Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Book review: "Following the Drum", by Annabel Venning

Walk into any moderately-sized bookshop and you will find piles of books on the British military, all designed to lure middle-aged men such as myself to buy them. When I saw this book, I was intrigued as the focus appeared to be so utterly different from that of most military-themed books.

Unlike the other books, this one focusses on the history of the British Army from the perspective of the wives and daughters of the soldiers. It starts off with the creation of a 'Standing Army' in the 1660s and continues telling the story through to the current day. The book has to rush over some topics without mentioning them in detail because of the wide time scale covered. However, the events and facts that she chooses to cover in details are rich and varied.

The author introduces many unforgettable characters; from the poor women of the'Fishing Fleet' who travelled to India in the 1800s and 1900s in the hope of finding a husband, to women such as Christian Welsh, who in the early 1700's spent 12 years in the army disguised as a male soldier, fighting and getting wounded in numerous battles, including Bleinhem. She was so successful at conning her fellow soldiers that she was even accused of having fathered a child!

The book details the love / hate relationship that the army has had with the wives of soldiers over the years; sometimes at the same time. Conditions at the front were undeniably hard, and the army would limit the numbers to a few women per company of men. Such was the desire to follow their men to battle, that ballots would be held in order to ascertain who would go. Women who were forced to stay at home were often disconsolate, knowing that they may not hear from, yet alone see, their husbands for many years, if at all.The women who were lucky enough to go were seen, at best, as a sufferance by the army, who knew that the wives and children would command scarce food and resources.

Whilst there are some funny anecdotes in this book, there are also some sections that are almost physically hard to read because of the tragedy that they relate. One such is the section on the Siege of Cawnpore, during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, where 500 people (including 200 women and children) were massacred - the women and children in a particularly horrifying way. Annabel Venning writes in such a way that, whilst the information she is partaking is horrific, you want to read on through the horror.

The living standards of the women and children rightly comes into focus. A wife would be forced to live in barracks with their husband's comrades with only thin sheets for privacy. What is surprising is that this practice continued until relatively recently (the mid-1800s). However, the author also mentions that such lack of privacy was hardly unusual in civilian circles at the time. This book is certainly well-balanced.

A slight criticism of this work would be that it does not quite seem to know where it stands - it is not organised or written as a scholarly work, yet it jumps around through times and battles on loose themes, such as 'mothers and children' or 'social functions'. This means that you might be reading about the Crimean War in one paragraph, and the earlier American War of Independence the next. Although this constant jumping disrupts the narrative somewhat, the book remains eminently readable.

Another minor (and probably unfair) criticism is that the other major services - the Royal Navy and RAF - are not mentioned. There are several reasons for this; the RAF is a modern service, and the majority of this book is spent discussing times before the Second World War; and, unlike the army, the Navy did not have wives accompanying their husbands to battle; and the experiences of stay-at-home wives and daughters would have been the same as those of the army. However, a section that compared and mentioned them would have provided an interesting comparison. However, the very title of the book mentions 'army' only.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5, mainly because of the unusual and unheralded topic that the author has chosen to shine a light upon.

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