South African Military 
History Society


The role played in war by women disguised as men was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Leslie Ayres at the 9th November lecture meeting.

Throughout history women have been present in war, although seldom have they taken part in the actual fighting. Their auxiliary services as cooks, servants and nurses have often made a material contribution to the fighting efficiency of an army. But apart perhaps from those French women who dressed in soldiers' clothes and fought in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, there are few examples of women taking part in the more martial aspects of war. When they have done so, their role has normally received little if any acknowledgement from the men alongside whom they have served. Yet there have been individual exceptions, despite the obvious problems faced by women in an all-male environment. A combination of poor hygiene and virtually non-existent medical standards have enabled a few, exceptional women to serve on the battlefields, or at sea in warships, in circumstances that would be inconceivable today. Their motives seem to have been many and varied. Some were following husbands or lovers, or escaping from them, and few can be considered to have been "lesbian" in modern meaning of that term. It is clear that most must have been attracted more to the male roles of a soldier or sailor than to the traditional domestic ones normally fulfilled by women.

For example, Francesca Scargatta, born in 1776, graduated from the Neustadt Academy in place of her brother and served as Lieutenant without discovery until pensioned off in 1801. Christian Davies, disguised as Christopher Welsh, joined Marlborough's army to find her lost husband and having found him insisted they live as brothers until the end of the campaign because she enjoyed her life as a man. She was wounded in the Battle of Donauwerth, but escaped detection until two years later when her skull was fractured at the Battle of Ramillies in 1705. After being discovered she was forced to remarry Richard Welsh before the assembled company, and was presented with a pouch of gold by Lord Hay.

Other women showed similar talent at disguising themselves as seamen. Hannah Snell, posing as James Gray, sailed to the West Indies in search of a husband who had deserted her. Ashore in Lisbon, James attracted the attentions of a local prostitute whom his friend coveted. They tossed a coin and James lost, thus avoiding a compromising situation. He became a skilled sailor and maintained his disguise by challenging his shipmates to beat him at any aspect of his calling. There are many more such cases, and there can be no doubt that many of these women displayed remarkable courage, knowing that if discovered a return to a life of drudgery would be the least of their worries.

Star wars was the subject of the main lecture given by Dr Walter Murton, who described how, since WW2, space has become a potential battlefield to add to those that already existed on land, sea and in the air.
In 1944 Germany's V2 rocket marked the advent of a new dimension in warfare. Following the allied victory, the USA and the USSR competed for the services of the scientists who had made this weapon possible. The subsequent race into space was marked by the first Sputnik in 1957, and by the moon landing in 1969. Both sides now possess massive arsenals of space weapons, and numerous other countries are following in their footsteps. The next stage in the race is to perfect a means of defence against such weapons, and this was launched by US President Reagan in 1983 as the "Strategic Defence Initiative", the SDI.

The object of this SDI, as stated by Reagan, is to destroy inter-continental ballistic missiles before they reach the ground of the US or its allies. It is planned to do this by a combination of surveillance, predominantly by satellite, and the development of anti-ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The three elements of this form of warfare are surveillance, attack/defence and battle management. Satellite surveillance includes light and infrared photography; radar; and electronic eavesdropping. Attack/defence involves inter-continental ballistic missiles and to some extent satellites, along with the means to destroy such weapons. Battle management requires the co-ordination of surveillance; identifying warheads from decoys, aiming defensive weapons and keeping targets in their sights; and kill-assessment ( that is deciding whether or not a target has been "killed", or is a "dummy death" engineered by the enemy. These functions have to be performed in a very short period of time, so robotic battle management is essential.

Those tempted to dismiss the whole concept of Star Wars as fanciful science fiction should note that the US Government appears to accept that there is a strong possibility it will occur. Numerous small countries (North Korea and Iraq are examples) bear old grudges and are willing to finance space weaponry. Meanwhile, the US is continuing in its endeavours to construct a workable Star Wars strategy. One of the first tasks facing the new president will be to decide on whether or not to proceed with the $40 billion proposal to accelerate work on the Nuclear Missile Defence project (NMD), an extension of Reagan's SDI.



14 December
CR Martin Ayres SNAFU Five(1914)
ML Colin Dean Gyroscopes in the History of Modern War
18 January
CR George Barrell The Battle of Tannenberg (1914)
ML Hamish Paterson The Wars of the Roses
Will members please note that the January 2001 meeting will be held on 18th January, the third Thursday of the month.

8 February
CR Flip Hoorweg The Last Stand of the White Bread Division
ML Robin Smith The Crimean War 1854-56


14 December
Annual Dinner

Cape Town

14 December
In recess

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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