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!
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 Trooping the Colour ceremony at Horse Guards Parade, central London, as the Queen celebrates her official birthday.
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.
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.
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.
4th Light Dragoons, c.1854
Empress Dragoons, c.1815
Swiss Regiment, c.1812
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!