Storytelling sits at the heart of what it means to be human. It anchors our very existence through shared experiences that are unique and universal, inspiring imagination and the expression of emotions while offering interpretations of the world around us, and when we look up, divining the cosmos.
One Person Crying: Women and War, my global photo essay spanning 35-years of my photography, was born out of two important aspects of my life. The first, working as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, I recognised that the women’s perspective on their experiences wrought by war and conflict was underreported. The second was the reverberations from The Holocaust.
This project, which has been an international travelling exhibition since 2012 and is a forthcoming book, took me on an unexpected journey to 12 countries while I photographed and interviewed over 200 women directly impacted by numerous wars and conflicts. It also took me on a personal journey as I accrued more information about my family’s World War Two history.
The pivotal point for commencing the project came while I was working on assignment for the Los Angeles Times in Pakistan in 1988, on a story that addressed the plight of Afghan war widows at the end of the 10-year war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan – there were 100,000 of them.
At the end of the 10-year war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, there were 100,000 Afghan war widows, many of them living in refugees camps in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. I had been in Pakistan for a couple of weeks on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, when I heard about the plight of the Afghan women. I decided to go to some of the camps in order to photograph. The story was published on the front page of the paper, and was the first report about this consequence of that war.
After that, I chose my subjects based on my interests in particular places and stories that were out of the news, such as Northern Ireland and Cambodia, or held significant on-going meaning, such as Hiroshima, Japan, where I met Setsuko Iwamoto, who survived the A-Bomb when she a child.
Setsuko Iwamoto was walking to school on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the A-Bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, killing approximately 140,000 people. She was describing to me how everyone was running to the rivers – there are seven of them in Hiroshima – to rinse there faces, and see if they still had a face as so many people were burned. I photographed her in Peace Park.
Other destinations included Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2009, I chose to go there on two separate trips, as I felt that I needed that time to unravel the visual story about the Srebrenica massacre, while addressing how rape was used as a tool of war.
Safeta Ajanovic, a Bosnian-Muslim who was raped during the Bosnian War by a Serbian soldier as part of a deliberate campaign to tear apart the culture. For Muslims, if a woman is raped, she can be disowned by her family, or worse. A pregnancy resulted from the rape, and Safeta’s parents forced her to give up the baby, who was raised in an orphanage. She was only able to get him back when he was 15 years old after her parents died.
War is personal
We mainly learn about war and conflict through historical facts or current events, in terms of statistics – 37 million civilian and military deaths in World War One; 1-2 million civilian and military deaths in the Vietnam/American War; 1.4 million Cambodians killed in the Khmer Rouge Genocide; 6 million Jews killed in The Holocaust. I strove to show that war and conflict are personal, that they impact human beings one by one, that they are about one woman, one man and one child at a time.
The people who died were loved, had lives, and futures that were erased. Those who survive are irrevocably changed by their tragic experiences, while the ongoing consequences of displacement, the physical wounds and psychological traumas – the unseen wounds – are passed down through generations. As a visual storyteller, and a re-teller of stories that I deliberately sought out to hear, I felt they were critical to document as testaments to historical events. I also wanted to give a voice and show the face of every woman who I met during this photographic odyssey.
When I started the project, the view towards depicting wars was very much the same as it had been for centuries, showing what was happening on the ground in real time, primarily illustrated from the vantage point of the battlefields. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, and through the 20th century, the photographic perspective on war was still mainly focused on immediate events.
After the fighting stops, women are often bereft of men and resources, yet they are the ones who slowly pick up the pieces and rebuild, while trying to maintain some semblance of normal life. The women’s side of the story may be less striking visually, but it is not of lesser importance. It is also about life and death, but marked by time and stillness and the uncertainty that persistently disquiets the aftermath.
Derisa Hodzic, 45 years-old, with her 15 year-old son Osman who was born in 1994 during the siege of Srebrenica. Derisa’s husband Beriz was killed in the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, while she was seven-months pregnant with their second son Bernes. Beriz’s first wife and son were killed in the early days of the war. He met Derisa in an internal refugee camp in 1993 where they fell in love and married.
This was the story that I wanted to tell – the long view. There is now broader awareness of the aftereffects, evidenced by a global humanitarian effort to rebuild communities and countries by specifically supporting the women, as it’s been shown that it is beneficial to the long-term stability of a particular culture, country, and geographical region.
