Women at war

Throughout history war and fighting have been seen as a man’s domain, however this is not true as women through the ages have always been involved in wars, battles and sieges. Perhaps the most common occurrence when women would take part in battles was when their home, castle or village was under threat. A lady in medieval days was expected to take charge in her husband’s absence. Some women like Boudiccia, Joan of Arc and in South Africa Mantantisi successfully led armies into battle, throughout history there have been cases of women disguising themselves as ordinary soldiers or sailors so that they could take up arms, some of the fiercest or cruellest warriors through the ages have in fact been of the fairer sex.

While browsing through the internet looking for information on the 1914 rebellion, I came across an interesting article regards women and the Boer war, this got me to thinking about the Boer women that survived the Second war of independence by hiding in local caves as well as those of the fairer sex who stood up against the might of the British Empire and in many cases bore the brunt of Britain’s inability to be able to defeat the Boer “bittereinders”

I had seen a photo in a book about the Boer war of a woman that was posing with rifle and Bandolier and decided to send a e-mail to the Boer war Museum in Bloemfontein to ask if in fact there had been women fighting alongside the Boers, I was pleasantly surprised at the prompt response on the subject from senior researcher, Elria Wessels.

Question: Please could you advise were i could find information regards South African women who fought with Commando's in the Boer war, i also heard that there was perhaps in the Ladysmith area a Commando of just Boer women.

Response: This is a myth that has been busted time and time again. The women on the Natal front were visitors as there was nothing prohibiting such a visit. The origins of the myth can be traced back to the siege of Ladysmith. Colonel Parsons wrote to his wife that two Boer women were killed in action According to him one was in a trench with her husband as she was an excellent shot. According to Parsons Major Paget had found a bloody corset full of bullet holes in one of the abandoned Boer laager. A similar story to that of Parsons was published in the Natal Witness and the Cape Argus of 1 March 1900. According to the correspondent a nineteen-year-old housewife had died as a result of the wounds she had received in the trenches. In Barton’s Diary of the Boer War the same story is repeated: “we saw a young woman, who was seriously wounded, with her left breast shot away and a kid dead in her arms. She said her husband made her use a rifle against the British….” In War Against South Africa the one dead women had become sixteen. President Kruger was most upset about the stories and ordered all women on or near the front to leave immediately. No female remains were ever discovered amongst the burghers who were exhumed on the Natal front and buried elsewhere. The same can be said of Paardeberg. The one woman disguised as a man and who fought alongside the men is mentioned by rev AP Burger, R W Schikkerling and OT de Villiers. However once her identity was discovered she was immediately sent home. Sarah Raal’s case is well documented. If you read her book you will find that she was with the commando but that she never carried a rifle. Mrs. Krantz and Helena Wagner were amongst the visitors to the front. They posed with rifles but were never armed. Hendrina Rabioe van der Merwe and her sister were nurses with the Red Cross. In an answer to an article about the so-called Boer Amazons in the Bloemfontein Post “One who knows wrote the following:’ If there should be such woman, they should be shot down for they have no business on a battlefield.”

So it would seem that the story of women fighting on the battlefield is a myth, however what is not a myth is the fact that thousands of Boer women and children died in Concentration camps and were regularly abused and tormented by British troops and colonial irregulars, they had also been traumatized by seeing their homes and livelihoods being destroyed before their very eyes and seeing their children die while they worried about the fates of their husbands in the veld or in overseas POW camps. It would be pointless to go into detail as to the deprivations they suffered, many books have been written on the subject, with perhaps the best two being Scorched Earth and Fire in the sky.

So when you next hear that saying “women are of the fairer sex” just think of how tough they actually are and how through the ages they have stood up for what they believe to be right and in many instances bore the brunt of occupying forces. I did not mention the fact that many Black women and children also suffered hardships in concentration camps during the Boer war and this is a complete separate story and one that should not be forgotten by the mists of time.

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