As Britain marked Remembrance Sunday last week, concerns were raised about the way in which we commemorate those who have fought and died in the nation’s wars. Are we too celebratory, and at risk of glorifying war? Is it all a political exercise, used to justify restrictions on our freedoms, or the ongoing interventions in the Middle East? On the other hand, the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London have attracted thousands of visitors eager to pay their respects. Then came Sainsbury’s Christmas advert – four minutes of nostalgic recreation of the iconic Christmas day truce, culminating in the sharing of a chocolate bar which can be purchased from the supermarket chain with the proceeds going to the Royal British Legion. The public reaction has ranged from praising its charitable intentions and being moved to tears to disgust over the tasteless exploitation of the horrors of trench warfare. It is clear that, whatever our views, many of us feel strongly about the soldiers involved in both past and present wars.
The idea of the soldier as a hero, however, is a relatively new one. Graham Dawson argues it emerged during the wars against France between 1793 and 1815. Prior to this, ordinary soldiers had often been seen in a negative light. Unlike the navy, whose offshore role associated them with commerce and protection of the British Isles, the land army were mentally connected with the enforcement of tyrannical rule. Ordinary soldiers were seen as men who had sold their own liberties to serve the highest bidder. The officer class, on the other hand, were considered to be aristocratic libertines, as concerned with their own entertainment as with strategy. However, the wars against France required vast manpower to match the numbers conscripted in the new republic. Therefore, a more positive image of soldiering needed to be presented. It was in this context that pro-war propaganda began to portray soldiers as brave, chivalrous heroes, using their strength to protect those weaker than themselves. In other words, soldiers became a moral and physical ideal of masculinity in the public imagination, if not always in fact. My MA research explored the way in which women were involved with the changing impression of soldiers as mercenaries to men of honour.
Though it may seem odd to consider a masculine ideal in terms of female activity, the ‘soldier hero’ required a damsel in distress if he was to be seen as a protective force for good. Therefore, wartime propaganda depicted the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a battle for British domesticity; for the sweethearts, wives, and children threatened by French forces depicted variously as effeminate and rapacious. This image was reinforced by the ways women participated in military ceremonies and reviews. They did not just spectate, but presented the regiments with banners or tokens, sometimes accompanied by music. As troops were embodied at Ashton-Under-Lyne near Manchester in 1799, for example, the assembled local women sang a song in honour of the ‘Patriot Band, the true sons of the Land’, who ‘in armour stept forth at Britannia’s command.’ These kind of rituals added glamour to the event – which in any case would be an exciting change to the daily routine of the average town. We can see some of the excitement generated by the presence of the military in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. The two younger Bennett sisters, Kitty and Lydia, are dizzy with excitement about the militia unit stationed in Meryton, and even their sensible sister Elizabeth is in danger of having her head turned by the dashing Mr Wickham. Yet Wickham is also representative of the dangers of military men, who might quickly be moved away from an area and any commitments they might have made there. It was perhaps partly the danger associated with soldiers that made them so exciting, enabling women to feel connected to wartime bravery.
It was not just the romantic frisson around soldiers that made them glamourous. Fashionable women adapted military uniforms as a means of showing their support, with ladies like the Duchess of Devonshire proudly sporting items
such as the spencer, which closely resembled the cut and embellishments of a soldier’s red coat. There was also a market in military memorabilia – whether actual relics from the field, or accounts, prints or ceramics depicting heroes in battle.
Not all women, however, were happy to play a supporting role, but were keen to be involved in more practical levels. For some, this involved dressing as a man in order to join the fighting force. In December 1814, for example, the Manchester Herald reported the case of one Sarah Taylor. Under the name of William Roberts, Sarah had successfully disguised herself as a man until she was discovered whilst being treated for yellow fever. The newspaper commented on her skill and bravery, remarking on the wounds she had received as ‘honourable testimonials of her service.’ The newspaper reminded readers of a grand tradition of cross-dressing female soldiers, comparing Sarah to past heroines including Hannah Snell, Christiana Davies and even Joan of Arc.