Often, there were moments of profound reciprocity where I would glean key insight from a particular woman’s literal experience. In 2005 while I was in Northern Ireland, I met Charlotte Russell, a Protestant, from Londonderry. Her husband, who was a Special Forces policeman, was shot in the head by an IRA sniper and died while she was pregnant with their second child. She said to me,
“I imagine that you are finding that women who survived war are the same everywhere”.
I absorbed what she said and thereafter regarded the project through the window of her wisdom.
Sometimes the stories were almost unbearable to hear, not just because of the wrenching details, but also because of their proximity to my experiences.
Coming of age in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Vietnam War was the ever-present backdrop. It inspired the peace movement while fomenting devastating social unrest, and was in the forefront of the nightly news with daily tallies of dead and wounded servicemen. Shadowing all of this was the real fear that the young men in my school class would be drafted and called to go to war.
I knew that I had to go to Vietnam for the project, and went there in 2012. One of the women I met, Pham Thi Thuan, had survived the My Lai massacre, an attack on unarmed civilians in a small hamlet by US troops in 1968. She told me that she always remembers the massacre, but said,
“It’s a long time ago. Now the US and Vietnam have a good relationship, so I don’t want to be angry anymore. I’ve tried to come over it”.
Pham Thi Thuan, 74, was a farmer with two young daughters when their village of My Lai was raided by American soldiers looking for Vietcong that they believed were being hidden there. Along with other villagers, she was ordered to lie in an irrigation ditch, and then the soldiers put their guns under their arms and opened fire. Somehow, she was able to shield her children and kept them from crying, and they all survived.
I was deeply moved by her willingness to make amends with the past, but as an American, I couldn’t shake the sense of guilt and gripping sorrow that pervaded my thoughts the whole time I was there. Photographing the widows and mothers of US Marines killed in 2005 during the Iraq War, including Sarah Duvall who hugged a portrait of her son Aaron Reed as if he was still alive, also tore at my heart.
Sarah Duvall, holds a portrait of her son Aaron Reed, a marine reservist who died during the Iraq War in August of 2005, and was part of Lima Company, a Marine Reserve Unit out of Columbus that lost 26 men that summer. I photographed her at the farm that her family has owned for 150 years.
Making peace with the past
In sharing my family’s war story as a means of opening a line of trust with many of my subjects, I came to own my personal Holocaust history. I spoke often about my paternal grandmother who was killed in a massacre in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia in 1942, along with her husband, mother and brother. As I spoke her name, Lenke, she became real for me.
I also recognised the sincere need in the women I met, who experienced the traumas and the losses inflicted by war and conflict, to share their stories. Along the way, I came to understand that these women were now part of my story, and I in turn, became part of theirs. This communion of strangers helped me to set my own heart into a more peaceful place.
Often there would be unexpected laughter in these exchanges. While I was in Jordan in 2018 photographing Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees, I met Mouna Alnuaime, who was from Damascus. She was hoping to stay in Jordan since the entire part of the city where she came from, including her home, were destroyed. As we were parting, she said to me,
“If I didn’t laugh, I would be dead. We should overcome our challenges, problems, sadness and grief through patience and strength”.
Marissa Roth, right, shares a light moment with Syrian refugee Mouna Alnuaime at a clinic in Irbid, which is 12 miles from the Syrian border. I told her she has beautiful eyes – and she said with a wink, “These eyes have given me trouble!”
Here’s a snapshot of some of the other women featured in Marissa’s project:
Monica Smith is Anne Frank’s second cousin and was one of the last family members to see her alive. A few years older than Anne, Monica was sent to a transit ‘home’ by her parents in 1942.
Haneen Alawad, a Syrian refugee, was 14 years old and forced into a marriage with the son of another refugee family for economic reasons. She had a child, but was beaten by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law and fled the marriage. The couple divorced and she lost her son. I photographed her when she was 16 years old.
Ilse Kleberger, photographed at age 87 in the garden of her home, she was born in Potsdam and survived World War II in Berlin with her family. She was raped during the Siege of Berlin immediately following the end of the war and worked in medical clinics during the war helping to tend wounded and ill people even before finishing her medical studies. After the war, she became a prominent physician and the author of 32 children’s books.
