Soldaderas

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All the armies of the Mexican Revolution were accompanied by women. As no side had professional support units, the work of female camp followers was vital to provision the troops and to provide logistical support. Many women, however, also took up weapons and joined the fighting.

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According to one newspaper reporter, in 1913 there were around 200 female soldiers scattered in all warring factions. Some were wives or daughters of soldiers; others were outlaws who had joined the various revolutionary bands. If they proved themselves in battle, they could rise through the ranks, as indeed many did.

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Female soldiers can already be found in the early phase of the revolution among the Maderistas and Orozquistas. Rosa Bobadilla, who commanded a cavalry unit in Morelos, became famous, as did ‘La Coronela’ Carmen Parra, who participated in the first battle of Ciudad Juárez in 1911. After Victoriano Huerta had seized power in 1913, the federal army was increased by forced recruitment of men as well as women. While the women were mainly employed in supporting roles, many ended up on the battlefield.

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The machismo of Pancho Villa did not care for an active role for women, and Villa tried to ban soldaderas from his army. However, even among his troops, contemporaries witnessed women on horses, equipped with rifles and cartridge belts. One of them was Petra Herrera, who first fought under a male disguise and participated in several battles. Later, she raised her own all-female unit and changed side to Carranza. The Zapatistas also had several female fighters in their ranks. One of them, Maria de la Luz Espinosa Barrera, rose to the rank of colonel and was described as a woman who “smoked, drank, gambled, and feared no man”.

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How did they look? There is ample photographic material on the Mexican Revolution and we have many contemporary images of Soldaderas. From those pictures and descriptions in books and newspaper articles, we learn that some women retained their traditional costumes and wore dresses. Most of those who took up a combat role, however, seem to have donned male clothing, such as the khaki uniforms used by the Federal troops. In any case, the cartridge belts across the chest, which have become such an iconic piece of equipment for the period, can be found on almost all of the images of female soldiers.

What figures are available?

In 28mm Gringo40s offer several Soldaderas in their Mexican Revolution range. Those are very nice figures and they even include some unusual poses, such as the woman throwing a dynamite stick.

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My Gringo40s Soldaderas.

Old Glory have a pack of Mexican camp followers which contains 15 figures in five poses. They paint up nicely and go together well with the women offered by Gringo40s.

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My OldGlory Soldaderas.

In 20mm, Early War Miniatures offers a pack of Soldaderas.

15mm is badly served for the period. Only Peter Pig have some armed Mexican women in their Wild West range which might work at a pinch.

 

Bibliography

Fuentes, Andrés Reséndez: “Battleground Women: Soldaderas and Female Soldiers in the Mexican Revolution,” The Americas 51 (1995), 525-553.

Poniatowska, Elena: Las soldaderas. Women of the Mexican Revolution, El Paso, Texas: Cinco Puntos Press 2006.

Salas, Elizabeth: Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History, Austin, Tx.: University of Texas Press 1990.

The Cavalry Maiden

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In 1806, 23-years old Nadezhda Durova ran away from home and joined the cavalry in order to escape the “sphere prescribed by nature and custom to the female sex”. Durova was the daughter of a Russian hussar officer and was brought up among soldiers. She was a very able rider and had her own horse, Alcides. At first, she attached herself to a troop of Cossacks, who were marching to join the army on its way to the Prussian campaign against Napoleon. When they arrived at Grodno near today’s border to Poland, she officially joined a Polish Uhlan Regiment under the name of Aleksandr Sokolov. She saw action in several battles and once saved the life of an officer, who was threatened by enemy Dragoons:

“Instantly I rushed toward them with my lance tilted. I can only suppose that this scatterbrained audacity frightened them, because in a flash they abandoned the officer and scattered.”

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Her autobiography describes several battle scenes, but even more interesting are the details on everyday life of the cavalry. There are fascinating passages on exercises, setting up sentries, foraging and the social life of officers and enlisted men.

Perhaps the most astounding episode of Durova’s life is her unmasking. Her close companions gradually became aware that she was a woman, but as she had proven herself to be a good and reliable soldier they didn’t care. However, she had written a letter to her father, telling him where she was. Her father immediately started an investigation and Czar Alexander I took a personal interest in the story. He collected reports from Durova’s superiors and in late 1807 finally summoned her to St. Petersburg. Confronted by the Czar himself, she admitted to being a woman but begged him to allow her to stay in the cavalry. Alexander not only presented her with the Cross of St. George for saving an officer’s life, but also promoted her to lieutenant in the Mariupol Hussar Regiment.

