Thomas Cardoza. Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. xiv + 295 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-35451-8.
Reviewed by Jasmin L. Johnson
Published on H-War (February, 2011)
Commissioned by Brian G.H. Ditcham
Les Filles du Regiment Analyzed
Thomas Cardoza begins his study by reminding us that “women and armies have been closely linked throughout history” (p. 3). For generations before the advent of organized military logistics, armies were kept in the field to a large extent by that undersung heroine of military campaigning, the woman belittled by the term “camp follower”; she who provided the troops with food, drink, clean clothes, shelter and often, sex, in order to make ends meet. She can be summed up in Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s feisty invention, Mother Courage, and there were many others like her.
The author’s first “real life” example is that of Madeleine Kintelberger, who in 1805 in the middle of the Austerlitz campaign, saw her husband killed by cannon shot, was herself wounded to the extent of losing an arm and was so determined to resist the Russian troops attempting to capture her that she fought, sword in hand, until bought down by another shot from a pistol. Meanwhile her children were also on the field of battle cowering behind an ammunition wagon. She survived this and a Russian prison camp and lived to be awarded a pension by the Emperor Napoleon upon her return to France. There appear to have been many equally fascinating tales to tell, most of which have been overlooked by generations of military historians.
However, as Cardoza is also quick to remind us, military history was usually written by men, so such women were, until the fairly recent past, written out of military history except where there was a wish to make moralizing points under the assumption that all camp followers were prostitutes. Ironically, even that anything but ordinary woman, Joan of Arc, was to make this mistake during her campaigns.
Cardoza further does well to remind us (and those who still snipe at the idea of women serving in the military) that the masculinized concept of military service is essentially a nineteenth-century construction and he chooses the cantinières and vivandières of the French armies (who survived up to the eve of World War One as a French military institution) to examine the role of women in a military organization other than as camp followers in the classic mold.
The first chapter explains that cantinières and vivandières find their formal origins in the French royal armies of the eighteenth century, although women providing such services were to be found in the armies of early modern France as far back as the seventeenth century. This formalization can be seen as an attempt to control prostitution and sharp dealing (which undoubtedly existed) by controlling the nature of their businesses and insisting that they be married to a soldier of the regiment (although the definition of the term “married” could be very loose indeed). Given the appalling nature of military logistics in the French armies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the rationale behind the cantinière’s role was to provide the soldiery (and in many cases, the officer corps) with the food, drink, and other supplies they needed in camp rather than relying on civilian contractors as it was believed that this would discourage desertion and absences without leave while men sought these things elsewhere. Nevertheless King Louis XIV attempted to reduce their numbers and while the authorities realized the value of the women and the fact that they filled many essential roles within a regiment, the authorities never really trusted them. As a result records for this period are patchy at best.
Chapter 2 examines the period of the French Revolution which bought not only monumental changes to society as a whole but also to the military. Women gained rights as citoyennes and while this could mean very little in real terms for the great majority of the female population, it meant a great deal to the women who had become vivandières. The tendency toward misogyny of the revolutionary government actually took away the right of any other woman to work within the military, let alone their right to serve in combat roles. What the revolutionary period did achieve, however, was to formalize the status of the cantinière as a businesswoman in her own right and one not necessarily reliant on some man to be able to run her often lucrative business within a regiment. With a beleaguered revolutionary government having to fight a war on several fronts for its very survival, the cantinière was to become “absolutely necessary” (p. 30). Many of the women who became cantinières appear to have been of peasant origin and were often foreigners--examples exist of women from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland amongst other countries. Cardoza provides fascinating examples of women for whom records survive and it is perhaps not surprising that many of them appear to have been “daughters of the regiment”--born to cantinière families within a regiment and going on to provide that unit with further generations of cantinières as well as “fils du regiment”--boys who would go on to be soldiers and often extremely effective ones, having been almost bought up with musket in hand. For many, the regiment was an extended family and given the high death rate amongst the fathers of such children, this was often an important anchor in life.
The third chapter goes on the examine imperial France and the fortunes of the cantinières under the emperor. Napoleon Bonaparte plainly approved of the concept and for the first time cantinières could expect a proper pension for their service where previous regimes had only recognized this as a semi-official status at best. There was a price to be paid however given Napoleon’s constant warfare which led to an increased risk for the cantinière corps not made any the less by the women’s willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to provide their services to the soldiery. The author was able to find particularly good sources for the Napoleonic era (not altogether surprising given how bureaucratic the First Empire was to become) and tells a wonderful tale of finding cantinière service records in the archive of Vincennes still in their original bundles and with the original official seals unbroken (p. 5)! Once again, one is aware of the tension which existed as to whether the cantinière was part of the official military strength or simply a civilian doing a job within a military context. This tension never seems to have entirely vanished throughout the long history of the cantinière service. However, this did not prevent acts of extreme bravery by cantinières who knew that they were part of the regimental strength whatever the War Ministry might say. Their behavior during the hellish retreat from Moscow speaks volumes as to their loyalty to the regime.