During World War Two, the Japanese were very strict about the lives of women who lost their husbands during the war – they were forbidden to remarry out of respect for the dead and their service to the country. Hatsuku’s husband was killed in May of 1945. I think of her as an eternal war widow – she is holding a small photograph of him.
Marissa Roth is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. She was part of the Los Angeles Times staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for Best Spot News, for its coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She is the author of ‘Infinite Light: A Photographic Mediation on Tibet’, with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; ‘The Crossing’, a poetic photographic study of the Atlantic Ocean; and ‘Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines’. She is also a curator, lecturer, and teacher, and a Fellow at The Royal Geographical Society in London. Find out details of Marissa’s One Person Crying: Women and War Project and overall work.
Marissa was inspired to write this article for Our Site to mark International Women’s Day 2021, to highlight how throughout history women have been directly impacted by numerous wars and conflicts.
Born into a logger&rsquos family in Russia&rsquos Arkhangelsk Oblast, Roza Shanina was determined from a young age to pursue a successful life. In 1938, Shanina ran away from home, walking 200 kilometers (125 mi) to the nearest town for the opportunity to be educated in the best school possible.
By 1941, Shanina was working in a nursery to raise funds to attend university. However, that same year, Shanina&rsquos brother died on the front line during the war, prompting Roza to volunteer in his place. During her initial training, she stood out for her remarkable shooting accuracy. Although offered a job as an instructor after completing her training at the Women&rsquos Sniper Academy, Shanina insisted that she would fight on the front lines, where she became known as the &ldquoUnseen Terror of East Prussia.&rdquo She was the first female sniper to be awarded the Order of Glory.
When the East Prussian Offensive began in 1945, Shanina&rsquos platoon was down to only six people, and Roza died protecting the artillery commander. Shanina&rsquos confirmed kill count had, by that point, reached 59. Her diary, though much of it is still classified, was published in 1965 to much acclaim.
Statement by the President on Change of Condolence Letter Policy
As Commander in Chief, I am deeply grateful for the service of all our men and women in uniform, and grieve for the loss of those who suffer from the wounds of war - seen and unseen. Since taking office, I&rsquove been committed to removing the stigma associated with the unseen wounds of war, which is why I&rsquove worked to expand our mental health budgets, and ensure that all our men and women in uniform receive the care they need.
As a next step and in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the military chain of command, I have also decided to reverse a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed to a combat zone. This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly. This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn&rsquot die because they were weak. And the fact that they didn&rsquot get the help they needed must change. Our men and women in uniform have borne the incredible burden of our wars, and we need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation.
40 Graphic Images of the Vietnam War Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968, by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People&rsquos Army of Vietnam against the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The attacks began on the holiday Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
The offensive saw more than 80,000 North Vietnamese troops attacking more than 100 towns and cities, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, and 72 of 246 district towns. The Tet Offensive was the largest military operation conducted by either side up to that point in the war.
The surprise of the attacks caused the US and South Vietnamese armies to temporarily lose control of several cities. They were able to quickly regroup, counter attack, and inflict heavy casualties on North Vietnamese forces.
During the Battle of Hue, the fighting lasted over a month and the city was destroyed. During the occupation, the North Vietnamese forces executed thousands of people in the Massacre of Hue. Around the US combat base at Khe Sanh fighting continued for two more months.
Although the offensive was a military defeat for North Vietnam, it had a profound effect on the US government and shocked to Amerian public, which had been led to believe that The North Vietnamese were being defeated and were incapable of launching such a large scale attack. The Johnson administration was no longer capable of convincing anybody that Vietnam War was a major defeat for the communists.
1968 became the deadliest year of the war for US forces with 16,592 soldiers killed. On February 23 the U.S. Selective Service System announced a new draft call for 48,000 men, the second largest of the war.
