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Ladies in re-enactment

Ladies in re-enactment

Recently I was looking back through some files relating to re-enactment events I have visited and I began looking at the dates. I was surprised to see just how far back some of these went and I discovered that I have been writing about re-enactment events and activities for 20 years; they say that time flies when you are having fun, and I must have been enjoying myself immensely because I did not realise it had been that long. That track record, though, is down to all the re-enactment groups and your high standards of presentation.

During those 20 years I have seen new groups form and watched the families of re-enactors as they grew up. I have also seen many changes and developments in the way which events are presented. If I was asked what is the most outstanding change I have seen in that time I would have to say the role of female re-enactors. Twenty years ago most female re-enactors had very little to do in the way of keeping themselves occupied, as the men marched off to fight the battle. For example, when depicting the medieval period, ladies were either high-status with finery or lowstatus peasants looking after children. The Napoleonic Wars were a little better as the ladies could depict camp followers, but it still left them to do the cooking, and they were still largely relegated to sitting by the camp fires. This was repeated among the groups depicting American Civil War.

But this need not be the case, and ladies are now moving forward to become more active in many aspects. The pages of history contain many well-documented examples of women who have disguised themselves as men to join the army and serve as soldiers. For example, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo the body of a dead French cavalryman was discovered to be a woman.

Another woman who served in the French army at the time was Angelique Brulow, and she was not the only one. In the British army during the Crimean War, James Miranda Barry held a senior position in the Medical Depart and her sex was not discovered until after her death. During the American Civil War perhaps as many as 250 women served in the ranks of the Confederate army. The names of some, such as Mary Galloway and Rosetta Wakehman, are recorded for posterity.

Fighting Females

With such proven examples, seeing women on the re-enactment battlefield today is not out of keeping. Indeed, there are ladies whose skill with a sword is equal to, if not better, than many men and their ability with musket, from English Civil War to Napoleonic Wars, is first-rate. Some march into battle beating drums and their stamina is like a top athlete. Rather than being a hindrance these ladies actually set standards for others to follow. At events where horses are part of the display, many of the riders are actually female re-enactors. This applies from English Civil War through all periods to WWII with female riders depicting mounted Russian Cossack troops.

Re-enactment depicting early periods of history, such as medieval, require specialist dress and for this reason many groups make their own outfits. The templates or patterns for the design can be obtained from traders at re-enactors markets such as The Original Re-enactors Market (www.reenactorsmarket. co.uk) which specialise in early periods. The next market will be held in March 2016 at the Sports Connexion, Leamington Road, Ryton on Dunsmore, CV8 3FL. Another good event for traders specialising in early periods of history is the International Living History Fair (www.livinghistoryfairs.co.uk) where textiles, leather and other items are available. The next event will be held on 2nd-3rd April 2016 at the new venue of Cressing Temple Barns, Witham Road, Braintree, Essex, CM77 8PD. Material to make uniforms for Napoleonic and American Civil War is available at these events as well as Victorian army.


A Woman’s World

There are female re-enactors who are quite happy to sit in the camp and engage in delicate, feminine activities whilst everyone else is away engaged in a display. There are ladies who enjoy cooking in the style of their chosen period and like talking about the methods and recipes. Similarly, there are those who march onto the battlefield. In other words, it is down to personal choice.

There are ladies who serve as gunners to make up the crew of the weapons just as recorded in the 15th and 16th centuries. Cannons could be owned by a family and they would all hire out their services as mercenaries for payment. There are examples of women organising garrisons of castles during sieges, such as Lady Blanche Arundell who defended Old Wardour Castle in Wiltshire when attacked by a force of 1300 Parliamentarians in 1643. Her defence is often recreated by the Wardour Garrison (www.wardourgarrison.co.uk) when they take part in Civil War weekends at the site. Whilst there are many such accounts of women being involved in battles, it is not until the 20th century that their role in the military really becomes recognised and they are issued with proper uniforms.

During the First World War the role of women was mainly as nurses, but the Royal Navy established the Women’s Royal Navy in 1917, however it was disbanded in 1919. The service was reformed in 1939 and today women serve on warships. The US Navy also allowed women to join the force in 1917 and other countries followed the lead. Ladies were often seen with French troops during conflicts such as the Crimean War, known as Cantinieres, wore a smart uniform and tended the wounded.

