July 2023

Noted

Sarah Percy’s ‘Forgotten Warriors’

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘Forgotten Warriors’
A history of women’s overlooked contributions to wartime combat and the disempowerment delivered under the guise of chivalry

Forgotten Warriors (John Murray) is the work of an Australian historian called Sarah Percy. Sarah? Women don’t write military history; Jane, of Jane’s Battleships and Jane’s Fighting Ships was not a girl. The clue here is in the subtitle: A History of Women on the Front Line. This illuminating book, or archaeological site, could only have been written/excavated by a woman. It is not Percy’s intention to dismantle or discredit military history, but to enlarge it. She does this by writing in the women, sifting through the dust of the past and holding what she finds up to the light.

She begins on the Swedish island of Björkö and concludes with those contemporary sites of despair, Ukraine and Russia. The stern philosophical and moral structure that Percy builds upon is the greater history of women’s capability – capability for an individual to choose what to do in life. The ability to choose means that life can be lived with some dignity. Conventional military history insists that women were incapable of combat and needed male protection, although we have always known about the exceptions: Amazons, Boudicca, Jeanne d’Arc, women fighters in the Vietnam War. And we all certainly need to know about Rani of Jhansi. But these women were not as rare as we believed and there are myriad reasons for this, beginning with the military machine. Understanding how keeping women out of combat was part of the playbook of patriarchy isn’t just important in historical terms. There is a strong link between authoritarianism and the suppression of gender equality. A military historian once wrote:If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.” That was only 30 years ago.

In the 1870s, Björkö was discovered to be a significant Viking settlement. There was one grand burial chamber housing a great warrior, buried with his weapons, two horses and fine garments including an unusual tasselled cap. In 2017, it was confirmed that this prominent warrior was not a man but a woman. The implications of this – a high-status woman Viking warrior – rattled around the world at a time when feminist issues, MeToo, were, once again, front page. Historians were alert to wider questions. How did this woman’s history dissolve?

The central section of Forgotten Warriors details the battlefields of Europe from 1500s to the end of the 19th century. If we have had any idea of these armies and soldiers and battles, we probably got them from fiction (Tolstoy and Thackeray spring to mind), and we have been misled. Women were not exclusively camp followers. They actively engaged in warfare – some were combatants, others were critical to maintaining weaponry and animals, finding the crucial water that cannons needed between shots. They were in the thick of it. As were the aristocratic women in the English Civil War defending their houses with superbly practical applications of combat. In the last century, there were the stories of Nancy Wake and Violette Szabo. Not women who were forced into combat, but women who fought alongside men and led them into battle.

Then there is Russia. Soviet women were at the heart of fighting in World War Two. The crackest of the crack air teams was a group dubbed by Germans the “Night Witches”, who flew 24,000 missions. All women. At one stage of the war there were more women in the Russian military, in every sphere, than there were soldiers in the entire American army. But the longer Russian story is as traditional as anywhere else in the world, and the military history of these women dissolved as quietly as the warrior of Björkö.

Magnificently researched, Forgotten Warriors opens up and heightens intellectual landscapes. The military might be seen as the most visible display of the highest of human virtues: courage, leadership, fortitude – qualities that enable former personnel to move into every field of power, often politics. But here, exactly here, women were not considered equal. Under the guise of protection and chivalry, women were disempowered. Percy’s passionate words say it best: “the combat exclusion provides us with the clearest imaginable illustration of how the patriarchy works”.

The concept of the military as an exclusive band of brothers – the notably American concept – has become fortified over the past half century, but Percy’s revelatory script upsets everything we have learnt, directing us to re-learning. It could not be more timely.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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