Walter Cronkite stated during a news broadcast on February 27, &ldquoWe have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds&rdquo and added that, &ldquowe are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.&rdquo
A wounded soldier is dragged to safety near the citadel&rsquos outer wall during the fighting at Hue. History A market in the Cholon District of Saigon is covered in smoke and debris after the Tet Offensive, which included simultaneous attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns. History An estimated 5,000 Communist soldiers were killed by American air and artillery strikes during the Battle of Hue. History Approximately 150 U.S. Marines were killed along with 400 South Vietnamese troops at the Battle of Hue. History Military policemen capture a Viet Cong guerrilla after the surprise attack on the U.S. embassy and South Vietnamese government buildings in Saigon. History On January 31, 1968, approximately 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces began a series of attacks on the U.S. and South Vietnamese. history On the first day of the attacks, a Buddhist monk flees the damage and destruction behind him. History The attacks began on the lunar new year holiday, Tet, and became known as the Tet Offensive. history U.S. forces posted at the outer wall of a citadel in the ancient city of Hue, the scene of the fiercest fighting of the Tet Offensive. History VIETNAM. Hue. Civilian casualties. Many took refuge in the university. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. Hue. The grounds of Hue university became a graveyard. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths US. Marines. South Marines. Jan/Feb. 1968. During the Vietnamese New Year celebrations of the TET, the city of HUE, an ancient Mandarin walled city which stood on the banks of the perfumed river and near to the demilitarized zone, a force of 5000 VIETCONG and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regulars took siege of the citadel. The Americans sent in the Fifth Marine Regiment to dislodge them. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. During the Vietnamese New Year celebrations of the Tet, the city of Hue an ancient Mandarin walled city which stood on the banks of the perfumed river and near to the demilitarized zone, a force of 5000 Vietcong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regulars took siege of the citadel. The American sent in the Fifth Marine Commando force to dislodge them. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. Hue. US Marines inside the Citadel rescue the body of a dead Marine during the Tet Offensive. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths The battle for the Cities. U.S. Marines. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. Hue. Refugees flee across a damaged bridge. Marines intended to carry their counterattack from the southern side, right into the citadel of the city. Despite many guards, the Vietcong were able to swim underwater and blow up the bridge, using skin-diving equipment from the Marines. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. This operation by the 1st Cavalry Division to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail failed like all the others but the U.S. military was shaken to find such sophisticated weapons stockpiled in the valley. Officers still talked of winning the war, of seeing &ldquothe light at the end of the tunnel.&rdquo As it happened there was a light, that of a fast-approaching express train. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. The battle for Saigon. U.S. policy in Vietnam was based on the premise that peasants driven into the towns and cities by the carpet-bombing of the countryside would be safe. Furthermore, removed from their traditional value system they could be prepared for the imposition of consumerism. This &ldquorestructuring&rdquo of society suffered a setback when, in 1968, death rained down on the urban enclaves. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. The battle for Saigon. Refugees under fire. Confused urban warfare was such that Americans were shooting their staunchest supporters. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths
Dahomey’s Women Warriors
It is noon on a humid Saturday in the fall of 1861, and a missionary by the name of Francesco Borghero has been summoned to a parade ground in Abomey, the capital of the small West African state of Dahomey. He is seated on one side of a huge, open square right in the center of the town–Dahomey is renowned as a “Black Sparta,” a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers strike fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. The maneuvers begin in the face of a looming downpour, but King Glele is eager to show off the finest unit in his army to his European guest.
As Father Borghero fans himself, 3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest is told, of slicing a man clean in two.
The soldiers advance in silence, reconnoitering. Their first obstacle is a wall—huge piles of acacia branches bristling with needle-sharp thorns, forming a barricade that stretches nearly 440 yards. The troops rush it furiously, ignoring the wounds that the two-inch-long thorns inflict. After scrambling to the top, they mime hand-to-hand combat with imaginary defenders, fall back, scale the thorn wall a second time, then storm a group of huts and drag a group of cringing “prisoners” to where Glele stands, assessing their performance. The bravest are presented with belts made from acacia thorns. Proud to show themselves impervious to pain, the warriors strap their trophies around their waists.
The general who led the assault appears and gives a lengthy speech, comparing the valor of Dahomey’s warrior elite to that of European troops and suggesting that such equally brave peoples should never be enemies. Borghero listens, but his mind is wandering. He finds the general captivating: “slender but shapely, proud of bearing, but without affectation.” Not too tall, perhaps, nor excessively muscular. But then, of course, the general is a woman, as are all 3,000 of her troops. Father Borghero has been watching the King of Dahomey’s famed corps of “amazons,” as contemporary writers termed them—the only female soldiers in the world who then routinely served as combat troops.
