These women did not wear disguises. They retained their female status, but did men's jobs when the men were there to do them, or where they could do them better. Frequently these women found themselves contributing more than the men owing to their extra family responsibilities. Many found themselves, for the first time in their lives, in the role of family breadwinners.
Special mention was made of the women pilots who, often in difficult circumstances and always unarmed, ferried aircraft for the RAF; the transport drivers, mechanics and clerical workers; the anti-aircraft gunners and searchlight-operators of the women's auxiliary services; and the women air-raid personnel who played such an active role during the bombing, despite early opposition to their being employed in this way.
The emphasis was on the contribution made by women in Britain, who were not permitted to bear arms. In the Soviet Union, of course, women flew fighters and bombers, crewed tanks and fought as infantry alongside the men.
Altogether, women gained much in independence and control over their own lives as a result of their role in war.
The main lecture of the evening was given by William Lane, grandson of Jack Lane, whose self-recorded experiences during the Anglo-Boer War have recently appeared in the form of a book entitled The War Diaries of Burgher Jack Lane.
Not all those who fought on the Boer side in the Anglo-Boer War were happy to do so. Jack Lane was an Ulsterman born into a family of lawyers. He came to South Africa for his health, and was well established in the Transvaal as a trader, burgher and family man when the war broke out. Despite being in his forties, and openly dismissive of the Boer cause and its leaders, he was conscripted into the local commando and soon found himself at the battles of Modder River and Magersfontien.
He describes with pity and admiration the bravery of the Scottish regiments as he watched them charge the Boer trenches and were decimated by the rifle fire from a source they had not expected.
His open hostility to the Boer cause, and unwillingness to fire on those he regarded as his own countrymen, kept him out of the trenches at Magersfontein. Instead, he was confined to the laager and put in charge of the ammunition wagon. He was still performing this duty at the Battle of Paarderberg when the British took him prisoner. His description of life under siege at Paardeberg is a classic of its kind.
Despite his pro-British sentiments, he felt unable to renounce his burgher status and spent the last two years of the war as a prisoner in St Helena.
U570, and its captain, Kaptainleutnant Hans Rahmlow, were out of luck on 27 August 1941. They had left Trondheim, their Norwegian base, only four days earlier, and after being unsuccessfully directed against a British eastbound convoy, they were battling heavy seas with an inexperienced crew suffering badly from seasickness. They had just surfaced when spotted, and they made an easy target for the crew of the Hudson, who could hardly believe their luck.
The U-boat attempted to dive, but then resurfaced and surrendered. Its captain had been knocked out in the engagement, and its inexperienced crew had panicked. The boat was damaged, but was repairable. Its Enigma code machine was thrown overboard, but not its box, and this gave a valuable clue to the fact that the German Navy was now using four rotas instead of the previous three. U570 was towed to Iceland and thence to Britain, where it was repaired and commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Graph. Before being wrecked in March 1944 while on tow to the breaker's yard, it had made many more patrols under the white ensign than it ever had under the flag of its previous owners.
The main lecture of the evening related the famous Fachoda incident of 1898 from a French point of view. That speaker was Louis Jean Tavlet.
Most readers of history written in English have some idea what happened at Fashoda (in the English spelling) when a French military expedition to the southern Sudanese section of the Nile valley, and led by a Captain Marchand, was confronted by a large Anglo-Egyptian contingent commanded by General Kitchener. But few know of the remarkable French achievement in reaching this remote spot in the heart of Africa.
The expedition consisted of a handful of French officers, accompanied by 150 Senegalese infantry and 500 native porters. Marchand's orders were to establish a French presence in the Bahr-al-Ghazal region of the Sudan in order to give France the right to attend a conference on the Nile valley, whenever that was held. The route chosen was across the Congo, from the Atlantic coast town of Loango, overland to Brazzaville, then via the Congo, Lualabe and Oubangi rivers, to Bangui and overland to Fachoda. Departure was on 25 June 1896, and the entire journey of 5 000km took 25 months, during which the expedition had to cope with a native revolt, jungle, mountains, swamps, extreme heat and the ever-present threat of malaria. Marchand arrived at Fachoda on 10 July 1898, and Kitchener two months later.
A potentially violent confrontation between the 109 soldiers Marchand had left, and the 3 000 or so Kitchener commanded, was narrowly avoided when it was decided to await the decision of their respective governments. This came in the form of an order to Marchand (now major) to withdraw. France could not risk antagonising Britain when she needed support against the mounting threat from Germany. Marchand trekked home across Abyssinia and the Somali desert to the French-held Red Sea port of Djibouti.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
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