Winifred on Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and it seems to be making a greater impact this year, following on as it does from the #MeToo phenomenon. I thought it might be an appropriate occasion for another post on artistic depictions of women in the military.

About a year ago, I posted on the topic of depictions of women in late 19th century military uniforms. In that post, I examined attitudes towards women at this time seen through the lens of their depiction in military uniforms. In particular, I showcased a cigarette card series and also a postcard series from the early 1900s by Ellanbee called “Girl Soldier”. These images were interesting because, despite being a ‘comic’ series, they (doubtless unintentionally) provided a vaguely realistic and empowering image of women in military uniforms at a time when they were not even allowed to vote.

Still on the search for this card…  a ‘Girl Soldier’ by artist Henry Ellam

I’ve been looking at expanding my modest Girl Soldier postcard collection and in the course of my largely fruitless research I recently discovered another series of postcards on a very similar theme called “A Call to Arms!”


At first sight, “A Call to Arms” closely follows the Girl Soldier theme; young women dressed in the smart full-dress uniforms of famous British army regiments of the day. However, we soon see there are significant differences.

Firstly, the series adorns its images with seductive phrases: “Won’t you take me?“, “Say when you’ll have me”, “I’m ready when you want me”, etc. They are very deliberately sexualised and seductive.

Guard your heart? This skirted female Life Guard seems to be a lover, not a fighter!

Secondly, the uniforms are not accurately depicted as with Ellam’s Girl Soldier series. The “A Call to Arms” uniforms are a mere simulacra, mimicking the uniforms yet compromised by retaining the kind of impractical dress a lady in the era of King George V would be expected to have.That Life Guard doesn’t have genuine jackboots; she as a dress dyed black where the boots should be. It all feels a little like she’s modelling a new fashion collection inspired by military uniforms.


Only the soldiers of the Scottish regiments retain a close affinity to the real articles, thanks to the kilt’s similarity to a knee-length skirt. Yet, there is more than enough detail in all her illustrations to suggest that Winifred Wimbush spent some considerable time researching the real uniforms.


It is interesting to compare the Call to Arms lancer below (of the 17th Lancer Regiment) with the Ellanbee Girl Soldier lancer (of the 12th Lancers).

Immediately noticeable is that the Call to Arms lancer wears a long skirt with a split up the side, whereas the Ellanbee Lancer of the 12th wears genuine riding breeches. The lady of the 17th has high heels; the lady of the 12th has riding boots with spurs. There’s also a difference in stance; contrast the self-confident lancer of the 12th with her far more shy and demure fellow lancer.

What is perhaps surprising, given the slightly saucy presentation, is that the artist for “A Call to Arms” was a woman. Winifred Wimbush (1884-1958) was the daughter of Henry B Wimbush, a landscape painter, illustrator and a renowned postcard artist. A website dedicated to her father, Henry, admitted that “very little is known about Winifred or her painting” but nonetheless provided a decent short biography on her. It says:

Winifred, Henry’s eldest daughter was the only one of his children that followed him into a career as a professional artist.

Henry B Wimbush’s Flower Girl – Winifred reportedly was the model.

This picture the ‘Flower Girl’ which appeared as the frontispiece in ‘The Channel Islands’ by Edith Carey published in 1902, was painted by Henry and it is reported that Winifred was the model. She would have been around 16 years of age when the picture was painted and this may have encouraged her interest in fashion along with her talent as an artist.

1916 photo of Winifred Wimbush aged 32 during the period when she was actively painting postcards.

Winifred painted 9 different sets of postcards that were published by Raphael Tuck.
Several of the sets were loosely ‘propaganda’ cards for the 1st World War and would probably have been published between 1914 -1916.

And these propaganda postcards were entitled “A Call to Arms”.

Series 8772, 3, 4 were published as Oilette’s and generally showed regimental uniforms, often worn by girls and bearing the heading A call to arms. The border showed the red, white and blue of the union flag.

There’s no doubting that Winifred Wimbush was a talented artist. Her drawings are excellent. Her women are realistically proportioned and stylishly, elegantly painted. By contrast, Henry Ellam’s pleasing illustrations do seem a little more cartoonish compared to Wimbush’s artwork.