Durova served in the cavalry for several more years and took part in the Battles of Smolensk and Borodino. However, being a woman in disguise hurt her chances of promotion and she retired from the army in 1816. In her later years, she became a writer and published not only her diary under the title The Cavalry Maiden, but also several novels.

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Durova’s exploits would make exciting skirmish games. What miniatures are available?

As she was in disguise, the most ‘historically correct’ variant would be to just use an Uhlan figure and declare her to be Durova. However, this may be a bit dull from a wargamer’s perspective. For 28mm, there is the option of putting one of The Dice Bad Lady’s spare female heads on an appropriate figure. A dedicated female hussar is presumably available from Elite Wargames and Models, but I was unable to get any further information – please contact elitewargamesmodels@gmail.com if you want to know more.

Bibliography

Durova, Naděžda A.: The cavalry maiden. Journals of a Russian officer in the Napoleonic wars, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1988.

 

Susan Travers of the French Foreign Legion

Logo_smallSusan Travers was born into a wealthy English family and spent most of her youth in southern France. After she finished school, she led the life of a socialite, travelling around the world as a semi-professional tennis player.

When World War 2 broke out, she wanted to contribute to the war effort. Being able to drive a car, she ended up as an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force on their way to Finland. After the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, she escaped back to England, where she joined de Gaulle’s Free French. During the Syrian campaign, she worked as a driver for a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Légion Étrangère. From there, she accompanied the Foreign Legion to Dahomey and the Congo to finally end up in the Western Desert campaign in North Africa.

Susan Travers in North Africa.
Susan Travers in North Africa.

Having formed friendly relations with officers of the Foreign Legion, she was assigned as the driver of General Pierre Koenig. Over and over again, she proved her skills at the steering wheel, chauffeuring Koenig when he led the so-called ‘Jock Columns’, two- or three-day long reconnaissance missions with a motorized convoy of troop transports, cannons and Bren Carriers. In her autobiography, she describes the dangers of such missions:

“More than once we nearly got caught and I had to drive the general to safety, fleeing from enemy fire at great speed or hiding in a dried-out wadi as the German or Italian tanks rolled by.”

When Koenig was tasked to occupy and hold Bir Hakeim, a desolate former oasis in the middle of nowhere, Travers refused to leave the area with the other women and stayed for what was to become one of the most dramatic actions of the Desert War. The attack was planned by Rommel, who estimated that it would take about 15 minutes to overrun the position of the 1st Free French Brigade. In the end, the defenders held out for almost four weeks against attacks from Italian and German forces. When the situation finally became untenable and ammunition was running out, Koenig decided to make a daring sortie and lead his troops through the German cordon back to the British lines.

Travers standing in front of the staff car, with Koenig looking out at the top.
Travers standing in front of the staff car, with Koenig looking out at the top.

On 10 June, Travers drove Koenig’s staff car, her trusty Ford Utility, with Koenig and Lieutenant Colonel Dimitri Amilakhvari of the Foreign Legion in the passenger seats. She headed through mine fields and German gun emplacements, dodging potholes, mines and bullets.

“Avoiding a car burning fiercely in front of me, I roared on across the minefield, heading straight for the tracer fire, not having time to think or even be afraid. In fact, by this time I was exhilarated. It was an amazing feeling, going as fast as I could in the dark towards what looked like a mass display of beautifully coloured fireworks dancing towards me, bringing what seemed like almost certain death. This was what I had come for – to feel what it was like to be a man, in the very heat of battle. […] The stalled convoy, seeing us get through, followed my lead, jerking their engines into life again. I drove at the tracer fire ahead of us as if the car were the bow of a great ship, parting a sea of bullets.”

When Travers later inspected her car, she found 11 bullet holes and severe shrapnel damage.

Koenig’s manoeuvre succeeded: He managed to get 2.500 of his men out of the German encirclement and into the safety of the British positions. The Battle of Bir Hakeim was hailed as a great coup and signalled the combat readiness of the Free French Forces.

Susan Travers went on to work as a driver for the rest of the war, conducting ambulances, trucks and even a tractor for anti-tank guns.

“The vehicle was much easier to handle, but its cargo meant it was far more dangerous to drive. It was my job to manoeuvre it into position, unhook it, turn round and go back for the next. There was a fair amount of shelling whenever I appeared because the Germans were very keen to knock me out before I got the cannon into position.”

