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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Van Der Ahe

Katrina's notes on military memoirs

Throughout the last two months, I have been reading military memoirs mainly from the mid to late nineteenth century, looking for references to mental illness for Dr. Milne-Smith. One theme I found that reoccurred the most (aside from the racism) was that people have always been people. By this, I mean that within these grand and epic military memoirs of the Battle of Waterloo, the Indian Rebellion or British colonialism in Africa, there were recognizable moments of humanity that I could, in many cases, relate to. Of the thirty-seven memoirs I read, there were three works that most exemplified these moments.

Both volumes of Harry Smith’s Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, Baronet of Aliwal on Sutlej chronicles his military exploits and his relationship with his wife, Juana Maria de Los Dolores dȩ León. The initial context of their relationship is a little off-putting, as she was almost fourteen when they married, and he believed he was twenty-two (his editor, however, snarkily informs us he was twenty-four). Nonetheless, it is Harry Smith’s story and how he speaks of his wife as courageous and quick-tempered which presents a fascinating window in their dynamic. Juana remained with him for most of his military service; she was at the Battle of Waterloo and went with him to Africa. Furthermore, his autobiography is peppered with numerous domestic anecdotes that present her as strong and sensible.

A particular example happened in 1814, around the time of the Battle of Orthez in France.

Richard Baird Smith demonstrates a more petty example of human concerns and nature, in the Leader of the Delhi Heroes in 1857, through the letters he wrote to his wife while serving as the Chief Engineer under General Wilson. The compiler of this account notes that a friend warned Baird Smith that Wilson could be captious. It seems that Baird Smith was able to manage and get along with Wilson for a while, but it did not stay that way. He complains about the General in several different letters, calling him childish, a bore, ignorant, obstinate, peevish, and even as far as going off the rails.

Perhaps the most vivid account he gives of their feud comes after a very late night the two spent together arguing; Baird Smith writes to his wife that “and now he has 'cut' me and we don't communicate officially at all except through the Staff!!” (127-128). This is a fascinating account because these men are in an active siege and combat, and Baird Smith takes the time almost daily to write negative things about a man, who is arguably his boss, in letters to his wife. It indicates that venting about people doing annoying or problematic stuff was not just a modern occurrence.

G.J. Younghusband, A Soldier's Memories in Peace and War provides an interesting insight into the goings on of British military cadets. Younghusband and his fellow cadets figured out, “One of our batch of cadets made up admirably as a girl and a very handsome girl to boot, so we had a good deal of fun with her” (28). Upon this discovery, they named the cadet's female persona Dolly and pretended she was Youngshusband’s sister to prank officers and cadets into their Division. The cadets did this three times, to other cadets and even the Officer of their Division. They were successful, and they did not suffer repercussions for it.

Our conception of crossdressing has shifted since 1877.

Nevertheless, this incident is not as much about crossdressing as it is used a means of pranking their officers and cadets. It read like a school prank, in many ways, something that might happen in a high school. The crossdressing was not presented as an aspect of the cadet's identity, but this from Younghusband's perspective, not the unnamed crossdresser, so it is hard to analyze more deeply as it is presented as one of several anecdotes about what Younghusband experienced during his training.

This is a brief survey of three memorable accounts I came across while reading for this project that helped humanize the men I studied. I did not always relate to these men or what they felt or thought, especially regarding their perspectives on women or race. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening experience on how people have always had rich inner and outer lives in recognizable contexts that I found easy to relate to. Accounts of devotion, frustration, and mischief spoke to a very human experience underneath the pomp, glory, and horrors of battle that are described.

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