However, “A Call to Arms” does place women firmly in the submissive role that was expected of ladies in Britain at that time. They are, even in khaki greatcoats, not warriors but akin to passive models or sexually available seductresses. No doubt, as propaganda, they were painted to specifications provided to Wimbush by Tuck’s postcards and for a very specific purpose. Ellam’s confident female soldiers were supposed to be absurd and ridiculous; Wimbush’s coquettish soldiers were intended to provide succour for frightened men far from their loved ones on the front line. Neither series took the concept of women as resourceful and brave soldiers seriously despite, as my recent post on Serbian women soldiers proved, women most definitely being so at the time.

Perhaps, on International Women’s Day, I should end on a more positive, realistic female soldier image, a contemporary one that contradicts and challenges Ellam’s lampooned ‘girls’ and Wimbush’s submissive women from 100 years ago; presenting two 21st century women soldiers of the Life Guards mounted band!



Trooping the Colour and a Postcard

Some weeks ago, I posted about the depiction of women in historical military uniforms showcasing some of my modest collection of trade cards and postcards on the subject. Through my letter box has come another of my ‘Girl Soldier’ series of pre-WW1 postcards; a Life Guard!

Life Guards girl soldier (2)

This is most appropriate given that this Saturday was the day when lines of brightly coloured soldiers aren’t just seen on my painting table here at Suburban Militarism; they’re also seen on television parading for the Queen’s birthday – The Trooping of the Colour. Essential viewing for this military uniforms enthusiast!

Beats watching Game of Thrones any day, in my (eccentric) opinion.

Anyway; any viewer of the Trooping of the Colour ceremony might note that it’s not just men appearing in the parade.

The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery which is made up of nearly equal numbers of males and females. Being a ceremonial artillery unit that is mounted on horses, women undertake tasks of a mounted regiment becoming farriers, saddlers or tailors, in addition to riding the horses and operating the six 13 pounder WWI-era guns.


Certainly, the women of the King’s Troop RHA have proved themselves more than capable of performing their duties during The Trooping of the Colour. How long before we see women riding in the parade wearing the full cuirass of the Lifeguards or Blues & Royals, I wonder? Possibly in the not-too-distant future.

Girl soldier

I imagine that comic postcard illustrator Ellam would have scarcely believed it possible when he penned his “Girl Soldier” series for postcard manufacturer Ellanbee in the early years of the 20th century. It’s possible that the Girl Soldier series was intended to be absurd; ludicrous. Yet over 100 years later, women are an increasing presence in the British army latterly in combat roles and, therefore, in its ceremonial duties as well.

For now, then, the vision of a female Life Guard such as Ellam’s still remains an illustration. Or does it? Though there are no women in the Household Cavalry at present, for some time now there have been female musicians in both the Band of The Life Guards and the Band of The Blues and Royals, which come together from time to time, mounted or dismounted, as the Massed Band of The Household Cavalry and take part in the Trooping of the Colour. So the reality of the female Life Guard comes inexorably closer.

WO1 E. Freeborn, Bandmaster of the Lifeguards.
A musician in The Band of The Life Guards.

Following the appalling tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire last week, the Queen led a minute’s silence before the Trooping the Colour ceremony to remember the victims. Kensington and Chelsea council has asked the British Red Cross to help co-ordinate an appeal to support those affected and it has started an appeal to raise money. Various websites are also calling for donations, including the London Evening Standard Dispossessed fund, which has already raised over £1m. JustGiving also has a page specifically for firefighters.


Girl Soldier

Girl soldier 6
A female hussar

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.

Hannah Snell
Hannah Snell ‘in her regimentals’ demonstrating military drill in a contemporary print.

Military Maids

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.

Girl soldier 10 (2)
British Yeo(wo)manry… c. 1800?

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.

Girl soldier 7
Lancer musician playing a serpent.
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A serpent. Leicestershire Regiment collection.

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:

Gordons girl soldier
Corporal, Gordon Highlanders

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.

Girl soldier
Trooper. Royal Horse Guards

And this lady is from the 12th (Prince of Wales) Lancers, holding her bamboo lance with a natural ease.

Girl soldier 2
Trooper, 12th (Prince of Wales) Lancers

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!