Dahomey–renamed Benin in 1975–showing its location in West Africa. (CIA World Factbook)
When, or indeed why, Dahomey recruited its first female soldiers is not certain. Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length Engish-language study of them, suggests it may have been in the 17th century, not long after the kingdom was founded by Dako, a leader of the Fon tribe, around 1625. One theory traces their origins to teams of female hunters known as gbeto, and certainly Dahomey was noted for its women hunters a French naval surgeon named Repin reported in the 1850s that a group of 20 gbeto had attacked a herd of 40 elephants, killing three at the cost of several hunters gored and trampled. A Dahomean tradition relates that when King Gezo (1818-58) praised their courage, the gbeto cockily replied that “a nice manhunt would suit them even better,” so he drafted them drafted into his army. But Alpern cautions that there is no proof that such an incident occurred, and he prefers an alternate theory that suggests the women warriors came into existence as a palace guard in the 1720s.
Women had the advantage of being permitted in the palace precincts after dark (Dahomean men were not), and a bodyguard may have been formed, Alpern says, from among the king’s “third class” wives–those considered insufficiently beautiful to share his bed and who had not borne children. Contrary to 19th century gossip that portrayed the female soldiers as sexually voracious, Dahomey’s female soldiers were formally married to the king—and since he never actually had relations with any of them, marriage rendered them celibate.
Dahomey’s female hunters, the gbeto, attack a herd of elephants. (Public Domain)
At least one bit of evidence hints that Alpern is right to date the formation of the female corps to the early 18th century: a French slaver named Jean-Pierre Thibault, who called at the Dahomean port of Ouidah in 1725, described seeing groups of third-rank wives armed with long poles and acting as police. And when, four years later, Dahomey’s women warriors made their first appearance in written history, they were helping to recapture the same port after it fell to a surprise attack by the Yoruba–a much more numerous tribe from the east who would henceforth be the Dahomeans’ chief enemies.
Dahomey’s female troops were not the only martial women of their time. There were at least a few contemporary examples of successful warrior queens, the best-known of whom was probably Nzinga of Matamba, one of the most important figures in 17th-century Angola—a ruler who fought the Portuguese, quaffed the blood of sacrificial victims, and kept a harem of 60 male concubines, whom she dressed in women’s clothes. Nor were female guards unknown in the mid-19th century, King Mongkut of Siam (the same monarch memorably portrayed in quite a different light by Yul Brynner in The King and I) employed a bodyguard of 400 women. But Mongkut’s guards performed a ceremonial function, and the king could never bear to send them off to war. What made Dahomey’s women warriors unique was that they fought, and frequently died, for king and country. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that, in the course of just four major campaigns in the latter half of the 19th century, they lost at least 6,000 dead, and perhaps as many as 15,000. In their very last battles, against French troops equipped with vastly superior weaponry, about 1,500 women took the field, and only about 50 remained fit for active duty by the end.
King Gezo, who expanded the female corps from around 600 women to as many as 6,000. (Wikicommons)
None of this, of course, explains why this female corps arose only in Dahomey. Historian Robin Law, of the University of Stirling, who has made a study of the subject, dismisses the idea that the Fon viewed men and women as equals in any meaningful sense women fully trained as warriors, he points out, were thought to “become” men, usually at the moment they disemboweled their first enemy. Perhaps the most persuasive possibility is that the Fon were so badly outnumbered by the enemies who encircled them that Dahomey’s kings were forced to conscript women. The Yoruba alone were about ten times as numerous as the Fon.
Backing for this hypothesis can be found in the writings of Commodore Arthur Eardley Wilmot, a British naval officer who called at Dahomey in 1862 and observed that women heavily outnumbered men in its towns—a phenomenon that he attributed to a combination of military losses and the effects of the slave trade. Around the same time Western visitors to Abomey noticed a sharp jump in the number of female soldiers. Records suggest that there were about 600 women in the Dahomean army from the 1760s until the 1840s—at which point King Gezo expanded the corps to as many as 6,000.
No Dahomean records survive to explain Gezo’s expansion, but it was probably connected to a defeat he suffered at the hands of the Yoruba in 1844. Oral traditions suggest that, angered by Dahomean raids on their villages, an army from a tribal grouping known as the Egba mounted a surprise attack that that came close to capturing Gezo and did seize much of his royal regalia, including the king’s valuable umbrella and his sacred stool. “It has been said that only two amazon ‘companies’ existed before Gezo and that he created six new ones,” Alpern notes. “If so, it probably happened at this time.”
