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Crimea to Afghanistan — The Real Lives of the Women Behind the Men in Uniform

by Midge Gillies

(London Times)

One of the most memorable scenes in The Junior Officers' Reading Club, Patrick Hennessey's excellent 2009 memoir of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, is of a young soldier coming home on leave. Hoping to entertain his family, he shows them a video montage of his life at the front. He anticipates praise, delight. What he gets instead is appalled horror at the images of young men swearing and killing their way across the screen. As the films The Hurt Locker and, recently, Krigen have shown, for men trained on sophisticated weaponry, fighting among civilians, the distance between the field and home is almost unbridgeable, and the trauma of these wars does not end with the completion of a tour of duty. As Hennessey wrote, no one wanted to be a "scotch drinking, night spoiling, glass smashing, relationship bashing cliche" on their return, but in practice it was hard not to drink oneself into oblivion. No civilian high could ever quite match chasing the Taliban.

Hennessey's wars were far removed from those described by Midge Gillie in the first section of Army Wives. Margaret Campbell Hannay, one of her doughtier characters, arrived in India in the mid-1820s with her husband, a lieutenant in the 50th Regiment Native Infantry. Accompanying him on marches through landscape she described glowingly in letters home, she faced down wolves, robbers and wild tribesmen, taught the young orphans in the regimental band to read, and kept an otter and a parrot. 'It is quite possible,' she wrote to her mother, 'for a Lady to exert herself in this country'. Wives of officers travelled with their own furniture: Chippendale produced field sofas that turned into four-poster beds, the Army & Navy Stores had a catalogue of useful army items that ran to 1,000 pages, and Harrods boasted that it could pack for 'Head, Mule or Camel Loads'.

Fanny Duberly was another early army wife who delighted in her status, claiming to be the only 'lady' to witness the Crimean War at first hand. Fanny kept a frisky horse, charmed junior officers with her flirtatious manner and, when prevented by Lord Raglan from following her husband, disguised herself as a man in inexpressibles (trousers) and went along. She watched the Battle of Balaclava through lorgnettes from her horse and fainted during the Charge of the Light Brigade. Fanny was not altogether liked. Other wives called her 'the vulture' on account of her habit of prowling predatorily across the battlefield after the fighting was over.

As the wives of officers, Fanny and Margaret were cosseted. Nell Butler, the wife of an Irish private, arrived in Crimea with all her belongings wrapped up in a single blanket. If officers had huts, ordinary soldiers and their wives often lived in tents the size of kennels, or in caves in the rocks. As casualties mounted, Nell was dragooned into nursing, tearing up her petticoats for bandages.

The Crimean War was the last in which wives accompanied their men to the front. Once women are trapped at home, or on army bases far from the fighting, Gillies’s book becomes more of a social history of military family life, charting the changing perception of the ordinary soldier from drunken ne’er-do-well to Christian warrior. She draws extensively on diaries and more than 8m letters, sent home from the Western Front in the First World War, sorted in a huge office covering five acres of Regent’s Park. Her trawl provides entertaining copy, invaluable for social historians.

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