For those women not inclined to fight, there were other ways to support the troops. A nationwide campaign was launched to provide soldiers with warm flannel clothing for winter. Though the needlework involved in making these garments
employed a seemingly uncontroversial female accomplishment, and despite supportive articles in the newspapers, the flannel campaign attracted considerable negative attention. In York, Jane Ewbank, a young woman active in the campaign, was disappointed by the mixed reactions of the different companies offered the flannel garments:
‘Judge Townsend’s company refused to accept any and their captain did not even vouchsafe a written answer to the Ladies but contented himself with a mere verbal answer deliver’d to the Lady Mayoress by himself with considerable marks of pique. Capt. Ellin on the contrary wrote word that all his company consisting of 75 would accept, though several of them had declared that they did not consider themselves as coming under the descriptions of persons who ought to receive from our store… Cap. Bland had the Ladies’ letter read at the head of his company, accompanied by a remark from himself, or his Serjeant “that it was expected no man would chuse to accept a gift which was considered by the Ladies as a charity” and immediately several of the men cried out “no-no-no”…’
The response in York, where the soldiers took offence at being seen as charity cases, was particularly negative, but elsewhere the flannel campaigners were mocked in satirical prints by William Dent and James Gillray. In these prints, the women organising flannel distribution are flushed, dressed in military-style fashions, and overly keen to wrestle with the men’s breeches. They are depicted as almost aggressively sexual, while the men dressed in flannel garments are more ridiculous than heroic. These negative responses to the flannel campaign show just how shaky the ideal of the soldier hero was in its early
stages, when it could easily be undermined by suggestions of dependence on charity, or what was thought of as excessive female influence. Indeed, the heightened concerns over female sexuality in the two satirical prints, as well as in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, remind us that women trod a fine line between a healthy patriotic admiration and indecent lust. In relation to female behaviour and reputation, soldiers could cease to be the protective, chivalric hero and instead become a danger.
Other women struggled to envision soldiers as heroic because for them, war brought threats more immediate than that posed by Napoleon. Trade was disrupted at the same time as taxes and food prices rose, meaning those reliant on selling goods to international markets struggled to make ends meet. The financial situation only made enlistment more tempting for men with poorer families. As the Oldham diarist William Rowbottom lamented in 1794:
‘The minister has again set up the war whoop which is a harbinger for future miserys [sic] for by the sound of the martial drum and the alluring holding in his hand a bounty from ten to twenty five Guineas per man, and pressed on all sides by the greatest necessity causes a great deal of husbands to leave their virtuous wives and darling children.’
These wives and children were then left to struggle on at home while the men went off to fight. Military policy officially permitted only six married men per company, with the rest paid as single men rather than receiving a family wage. Few women were able to accompany their husbands ‘on the strength’, and for those that did a hard routine cleaning, cooking, laundry work and nursing awaited. For the rest, there were small subsistence payments for the wives of militiamen, and only the poor rates to support those of the regulars. Though military men often did their best to provide for their families, these payments could prove inadequate as food prices more than doubled in a five year period. Economic distress fuelled disorder, which in turn might be put down by the very same troops embodied to protect the domestic population against invasion. We can sense the desperation of a woman involved in food riots in Dudley in 1795, who Lloyd’s Evening Post reported to have brandished a sixpenny loaf at soldiers attempting to subdue the protest, shouting ‘Here you —-, take this to your Officers, and tell them we want more bread for 6d.You —-, you have got my husband, and me and my children are starving’. Here soldiers were not identified with patriotism and protection, but with ongoing deprivation and oppression. In a print entitled John Bull’s Progress, we see the gradual ruin of a family as the husband, father, and main wage-earner enlists, returning to find that the family have been forced to pawn all their belongings, and do not recognise his much-diminished form. It is hard to see anything heroic here, only ongoing suffering and poverty in a family which was probably reliant on the combined efforts of all wage earners to survive.
To return, then, to the controversies over how we remember wars, we see by exploring the historical context that the way we think about the armed forces has long been contested and heavily politicised. This blog has looked at the process of creating ‘soldier heroes’ involved women during the French wars, but it should also remind us that any commemoration should remember not just those who have suffered and died on the battlefield. Sacrifice is not just for soldiers, but experienced through all those who feel the effects of war in civilian life, either through their relationships to soldiers, or through the struggles to get by in conditions created by conflict.