Being interested in artistic depictions of military history and uniforms, I occasionally come across images of female soldiers. I’m not referring to genuine servicewomen but instead to a certain genre of illustrations which show women in traditional military uniforms. There can be found examples of real women serving in genuine combat roles in western armies during the 18th and 19th century, Private Hannah Snell of the 6th Regiment of Foot and Marines being a good example (see below), but the illustrations I’m referring to are something entirely different.
Awareness of this topic first came to my attention when I bought a cheap set of trade cards many years ago called ‘Military Maids‘. When she saw them, my wife suggested they looked a bit creepy! She has a point; the ‘maids’ in question seem to be an unsettling mixture of the historically accurate and the suspiciously erotic. In these illustrations, one can see such examples as a beautifully drawn and entirely accurate depiction of a British 4th Light Dragoon in 1854; or a French Empress Dragoon of the Guard; or a splendid grenadier of a Swiss Napoleonic regiment.
The attention to accuracy and detail in the drawings is impressive. Tarleton and Mirliton helmets; Bell Shakos and Uhlan Czapkas; Stovepipe and Waterloo Shakos; Tricornes and Bicornes are all carefully reproduced with an expert knowledge. Furthermore, the quality of the illustrations is very high and a natural pose has been created for each soldier.
Did I say entirely accurately depicted? Not quite. Look closer and one realises that they all seem to sport exuberant perms crushed underneath their Czapkas, Shakos and helmets! They also wear high heels (a code of military dress I strongly suspect to also be inaccurate)… The neat cut of their uniforms leaves us in no doubt as to their gender, as well.
This wonderful illustration below, for example, depicts a musician from a lancer regiment holding a ‘serpent’. The serpent is one of my favourite military musical instruments, being so utterly bizarre and exotic. There’s a fine example in my local regimental museum.
However, once more I can’t quite shake the impression that it has been deliberately placed in the hands of this ‘military maid’ to ‘perform’ on entirely for its salacious connotations! I do like these cards, but the problem is that I’m not sure what the viewer is supposed to admire here. Are we admiring the fine depictions of historical military uniforms, the skilled illustrations, or the charming lasses who are wearing them? All of it?! It’s that combination of sexy pin-ups and historical military art that creates the unease that my wife quickly identified.
The Ellanbee Girl Soldier Series
I also have in my military art collection a few postcards from a series called “Girl Soldier”. So far as I have discovered, the “Ellanbee Girl Soldier Series” of postcards were produced around the early 1900s (pre-WWI) and depict women in various full-dress British army uniforms of that period. Delightfully illustrated by “Ellam”, they share with the Military Maids series a dedication to historical accuracy, as can be seen in this Gordon Highlander below:
What they don’t share is quite the same lewdness in presentation. These ladies seem altogether a little more natural and military in their bearing. No peering coquettishly over the shoulder. No high heels, heaving bosoms or tumbling perms here; the only concession to femininity appears to be a possible hint of lipstick and their slender waists – suggestive of an Edwardian-era corset perhaps?! There’s a sense that these are images of ‘girls’ who not only appreciate wearing a fine uniform but are also capable of acting with confidence and bravery in them too.
The woman depicted below is of the Royal Horse Guards and wears a fabulously haughty look, entirely suitable for one in such a prestigious regiment.
And this lady is from the 12th (Prince of Wales) Lancers, holding her bamboo lance with a natural ease.
I’m always looking to add to my modest ‘Soldier Girls’ series collection, but they seem very rare and I can scarcely find anything whatsoever on the internet about the series. I’ve previously discovered two thumbnail views of a Life Guard and a Grenadier Guard, so I’m aware that there were at least those regiments also issued. The artist I believe to be a comic postcard illustrator called William Henry Ellam. Though I can find precious little about him, he seemed to also specialise in anthropomorphic humour (animals acting in a human manner).
Presumably, the idea of these being female and yet dressed like soldiers was intended to be ‘comic’ material for the Edwardian audience, in the same incongruous way that Ellam’s cats dressed in top hats might have been viewed – charming simply for being preposterous. But I find them artistically pleasing in their own right, and it must have been an unusual (if unintentionally) empowering view of womanhood at a time when even universal suffrage had yet to be achieved.
So, if Military Maids was titillating and Soldier Girls was patronising, what does that make me? I’ll dodge the question and simply call myself an incorrigible collector of all types of military artwork!
To end with; below are more images from the Military Maids series and also a card from the Army Careers Information Office circa 1992, featuring (at that time) a more up to date and realistic image of a “girl soldier” in uniform.
Finally, an appeal: any further information on the Soldier Girls series would be gratefully received!
August 2018 Update:
Mark at Man of Tin blog has been inspired to create some imagination female soldiers in blue uniforms using some old metal figures by Wellington Toy Company. You can check it out here.
6 thoughts on “Girl Soldier”
Interesting post. This kind of thing has long been done as a propaganda / recruiting tactic There is a whole subset about the motherly / angelic / girl next door nurse figure in WW1 etc. I think they functioned as the girl I left behind me as well as early pin ups – look at the WW2 versions from nose cone art to 1940s reenactor singing groups today, all stress curves in sort of uniform. A surprise as its very very different from the baggy coverall drab and functional real women’s services uniforms that were around in WW1 and WW2. Not far off your last postcard of nursing and modern Battle dress …
Mark, Man of TIN blog
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Thanks for the link! A very peculiar series of postcards there, it is hard to tell that they are female underneath those large caps and oversized coats! My Soldier Girl postcards were definitely pre-WWI (one is date stamped on the back 1907), but the Military Maids series I have little info on other than it was produced (or re-produced) by a shop in Spalding. You have definitely pointed me on to further research in a new direction…
Thanks and best wishes, Marvin.
There are plenty of fantasy miniatures based on this kind of Military Miss. In fact the few clips I have seen of Game Of Thrones suggest that Valkyrie type women warriors are the in thing.
I know there has been some comment on this area in various forums when such Military miss cards are turned into overshapely or hyper-sexualised gaming figures, hence the counter ranges stocked or created by Annie at Bad Squiddo Games (formerly the Dice Bag Lady) – lots on the Meeples and Miniatures podcast interviews with her about this.
I read a superb book by Kate Adie called From Corsets to Camouflage about this whole area of women in the military. Should be available secondhand.
I dimly recall seeing something of this in college productions of Princess Ida by Gilbert and Sullivan (a stalwart production of such college societies as a G & S satire on the crazy idea of women’s higher education, suffragism etc) and a song called Death to The Invader, lampooning the idea of women soldiers. Plenty of clips of this on YouTube as its a good chance for costume designers to design shapely women soldier outfits.
There is also a gaming Miniature subculture of this “sexy soldier lady figures”, mentioned in the Harry Pearson memoir Achtung Schweinhund. I remember marvelling at the prices in the back pages of Eighties Military Modelling charged for grown up collectors kits and military miniatures including the “sexy soldier lady kits” from Phoenix Follies etc. It all seemed very adult and very expensive when I was busy trying to work out how many more Peter Laing Fifteen millimetre figures I could afford that month with my pocket money.
Each to his own …
Good luck with your researches!
Mark, Man of TIN blog
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Thanks so much, that’s great info. I have a copy of Achtung Schwienhund which I’ll have to dip into again as I don’t recall that lady figure section. Lots for me to check out, thanks again – much appreciated!