Ecaterina Teodoroiu, 1894-1917 : “Forward! I’m still with you!”

And, to complete a hat trick (and because I have an admiration and liking  for things Romanian), we turn now to Ecaterina Teodoroiu, The Heroine from the Jiu

She was born one of eight children to a poor peasant family in Targa Jiu in Southern Romania and spent her earlier years studying to become a  school teacher.   Certainly she looks the part.

Of course, looks can be deceiving.

Romania did not enter the war until 1916.  In the early years, the kingdom exploited all manner of unlikely resources, including the Scouts.  As a nurse with that organization (they were instrumental in moving and tending the wounded), she was able to visit her brother, a sergeant, at the front. She came to appreciate the patriotism and camaraderie that war can create in a group of men.  Continue reading

Flora Sandes (Yudenitch), 1876–1956: Easily Bored

“When a very small child, I used to pray every night that I might wake up in the morning and find myself a boy.”

Instead she was always what she had been born, an Anglican vicar’s daughter,  and a product of Ireland and Surrey.  If not a boy, she was still able to get a full measure of  ridin’ and shootin’ and such like typically English country pursuits.  And, in due course, she would become the only English woman to fight on the front lines of World War One.  For Serbia.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  She first had to get through finishing school in Switzerland, and with a small legacy from an uncle and the money she earned as a secretary, to pick up fencing and the rudiments of first aid.  Also how to drive, which in her case was in her own French roadster, a Sizaire-Naudin to be specific.

Continue reading

Milunka Savic, 1888-1973: Woman Warrior

1912-1913 marks the centenary of the First and the Second Balkan Wars, a spot of local trouble that would lead to the killing fields of the First World War.  They’re not much remembered outside the area except by specialists and presumably relatives.  Certainly they didn’t kick up any household names.

Which is not to say that there were not  people with good stories.  People like Milunka Savic.

She was a village girl, and either from boredom or patriotism (or possibly because her brother was to ill to go), in 1912 she cut off her hair and presented herself to the recruiting sergeant.  Induction was presumably a cursory affair, and she was soon toting gun and bayonet to the front lines.  No further record of the brother, but the army got their money’s worth.   Continue reading

Count Alfred D’Orsay, 1801-1845: Charmed, I’m Sure

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

James Swan, 1754-1831: “A Corrupt Unprincipalled Rascal”

There’s gratitude for you!  Colonel Swan had been one of the original Tea Partiers  (the early iteration, the ones who dressed as Indians and got on the boats),  a veteran of Bunker Hill and other life threatening engagements during the revolution, a firm revolutionary from the beginning.  Once in the money, he acted as surety for privateers,  doing well by doing good.  And for this James Monroe calls him a rascal?

Swan was born in Scotland and came to Boston at age eleven.   He worked in an accounting house.  He was diligent and studious and even principled;  at eighteen, he wrote A Discussion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade.  (He was against it.)  Continue reading

Gilbert Imlay, 1756-1828: Jersey Boy

No picture of the fellow seems to have survived, which is appropriate, given the man’s furtive nature.

He was born in Freehold, New Jersey and was of an elevated enough class to be come a lieutenant in the  American Revolution, serving as paymaster to a New Jersey Regiment. Salesmanship seems to have come naturally – he was allegedly able to talk some English prisoners of war into signing up.

With America’s tiresome British ties eventually cut, he went west. Land grants were something of an early GI bill perq for veterans, and the aftermarket proved an opportunity for the young and ambitious and unscrupulous. Imlay got a position as a surveyor, which made him well placed indeed for gaming the system. Continue reading

Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading

Pier Gerlofs Donia, c.1480 – 1520: Dutch Courage

In 1514, George the Bearded, Duke of Saxony,  sent his crew of landsknechts, the so-called  Black Guard, to put down the lowland upstarts under Edzard I, Count of East Frisia.

There was a good amount of excess in the doing, which came to a head when the Guardsmen, unpaid for too long, started demanding their due directly from the local civilians. They came to the village of Kimsweerd where they did the usual number of robbery, and as a by the way, raped and killed the wife of our subject.

Bad idea.

The Dutch, understand, have a long line of tough.  Serious tough.  Don’t let the pot cafes and the tulips and the cheese fool you.    You don’t pull your own country from the oceans without tough.  You also don;t don’t make a global empire without tough.  And when you kick at the family of a guy like Big Piers, a man who could bend coins with his thumb and forefinger, you will get blowback. Continue reading

Nakano Takeko, 1847-1868: Last of the Samurai

Seems as good a time as any to check the record on women in foxholes again.

The evidence is not surprisingly thin and anecdotal for all the obvious reasons, but there are some interesting characters. Such as Nakano Takeko.

She was born in a part of Aizu  known for martial prowess into a family of Samurai.  Their loyalty was to the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate.

In 1866, the Meiji Imperial family tired of being figure heads and they had supporters willing to fight to bring them back to power. (There was also irritation that the shogunate had permitted  foreign intruders  Commodore Perry and his crew – among which number was my wife’s great-great grandfather. A story for another time).  War broke out.  The Boshin War.  The Imperials were fewer, but they had more modern weapons.  Continue reading

Sampiero Corso,1498 – 1569: ‘The Most Corsican of Corsicans’

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved “Vendetta”, on the other, “Morte”.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. Perhaps no surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.  For overall toughness and misfortune in love, however, we can argue that Sampiero has the marshal beat.

He was born a commoner and a reduced lower aristocratic mother.  With a background like that, the military was a natural. He apprenticed as a soldier at age fourteen.

He was good at it, too.  He led Corsican mercenaries for France’s house of Valois during the Italian wars and was more successful than not.  The money was good, too.  By 1547, he was a colonel and rich enough to marry Vanina D’Ornano. He was forty nine.  She was fifteen. Continue reading