Following the Drum, by Annabel Venning

Will you be working late at the battle, dear?
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The Independent Culture

Women are always getting in the bloody way, always sticking their big noses in where they're not wanted. Even in wartime! For hundreds of years British women traipsed behind the army getting drenched, drowned, captured, skewered and scalped. And that was if they were lucky enough to be taken along. Those left behind wailing at the dockside were motivated less by lust and loneliness than the very real fear of starvation, prostitution and the workhouse.

Women are always getting in the bloody way, always sticking their big noses in where they're not wanted. Even in wartime! For hundreds of years British women traipsed behind the army getting drenched, drowned, captured, skewered and scalped. And that was if they were lucky enough to be taken along. Those left behind wailing at the dockside were motivated less by lust and loneliness than the very real fear of starvation, prostitution and the workhouse.

According to Annabel Venning's interesting, if poorly organised and strangely placid, account of British army wives since the 1660s, it wasn't until after the Crimean War that the army finally managed to rid itself of women, at least at the battlefield. Before that, they had been allowed, in small numbers, to accompany their husbands, cooking, cleaning, washing and nursing, plundering and selling stuff, protecting the flag with their lives if need be, and having babies under upturned bull-carts. (See, women just don't get the point of war - while their menfolk dutifully dispensed death, these idiots gave birth... )

Despite all the unpaid work and moral support, as well as their willingness to march all day behind the men and still make tea on every mountain-top, women were deemed "useless mouths'' by army authorities and often literally chased away. Those that remained were subject to military discipline and risked ostracism, separation from their husbands, flogging and even execution for their misdemeanours.

In the modern world, in which our biggest fears are Ikea kitchen hiccups, Sudan I in the meatloaf, terrorist atrocities, and no more episodes of The Sopranos, it's hard to imagine what these women (and children) went through. Long before you could see people's heads blown off every night on TV, these women saw such things whether they liked it or not. During battles, wives wailed nearby, surreally close to the action, not knowing if their husbands would survive. One woman, able to wait no longer, sent her husband a note: "I wish you would be after writing me a single line, to tell me if it is true that you were killed in the storming-party the other night.''

It was a life of sleeping three couples to a bed, or conducting your conjugal shenanigans behind a thin curtain in a barrack room full of unmarried men. On campaign, you might find yourself having to share a tent with your officer husband and 11 of his men - feet in the centre, heads at the periphery, belongings stacked on the chest - and wondering all night if you were going to catch dermatitis.

Wives were exposed not only to the perils of war but to those of travel and cramped conditions (until recently, soldiers were allotted fewer square feet than convicts). There was a rich array of diseases on offer: scurvy, dysentery, yellow fever, syphilis and beriberi. Then there were all the hierarchical manoeuvrings of army life, the stultifying primness of colonial stations, and the many aggravations involved in trying to keep up with fashion (what the hell for?), and finding a native wet-nurse ready to sacrifice her baby for yours.

Venning's numerous anecdotes often lack enough personal detail or any satisfying sense of aftermath, but her description of the slaughter of hundreds of women and children at Cawnpore, during the Indian mutiny, is painful to read. After weeks of siege, starvation, infant deaths, a disastrous escape attempt in which all the men got killed, and the vague promise of rescue, the women were finally herded together to be killed. In their desperation to hide their children from the hatchet blows, they smothered many of them in their skirts. The next day, the dead and dying were thrown into a well. A few young children, who had miraculously survived, ran round the well to escape but they too were thrown in, screaming. The massacre was viciously avenged later by the British - but not a bad moment, you might have thought, to pull out of India altogether.

This is the point in the book (200 pages in) when Venning seems (briefly) to find her feet, inspired perhaps by plenty of contemporary accounts. But piecing women's history together isn't easy, and the way is often blocked for Venning by her thematic rather than chronological approach. The book badly needs to be taken apart and put back together in some more efficient form, minus the awkward reminders of people previously mentioned, the inconclusive summaries of whole lives in a sentence, the clichés and the platitudes: "For young couples in love,'' Venning informs us, "the most mundane surroundings could take on a romantic aspect.'' Also, "death and grief are never respecters of rank.'' Thank you.

The phrase "following the drum'' has a mesmeric quality and there is a corresponding vacancy about this book. It's crying out for a point of view. Most surprisingly, not a single one of these women ever expresses disillusionment or despair about war itself. Nor does Venning. To publish such a book in the midst of the horror of Iraq shows an evasiveness on the issue verging on complicity - she risks glorifying war. But no doubt, when there's only one guy left standing and the rest of us have all been nuked, he too will still be glorifying war.

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