of these ‘odd bit and pieces’ and there are two rather lengthy paragraphs in the ‘Ordinances of War of King Henry V’ devoted to their discipline for which special Provost Marshal appointed a subordinate ‘Hurenweibel’ which can be loosely translated as ‘whoremaster.’
There is not much authentic record of women soldiers during the adventurous days of Queen Elizabeth I, although there were several women who ‘went for a sailor’ and stowed away in this era.
The earliest record of a woman who served as a soldier in the guise of a man refers to one Mrs Anne Dymoke, who shouldered a pike in the civil war Armies of Fairfax and Cromwell. “This vigorous wench was accompanied in the field by her husband... while he remained a plain ‘private centinal’, she speedily acquired the responsible rank of corporal. “The couple it is told survived the war and lived happily afterwards.
Another Parliamentary woman-soldier Willian Clarke served along with her husband. She was even more efficient than Corporal Dymoke and acquired the sergeant’s shoulder-notches, but then in the July of 1655, she had to suspend her military activities while she retired into private life to give birth to a son. Her comrades in arm, and she was very popular with them, celebrated this event with a rough and ready ballad a sampling of which is as below:
“With musket on her shoulder, her
part she acted then,
For exercising of her arms, good skill
indeed had she,
For many other practices she gained
the love of all,
Yet civil in her carriage and modest
still was she,
But perhaps one of the most notorious female soldiers served in the great Duke of Marlborough’s army and she has been immortalised by Defoe under the name of ‘Mother Ross’. Kit Cavanaugh was born in Ireland in 1667. She had a little property in Dublin, where she married a sober, frugal individual Richard Welsh.
Welsh had somehow disappeared from the scene and had been carted overseas where he was enlisted in the 1st or Royal Regiment of Foot. And the only way Kit could see him again was to herself enlist and this he went to do. Hargreaves is interesting when he writes. “After all, it was not difficult as, nowadays, it might seem. Kit was a fine upstanding creature, with a slim boyish figure, and a physique as strong as a horse. There was no question of a probing medical examination that would reveal her sex; provided that she had never been ruptured or ‘troubled with fits’, that was about all there was to it...” She soon mastered the various drill and was soon posted out to overseas.
Slightly wounded in the foot in the disastrous battle of Landen — Kit was transferred to the Scots Grey after recovery. She made the famous march to Danube with this outfit and fought in the subsequent action of Schelenburg. She took part in the Battle of Blenheim which led to the plundering of Bavaria. Kit, it appears took an enthusiastic part in this activity. She met her husband shortly after Blenheim when she walked casually in an inn and surprised her husband in the arms of another woman. Soon the husband and wife separated and served their units as well they could with Kit being more professional about her military commitments.
But soon her service with Greys was to come to an end. And at the Battle of Ramillies a stray bullet hit her and a part of her scalp was torn and while falling in the hands of the surgeons and secret of her sex was inevitably revealed and in spite of the kindness of her unit officers her discharge from the regiment could not be prevented. She was given a hatful of gold coins and a couple of dresses which she found rather difficult to manoeuvre. With her small capital she set up a business as a sutler and made the three next campaigns in this capacity.
Richard Welsh was killed at Malplaquet; but Kit did not long remain a widow for she helped herself to husbands as casually but instinctively as some folk help themselves out of other peoples cigarette boxes. After the war she was once again a widow, she accompanied the troops back to England. Marlborough received her with kindness and even presented her to the Queen. She was awarded a pension of shilling a day for life. She went to business and remarried and ran a business in hot eels and farthing pies (equivalent of present day fish and chips.) She died in 1739 and was interred with full military honours in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Westminster.
Major Hargreaves mentions three other names of Kit’s contemporaries including Yorkshire Nan who made five voyages before the mast in one of the Queen’s warships before taking her discharge. Nellie Bowden a west country lass entered the Royal Navy as a ship’s Boy at the tender age of fourteen. And when her sex was revealed she was retained in the ship’s books as ‘the Captain’s domestic’ and was given a separate quarter as a ‘sewing’ room. Yet another seafarer was Anne Mills who joined the frigate ‘Maidstone’ as a carpenter’s mate in 1740. Major Hargreaves tells us that he possesses an engraved print of this lady “arrayed in a fabulous pair of trousers, and grasping a naked cutlass in one hand and a Frenchman’s severed head in the other.”
One of the most extraordinary women ever to wear the red coat was Hannh Snell, the female marine. She had in fact been a truant from home due to an unhappy love affair she enlisted under the name of James Gray in one of the temporary regiments. Yet another misfortune landed her on a charge for which she earned a punishment of 600 lashes (subsequently reduced to 50 per cent). “For all that, it was a terrible punishment even for a man to undergo, let alone a woman. But with extraordinary stoicism the pseudo Private James Gray bore it without murmur, buoyed up, maybe, by a private determination to desert at the very first opportunity.”
She soon fled to South and arriving at Portsmouth, the lure of red coat again proved too much for her and she speedily enlisted in the 2nd Marines. Posted to the ‘Swallow’ sloop of war of Admiral Boscawen’s squadron Hannah was soon on way to India where operations against the French were in progress.