After the war, Travers officially joined the French Foreign Legion and served as an Adjutant-Chef in Vietnam. She was decorated with the Légion d’honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire.

How to represent Susan Travers on the wargaming table?

Travers standing beside Koenig’s staff car would make a nice vignette, for example as a Jump Off Point for Chain of Command – which, incidentally, is what I intend to make. Unfortunately, I could not yet find a suitable figure.

A conversion, however, wouldn’t be all that difficult. In 28mm, Perry Miniatures offer a great selection of 8th army figures. Just chose an apt pose and replace the head with one of the female heads with berets offered by Bad Squiddo Games.

The same goes for 15mm. 8th army figures are available from, for example, Peter Pig or Battlefront. Separate heads with berets are available from Peter Pig.

Bibliography

Travers, Susan: Tomorrow to be Brave, New York: Free Press 2000.

Broche, François: Bir Hakeim (mai-juin 1942), Paris: Perrin, 2012.

 

Germanic Warrior Women

Logo_smallFor the Romans, ethnographic observations were often a by-product of campaigning. All the more is it noteworthy that Roman historians repeatedly delve into descriptions of the warlike nature of Germanic women.

The most common involvement of women in combat seems to have been in the defence of the wagon fort. Germanic tribes used laagers to protect their baggage and sometimes also as a defensive tactic in itself. For example, at the battle of Adrianople (378 AD), the Goths formed up behind a circular ring of wagons.

A Celtic Laager by Nick Speller and Simon Miller, made to be used for Simon's To The Strongest rules - visit his blog to find out more!
A Celtic laager by Nick Speller and Simon Miller, made to be used for Simon’s To The Strongest rules – visit his blog to find out more!

When an army was beaten and the enemy moved against the wagon fort, the women and sometimes even the children entrenched there often put up a fierce fight. Plutarch writes about one of Caesar’s battles against the Helvetians:

“After a long and hard struggle he routed the enemy’s fighting men, but had the most trouble at their rampart of waggons, where not only did the men themselves make a stand and fight, but also their wives and children defended themselves to the death and were cut to pieces with the men.” (Plutarch, Life of Caesar 18)

Scenes like this seem to have happened often, as they can be found in several sources. This of course if not surprising if one considers that surrender would have meant slavery at the best.

Apart from their role as a last-ditch defence, at least among some tribes women also seemed to have had an active role on the battlefield. Cassius Dio, in his Roman History, describes “women’s bodies in armour” found among the corpses of the “barbarians” after a battle Marcus Aurelius won against the Marcomanni, a Germanic tribe. Marcus Aurelius also had ten women in male armament, who had been captured among the Goths, in his triumphal procession.

Intriguingly, apart from written sources, we also have archaeological evidence for Germanic warrior women. In an overview of bog corpse finds, the archaeologist Alfred Dieck drew attention to several female bodies found with weapons. For example, among eight bodies found in a site in Germany and dated to around 350 BC, three were young women equipped with shield, sword, spear and bow. All of them had died of wounds that indicate combat injuries. Corpses of women dating to the Roman imperial period have been found which were dressed and armed like men and which had been killed by sword thrusts. Dieck relates another find of spear- and sword-carrying women killed in combat from the 3rd century AD to the Goths in Marcus Aurelius’ triumphal procession, providing archaeological corroboration to the historian’s description. All in all, Dieck’s list contains twelve such finds up to the 6th century BC – who knows how many more might turn up?

Lots of reasons to include women into the Germanic hoards and warbands that make such a colourful sight on the tabletop. Fortunately, figures are available in 28mm as well as in 15mm.

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In 28mm, Warlord have a splendid back of female Celtic Warriors, containing eight figures in different poses and armed with spears and swords. Crusader Miniatures also has a pack of skirmishing women and children which would be very useful for defending that wagon fort. The Boudicca models offered by Bad Squiddo Games would make fine leaders.

In 15mm, the Warrior Women of Erin range of Trey Corbies Miniatures offers a good choice of appropriate figures. Some of the slave revolt figures from Donningon might also be useful to fill the ranks or to defend a wagon fort.

Bibliography

Bruder, Reinhold: Die germanische Frau im Lichte der Runeninschriften und der antiken Historiographie, Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter 1974.

Dieck, Alfred: “Germanische Kriegerinnen: Literarische Erwähnungen und Moorleichenfunde,” Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 5 (1975), 93-96.