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By the time of the Second World War, the role of women in the armed forces expanded greatly and their numbers increased. Women served in the army, navy and air force and in the British army there were ‘mixed’ batteries of men and women serving in anti-aircraft units. Women served as drivers, codebreakers and many other roles, including spies such as Odette Hallowes and Violette Szabo who were awarded the George Cross. These ladies came from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry which was raised in 1907 and members served in WWI.


Get the Gear

Original women’s uniforms from this period are scarce and when available can be expensive. Other than special displays, these uniforms are hardly ever worn. Instead reproduction copies are worn at events to depict the role of women. Uniforms from WWII are available for all branches, but some, such as the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service remain scarce. For this reason, along with price, female re-enactors wear reproduction uniforms which are made to the very highest standard and look authentic.

One of the easiest types to recreate is the Women’s Voluntary Service and uniforms are available from several outlets. One of these companies is Appletree Lane which offers a range of women’s uniform including fire service, ATS, WAAF, WRNS and the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Timber Corps. The company offers a hire service for special events, full details of which can be found at the website: www.appletreelane.co.uk.

The Keighley-based company of ‘Stand Up Hook Up’ in West Yorkshire offers a very good line in Women’s Land Army uniforms and these can be purchased either online or by visiting the trade stand at events such as War & Peace Revival. SUHU can be contacted by telephoning 01535 646 719 or emailing [email protected]. The website can be seen through www.milweb.net.

Based in Denbighshire in North Wales, the company Soldier of Fortune specialises in providing reproduction uniforms for reenactors. The company offers an extensive range of female American, British and German uniforms for all services. They have Voluntary Aid Detachment from WWI, and all the usual WWII uniforms such as WAAF and WLA, along with all the badges and other ancillary items, including bags and shoes. The company has trade stands at the larger events such as W&PR, but items can be bought online and the latest catalogue can be downloaded from the website at: www.sofmilitary.co.uk.

Another company specialising in reproduction uniforms for re-enactors is Epic Militaria, based in Aberystwyth in Wales, but at present they have only a limited range of items for women. However, when I contacted them recently I was informed they are hoping to expand their range for ladies. When I spoke to them they said they were beginning to investigate supplying items for various depictions and will make an announcement when they are ready. Epic Militaria attends various events and it is worth seeking out their trade stand. Alternatively, you can visit the website and sign up for the company newsletter free of charge which will notify you immediately of any developments. This is a great way of keeping informed and the website as at www.epicmilitaria.com.


Leading Ladies

Female re-enactors may still be a minority group within the pastime, but their presence really turns heads and people take notice of them. The Russian Army of WWII had female soldiers in the ranks and re-enactment groups such as the 2nd Guards and 13th Guards put on displays at events such as Tankfest and Military odyssey. The level of realism is always very high and women are involved at all levels. Some wear skirts but others wear trousers just as we see in wartime photographs.

Moving into post-war history we see more and more women involved in groups such as Iraq and Northern Ireland. In these settings they are more prominent, driving vehicles, operating radios and serving as medical staff. Women are currently taking on more roles in the armed forces around the world and continuing the tradition set by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Russian sniper in WWII, and the Russian women pilots who were known as ‘The Night Witches’by the Germans. The list goes on and seeing female re-enactors depicting such ladies is a fitting tribute to their memory as all re-enactment is to other subjects. The Northern Ireland display seen at War & Peace Revival often includes female members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, known as ‘Green Finches’, standing on sentry duty and looking very prominent. Their presence serves to remind us that four Green Finches were killed in 18 years between 1974 and 1992 during the Troubles in the Province.

All I can say, is congratulations, ladies, and long may you continue to enjoy yourselves and expand on your displays.

In a closing note, another point I have noticed over the past 20 years since I began reporting on re-enactment is the increase attendance by the general public at events. Comparing photographs from then and now, I can see how numbers attending events have risen, which can only be attributed to the high-standards established by groups and the diversity of their displays. Well done everybody and here’s to many more years of re-enactment yet to come. Who knows what heights you’ll scale…