Hannah it is related played a brisk and courageous part which led to the investment and reduction of Pondicherry. She was, however, injured with wounds on her legs and groin. She was perhaps wise enough not to report to surgeons for treatment and had known much about the heavy handed attention by these surgeons. Fortescue, another eminent British historian has summed up the surgical treatment something like this. “... Trust a medico and he will kill you; don’t trust him and he will insult you... Wise men took refuge in the virtues of cold water, and kept the surgeon at a safe distance...”
Hannah could well have been found out and her sex would have been exposed, so by not reporting to the surgeons she reaped a double benefit. Her recipe for getting well is well described by Hargreaves. “...Determined that her sex should not be discovered, with the aid of a native woman, whom she bribed with a single rupee, she operated on herself, extracting the heavy leaden bullet and treating her wounds with a native salve which undoubtedly possessed astonishing curative powers...” She was cured but she developed a limp and the Marines turned up their nose at her. She was then entered as a foremast hand on the books of the ‘Tartar’ pink and later transferred to Captain Lloyd’s line of battleship —the ‘Eltham’. She took her final discharge after making several short voyages in HMS ‘Eltham’.
After her discharge she went into small business investing her small savings in an inn (which he got on lease). She named her business “The Widow in Masquerade, or the Female Warrior” which was indeed very appropriate. She also hung a picture of herself too there, attired in the full regimentals there.
She died in 1792 and had been granted a pension of (30 a year with the backing of the Duke of Cumberland. It is known that she invested in three husbands including the diarist John Knyveton. She could not get the full military honours for her burial as the Horse Guards and Admiralty were undecided about the real responsibility of her burial. All the same her portrait was given a place of honour in the Hall of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
It is generally seen that in the USA the women do as they like, and men do as they are told. With the American forces of early days, quite the most famous of the authorized camp followers was the red haired Mollie Pitcher, the wife of a soldier in the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment. “Tireless in the performance of those innumerable small chores that need to be done about a camp, she was equally ready to lend a hand in actual fighting.”
When the British forces from New York were battling their way up the Hudson, with the idea of forming a junction with ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne’s army at Albany, it was Molly Pitcher who laid and fired the last gun as the Americans evacuated Fort Clinto. At the battle of Monmouth which was fought on a particularly hot and steamy day of June, Molly was tireless in bringing water to the men in the firing line, where no fewer than 50 of the unfortunate fellows perished from exhaustion. When her husband fell desperately wounded, she first dragged him out of the line of fire, and then hastened back to serve one of the battalion guns whose crew had been severely reduced by battle casualties. Molly later conducted a protracted vendetta with the officials of the Pension Board and she undoubtedly emerged the victor.
The British too had their complement of women who marched with the cooks and were known as the ‘black guard’, besides the officer’s wives who joined them with special permission, and some had even their infant children with them.
The last quarter of the 18th century was particularly rich in women who followed the wars at sea or on land. There is the case of Mary Anne Talbot who joined the infantry as a drummer, was severely wounded at the 1793 siege of Valenciennes; deserted and after some surprising adventures aboard a privateer took service in the 74-gun ‘Brunswick’. She again became a casualty and was given her discharge. She died at the early age of 30 due to the after effects of a number of wounds suffered during active service.
And then there was the tough woman Phoebe Hessel who joined the 5th Foot in time to fight under Ferdinand of Bruswick at Wilhelmstahl in June 1762. She died at the ripe old age of 108. And of course there were a number of women present on both sides at Trafalgar.
One name which is much better known but it cannot be included amongst those who actually inflicted pain on the enemy but on the other hand did her best to lessen it was the immortal Florence Nightingale. She had spent her whole life (I mean the working life) as an army surgeon under the name of Dr James Barry.
Some of her credentials would suffice. She was born in 1795, and ostensibly a male student at Edinburgh Medical College she gained a brilliant diploma, and after a spell as regimental surgeon was posted as an army staff surgeon to the Governor of Cape Colony.
“The most skilled and conscientious of physicians, she was at the same time abominably capricious, dictatorial and cantankerous. So it is hardly surprising that she should speedily have found herself embroiled in one duel, challenged to fight another, and the central figure in a court of enquiry. Yet so admirable was her work that by 1858 she had attained a high rank, and but for her death in the year following, there is every likelihood that she would have been gazetted a Knight Companion of Bath. It was only with her death that the Horse Guards became aware that Inspector-General James Barry was actually a woman.”
The above presentation provides some instances where a few women with urgent sense of duty and longing for adventure led them not only to hazard, injury or death, but to risk exposure to mockery and humiliation. And since the First World War women were organised in a better way to take part in wars/conflicts and are not only a source of stimulus and inspiration but they can proffer immense and invaluable help. In fact in some armies they have become the integral part. To quantify, in the US forces for NATO 14 per cent i.e. some 198,452 are women. So we cannot just “kiss them all good bye.” Women must be inducted as integral part of all armies. 16th Century Thomas Nash once observed that “Woman is man’s worst bargain”. I am sure, if he were alive today, he would soon sing a different tune.