Chapter 4 of the study examines the period 1814-52. Under the Bourbon Restoration cantinières were not always trusted because they had shown such loyalty to the Emperor Napoleon (repeated during the Hundred Days). The author cites the example of the wonderfully nicknamed Marie Tete de Bois (Woodenhead), a Napoleonic loyalist who, left without a regiment after the Restoration, rejoined the colors at the start of the Hundred Days and having nothing to go back to, chose to fall with the Old Guard at Waterloo (p. 105). Women who had served Napoleon struggled to gain recognition and assistance once their careers in the military came to a close during the Restoration, though Cardoza suggests in his chapter heading they were still perceived as “useful and necessary” (p. 103). Charles X’s somewhat half-hearted attempts to achieve “la gloire” in Algeria opened up further avenues for cantinières with the increasingly fashionable Zouave regiments of that period. It was during this time that the cantinière finally gained the uniform which was to become so recognizable for the rest of the corps’ existence. The author provides us with some good-quality monochrome illustrations of the women both in uniform and prior to this between pages 91 and 103 of the study.
The fifth chapter examines the life of the cantinière corps under the Second Empire of 1852-70. This is usually perceived as the golden age of cantinières. The emperor Napoleon III seems to have been a great champion of cantinières as they were so much part of the Napoleonic myth which he was careful to utilize. It wa in this period that cantinières genuinely became figures of popular folklore and advertising, parading in full uniform at the head of their regiments on regimental high days and holidays. Uniforms became more ornate and the women finally began to receive military decorations for their undoubted acts of heroism and bravery under fire. However, the experiences of the Crimea and Italy, campaigns during which the weaknesses of French military logistics became horribly obvious, nevertheless suggested that the days of the cantinières as anything but a romantic reminder of the past were fast becoming numbered. They were still useful as a source of supplementary rations and day-to-day necessaries required by the troops but the ever-extended use of rifled hand weapons and artillery, combined with the beginnings of a masculine reaction to anything perceived as less than “feminine” from women meant that the battlefield heroics of the past were considerably more dangerous and the battlefield “not a place for women” in an increasingly masculinized military. This did not prevent the redoubtable “Mere Ibrahim” a cantinière of the Second Zouave Regiment going to her grave at 75 after a long career, with full military honors (p. 131). It was during this period that Queen Victoria met with and spoke to a group of cantinières and expressed a wish that such units existed within the British army--one formidable woman recognizing others, perhaps?
The final chapter covers the years immediately after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune from the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 until the outbreak of World War One when the history of the cantinière corps effectively ended. Its demise was almost accidental. Cantinières were again suspected of Bonapartist leanings and there was a deeply rooted political drive to replace the old professional army with a properly republican system of national service which was to last until the very recent past; indeed, the reviewer remembers seeing young conscripts on their way to and from barracks, heading from Gare du Nord to Gare de L’Est in Paris, or in the reverse direction, for many years. There were also social reasons--a strong temperance movement had begun to make inroads even before this period and the concept of troops being sold alcohol both on the battlefield and off was no longer seen as socially acceptable, removing one of the cantinières’ main source of income. French military logistics had improved in the wake of experience in the Crimean War meaning that cantinières were also no longer the main source of meals for the NCOs of a regiment, cutting into another income stream. The cumulative result of these developments was an official attitude of repressive tolerance which chipped away at the ability of cantinières to earn a legal living and made it effectively impossible for new women to take up the role. It is also noticeable that perceived female emancipation in other areas had led to a reaction amongst the more conservative elements of society which may have impacted on the cantinières even though they retained support at lower levels of the military hierarchy. The outcome was a slow process of attrition as cantinières retired or died and were not replaced; the corps slowly aged and withered away in the years around 1900 without any formal decision to abolish it.
Cardoza takes the view that cantinières could still have had a role to play in World War One, but this seems to suggest a somewhat romanticized view of the nature of that war. Cantinières had already been exposed to rifled weaponry and heavy artillery in the Crimea, Italy, and the Franco-Prussian War and the results had been catastrophic. One can only imagine these admittedly feisty women trying to provide food and home comforts at Verdun or on the Chemin des Dames--and the impact on contemporary troop and even civilian morale of potentially significant female death and mutilation. At best, the cantinière corps might still have provided a colorful parade element for some regiments, but the day of their real usefulness was undoubtedly past by the turn of the twentieth century.
Thomas Cardoza is to be congratulated on his attempt to shed some light on the role of the cantinière in both war and peace. The role of women in war has been overlooked for far too long. The author quotes the French historian Louis Gosselin who, writing in 1932, stated that of the cantinières, “only a silhouette” had survived: “although one desires a completed portrait” (p. 11). Cardoza takes us some way down the road to providing that portrait and his experience of finding material for his researches may encourage others to reach further into the experience of those remarkable women, the cantinières of the French army.
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Jasmin L. Johnson. Review of Cardoza, Thomas, Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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