Women warriors parade outside the gates of a Dahomean town, with the severed heads of their defeated foes adorning the walls. (Public Domain)
Recruiting women into the Dahomean army was not especially difficult, despite the requirement to climb thorn hedges and risk life and limb in battle. Most West African women lived lives of forced drudgery. Gezo’s female troops lived in his compound and were kept well supplied with tobacco, alcohol and slaves–as many as 50 to each warrior, according to the noted traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Dahomey in the 1860s. And “when amazons walked out of the palace,” notes Alpern, “they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.” To even touch these women meant death.
“Insensitivity training”: female recruits look on as Dahomean troops hurl bound prisoners of war to a mob below. (Public Domain)
While Gezo plotted his revenge against the Egba, his new female recruits were put through extensive training. The scaling of vicious thorn hedges was intended to foster the stoical acceptance of pain, and the women also wrestled one another and undertook survival training, being sent into the forest for up to nine days with minimal rations.
The aspect of Dahomean military custom that attracted most attention from European visitors, however, was “insensitivity training”—exposing unblooded troops to death. At one annual ceremony, new recruits of both sexes were required to mount a platform 16 feet high, pick up baskets containing bound and gagged prisoners of war, and hurl them over the parapet to a baying mob below. There are also accounts of female soldiers being ordered to carry out executions. Jean Bayol, a French naval officer who visited Abomey in December 1889, watched as a teenage recruit, a girl named Nanisca “who had not yet killed anyone,” was tested. Brought before a young prisoner who sat bound in a basket, she:
walked jauntily up to , swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.
It was this fierceness that most unnerved Western observers, and indeed Dahomey’s African enemies. Not everyone agreed on the quality of the Dahomeans’ military preparedness—European observers were disdainful of the way in which the women handled their ancient flintlock muskets, most firing from the hip rather than aiming from the shoulder, but even the French agreed that they “excelled at hand-to-hand combat” and “handled admirably.”
For the most part, too, the enlarged female corps enjoyed considerable success in Gezo’s endless wars, specializing in pre-dawn attacks on unsuspecting enemy villages. It was only when they were thrown against the Egba capital, Abeokuta, that they tasted defeat. Two furious assaults on the town, in 1851 and 1864, failed dismally, partially because of Dahomean overconfidence, but mostly because Abeokuta was a formidable target—a huge town ringed with mud-brick walls and harboring a population of 50,000.
Béhanzin, the last king of an independent Dahomey. (Public Domain)
By the late 1870s Dahomey had begun to temper its military ambitions. Most foreign observers suggest that the women’s corps was reduced to 1,500 soldiers at about this time, but attacks on the Yoruba continued. And the corps still existed 20 years later, when the kingdom at last found itself caught up in the “scramble for Africa,” which saw various European powers competing to absorb slices of the continent into their empires. Dahomey fell within the French sphere of influence, and there was already a small French colony at Porto-Novo when, in about 1889, female troops were involved in an incident that resulted in a full-scale war. According to local oral histories, the spark came when the Dahomeans attacked a village under French suzerainty whose chief tried to avert panic by assuring the inhabitants that the tricolor would protect them. “So you like this flag?” the Dahomean general asked when the settlement had been overrun. “Eh bien, it will serve you.” At the general’s signal, one of the women warriors beheaded the chief with one blow of her cutlass and carried his head back to her new king, Béhanzin, wrapped in the French standard.
The First Franco-Dahomean War, which ensued in 1890, resulted in two major battles, one of which took place in heavy rain at dawn outside Cotonou, on the Bight of Benin. Béhanzin’s army, which included female units, assaulted a French stockade but was driven back in hand-to-hand fighting. No quarter was given on either side, and Jean Bayol saw his chief gunner decapitated by a fighter he recognized as Nanisca, the young woman he had met three months earlier in Abomey as she executed a prisoner. Only the sheer firepower of their modern rifles won the day for the French, and in the battle’s aftermath Bayol found Nanisca lying dead. “The cleaver, with its curved blade, engraved with fetish symbols, was attached to her left wrist by a small cord,” he wrote, “and her right hand was clenched around the barrel of her carbine covered with cowries.”
In the uneasy peace that followed, Béhanzin did his best to equip his army with more modern weapons, but the Dahomeans were still no match for the large French force that was assembled to complete the conquest two years later. That seven-week war was fought even more fiercely than the first. There were 23 separate battles, and once again female troops were in the vanguard of Béhanzin’s forces. The women were the last to surrender, and even then—at least according to a rumor common in the French army of occupation—the survivors took their revenge on the French by covertly substituting themselves for Dahomean women who were taken into the enemy stockade. Each allowed herself to be seduced by French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet.
