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#WavellReviews “Forgotten Warriors” by Sarah Percy

Forgotten Warriors: A History of Women on the Front Line” is available from John Murray Press.

Forgotten Warriors makes a simple argument: battlefields have always contained a surprising number of women, and they have been forgotten.  The book’s aim isn’t to suggest that women did the majority of fighting or to undermine men’s history.  Instead, Sarah Percy aims to ‘set the record straight’ and demonstrate that women have been present on battlefields throughout history.

‘Probing the history of women in combat’, Percy argues, ‘reveals the specific power of gendered beliefs about war’.  Once you accept that premise, a gendered perspective of history becomes more important.  Forgotten Warriors demonstrates that we need to study this more often, and more seriously.

Structure and core arguments

To do this, Forgotten Warriors is split into three parts:

Part one examines the sixteenth to nineteenth century, where Percy finds ‘surprising freedoms’ for women on the battlefield.  She explores the role of women from being generals and commanding armies, to camp followers and during siege warfare.  Her use of history shows a depth of purpose and explores the military service of women that some conventional history books ignore.  She also asks why, and challenges deeply embedded masculine views of war.

Percy picks individual stories to form a narrative of how women have gone to war.  Mixed into the history of warfare, she finds a fascinating narrative of cultural and social trends shaping how the forgotten warriors got to the battlefields.  From crossdressing and women so determined to fight they lived a lie, to those who lived lives as men full time.  

Secondly, Forgotten Warriors looks at how and why women disappeared from military history.  Focusing on the major powers in the First and Second World Wars, Percy charts the increasing role of women and how they were subsequently removed from history despite their vital roles.  For example, the post-war change of narrative in the Soviet Union from women being heroic warriors to being victims of Nazi aggression.  In Britain, Percy highlights more recent discussions about remembering women in uniform.  By looking at statues and memorials, she demonstrates that in the six decades past 1945, Britain still hasn’t acknowledged the role of women in uniform.  You may think this isn’t true, but Forgotten Warriors will challenge your bias. 

Thirdly, Forgotten Warriors explores more modern combat exclusion, and the resistance to allowing women to fight in combat.  To a contemporary reader, her primary sources may seem absurd and far removed from the modern world.  Yet, they are all comfortably in living memory.  Drawing legal and cultural references from 1945 to 2023, Percy’s text builds a case of a deeply embedded force acting against women in combat.  Percy shows how definitions of ‘combat’ are changed to keep women out and comprehensively demolishes myths of a ‘band of brothers’ needing combat cohesion to be effective.  She concludes, ‘the harder it was to keep women out of combat, the more militaries relied on the mystique of an all-male team’. 

So what?

Percy’s overarching conclusions make for challenging reading, particularly for a modern military professionals.  It is comfortable and easy to assume that none of these problems exist.  Percy’s text presents secondary arguments that challenge this view.  The narrative of centuries of history carries forward to today.

If, for example, the UK was still denying women a formal role in combat in 2016, what other problems are we creating for women?  Whilst the text doesn’t answer this question directly, the presented history demonstrates centuries of resistance.  Many of the uncomfortable details will chime for UK readers, particularly those who have read the Atherton Report.  It also made us think about how we remember and celebrate the role that women have played. 

Should I read it?

Forgotten Warriors is outstanding.

It would be easy to look at the premise of the book and think it is a variation of ‘another woke gender book’. If you think that, you need to read it – because it is not.  Forgotten Warriors is serious history for serious people.  Percy’s text is hard-hitting, and evidence-based.  The book draws together legal, social, and military evidence to show how women have been forgotten from military history and their role undermined.  It tackles big questions head-on and forces the reader to consider military history from a perspective they may not have considered: gender. 

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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