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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict

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Trooper Kit (Christiana) Welsh
Kit (Christiana) Welsh was born in 1667 and fought at the Battle of Namur in 1695. She served in several regiments including the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons, later known as the Scots Greys. Kit survived the Battle of Blenheim (1704) under Marlborough, but it was at Ramillies (1706) that she was wounded and the attentions of surgeons uncovered her secret. She even fought a duel with a sergeant over a girl to whom she had become attached. In her words:

'We both drew and the first thrust I made gave him a slant wound in his right pap [nipple]... He returned this with a long gash on my right arm but before he could recover his guard, I gave him a thrust in the right thigh... the next pass he aimed at my breast, but hit my right arm, though it was little more than a pinprick, he being feeble with the loss of blood which flowed plentifully from his wounds.'
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Hannah Snell
As a member of the Marines, Hannah served on HMS Swallow as Marine James Grey. She found herself in the Indian continent, south of Madras, fighting the French, at least one of whom she personally dispatched and where she was wounded in 1748. Preferring self-treatment to discovery, she applied medicine to her wound, 'thrust in both her finger and thumb' and pulled out the offending musket ball. She eventually returned home, her secret safe, in 1750 and retired.
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Mary Ann Talbot (1778-1808)
Mary Ann Talbot was sold to Captain Bowen of the 82nd Foot, who took her with him on his campaigns disguised as a drummer boy. Leading a precarious double life, she fought with the regiment, though was expected by Bowen to be in his bed when he wanted her. He protected her, but also kept her loyalty by promising not to reveal the secret of her illegitimacy, unless she left him. Their bond was broken on his death at the battle of Valenciennes in 1793 (she was still only 15), when she deserted and found passage on a French ship bound for England.

On sighting two English vessels, to her dismay, Talbot - still in disguise - found her own ship to be a privateer, which then prepared to attack the merchantmen. She refused to attack her fellow countrymen, and was rescued when the two English merchantmen revealed themselves as warships. Instead of opting to reveal her gender, perhaps fired by her sense of adventure, or the fact that she had no alternative and no home to return to, Talbot found herself a powder-monkey, serving the guns of the 74-gun HMS Brunswick.

She was captured on another warship by the French, held prisoner then exchanged and eventually found herself a junior officer on a merchant ship plying between London and New York, aged 18. She revealed her sex only when press-ganged by a roving band of naval recruiters the following year and thereafter retired.
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Flora Sandes
During the 1915 retreat through Serbia, Flora Sandes accompanied the rearguard company of the Iron Regiment and before long had shouldered a rifle, making the painless transition from nurse to soldier. In action for the next year, in 1916 she was promoted to corporal then sergeant, and wounded by an enemy grenade during hand-to-hand fighting.

Later she was awarded the King George Star, Serbia's highest decoration, then promoted sergeant-major, but her wound meant that her fighting days were over. She finished the war as she had started it, running a hospital, but continued in the Serbian Army after the war, reaching the rank of captain.
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Dorothy Lawrence

Trying to make her name as a war correspondent and rejected (on principle) by every newspaper and the War Office, the 19-year old set out to reach the front on her own in 1915. As journalists were strictly controlled and women were banned from the combat zones, she went as a tourist to Paris and with the help of several soldiers, acquired a suit of khaki uniform, a leave pass for a Private Denis Smith, practised drill and got a haircut.

After being turned back (before donning her disguise) from the French sector, and once from the British sector, she managed to get to Albert on the Somme in her kit, and join a night patrol of Royal Engineers. She worked for about twelve nights strengthening trenches before being found out. Once it was established that she was not a German spy, she was held in a French convent until she swore an affadavit promising not to reveal publicly how she had circumvented the military.

This was probably as much to massage the bruised ego of the War Office as to protect the army's security. She went on to write Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier – published in 1919 and a post-World War One best-seller.
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Extract from Dame Felicity Peake's Pure Chance
On August 30, the storm broke as the Luftwaffe bombed her aerodrome; '...the station sirens wailed their alarm...I went at the double into the nearest rapidly filled and there we sat packed like sardines, with tin hats on, waiting. One could hear the aircraft taking off – first one, then another, then another until all our squadrons were airborne.

Then things happened quickly. Bombs fell at the far side of the aerodrome, each one seeming to come nearer until one fell just outside our trench. I remember thinking ' I suppose one feels like this in an earthquake'. The vibration and blast were such that one felt that one's limbs must surely come apart. Bombs fell pretty continuously, the noise was indescribable, yet through it at intervals one could hear the splut-splut-splut of machine guns as plane after plane dived on its target.

Then there was a lull, broken only by the sounds of our aircraft returning to re-arm and re-fuel... I thought I had better go and see how the airwomen were getting on in their trenches. I climbed over the earth and rubble that had been blown into our trench and into that lovely summer day. All was strangely quiet. The 'All Clear' had not yet sounded. I made my way over mounds of hard, chunky earth and round craters... there was a strong smell of gas; the mains had been hit.

So had the airwomen's trench... As I went closer I noticed a NAAFI girl lying by the side of the road. I went towards her and a voice from somewhere told me not to bother: she was dead. She was the first dead person I had ever seen. I remember thinking I must have a good look at her as I might have to get used to this sort of thing. I was relieved that my reactions were, at least, controllable.

...Shortly afterwards... I was invited by the CO to accompany him to the funerals of station personnel killed during the raids... We arrived to find considerable numbers of civilian mourners... It was another beautiful summer's day. The coffins had been laid beside a row of graves. No sooner had the Padre started to read the burial service than the... air raid warnings sounded. The CO... advised the mourners to take cover... gave his tin hat to one of the mourners and, taking mine, gave it to one of the others. We could not wait until the end of the raid.

Many of the mourners had long journeys home. No one knew how long the raid would last. We returned to the first grave and stood to attention. We could hear by now the all-too-familiar noise of enemy aircraft approaching, bombs dropping and dog fights: soon one could hear the zoom and roar of aircraft in combat immediately above us. It took the utmost effort of willpower on my part not to look up. I also felt, acutely, the lack of my tin hat – it had become a close personal friend – and an insane desire to put my hands on top of my head for protection.

The dog fight continued. The CO and I continued to stand to attention. It was in an agony of mind that I heard the well-known screech of a doomed aircraft as it dived, with gathering speed, into the ground. Then the crash. Was it ours or theirs? Soon the all-clear sounded, the mourners returned to the graveside and the service continued...'

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Published: 28-01-2005

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