A group of women warriors in traditional dress. (Wikicommons)
Their last enemies were full of praise for their courage. A French Foreign Legionnaire named Bern lauded them as “warrioresses… fight with extreme valor, always ahead of the other troops. They are outstandingly brave … well trained for combat and very disciplined.” A French Marine, Henri Morienval, thought them “remarkable for their courage and their ferocity… flung themselves on our bayonets with prodigious bravery.”
Most sources suggest that the last of Dahomey’s women warriors died in the 1940s, but Stanley Alpern disputes this. Pointing out that “a woman who had fought the French in her teens would have been no older than 69 in 1943,” he suggests, more pleasingly, that it is likely one or more survived long enough to see her country regain its independence in 1960. As late as 1978, a Beninese historian encountered an extremely old woman in the village of Kinta who convincingly claimed to have fought against the French in 1892. Her name was Nawi, and she died, aged well over 100, in November 1979. Probably she was the last.
What were they like, these scattered survivors of a storied regiment? Some proud but impoverished, it seems others married a few tough and argumentative, well capable, Alpern says, of “beating up men who dared to affront them.” And at least one of them still traumatized by her service, a reminder that some military experiences are universal. A Dahomean who grew up in Cotonou in the 1930s recalled that he regularly tormented an elderly woman he and his friends saw shuffling along the road, bent double by tiredness and age. He confided to the French writer Hélène Almeida-Topor that
Female officers pictured in 1851, wearing symbolic horns of office on their heads. (Public Domain)
one day, one of us throws a stone that hits another stone. The noise resounds, a spark flies. We suddenly see the old woman straighten up. Her face is transfigured. She begins to march proudly… Reaching a wall, she lies down on her belly and crawls on her elbows to get round it. She thinks she is holding a rifle because abruptly she shoulders and fires, then reloads her imaginary arm and fires again, imitating the sound of a salvo. Then she leaps, pounces on an imaginary enemy, rolls on the ground in furious hand-t0-hand combat, flattens the foe. With one hand she seems to pin him to the ground, and with the other stabs him repeatedly. Her cries betray her effort. She makes the gesture of cutting to the quick and stands up brandishing her trophy….
She intones a song of victory and dances:
The blood flows,
You are dead.
The blood flows,
We have won.
The blood flows, it flows, it flows.
The blood flows,
The enemy is no more.
But suddenly she stops, dazed. Her body bends, hunches, How old she seems, older than before! She walks away with a hesitant step.
She is a former warrior, an adult explains…. The battles ended years ago, but she continues the war in her head.
Shell shock: 'blame the soldier not the situation'
The term 'shell shock' was coined in the First World War. At first, doctors thought that it was a physical illness resulting from the effects of sustained shelling. Many soldiers who survived an explosion had no visible injuries but exhibited symptoms that could be attributed to spinal or nerve damage.
The range of symptoms ascribed to shell shock included tinnitus, amnesia, headaches, dizziness, tremors and hypersensitivity to noise. Shell shock could also manifest as a helplessness, panic, fear, flight or an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk.
The young men who signed up to fight in 1914 had little preparation or support for dealing with the stress and trauma of modern warfare. Some refused to fight and were mistakenly accused of cowardice. During the First World War, 309 British soldiers were executed, many of whom are now believed to have had mental health conditions at the time.
When soldiers who had never been exposed to shelling began to develop the symptoms of shell shock, the phenomenon was re-characterised as a range of mental rather than physical conditions and collectively called war neuroses.
The specific diagnosis often depended on who you were. The walking wounded and officers tended to be diagnosed with neurasthenia or nervous breakdown. Other cases of debilitating nervous symptoms were regarded as a consequence of inherited weakness or degeneration. The soldier was blamed, not the situation.
Shell shock was poorly understood, medically and psychologically, and the official response was often unsympathetic. Soldiers were suspected of feigning symptoms and accused of mallingering to avoid fighting.
Scaling up the medical response
“Gaza is in a constant state of humanitarian crisis due to the long-running blockade, and the escalation of violence over recent weeks has compounded an already catastrophic situation,” says Helen Ottens-Patterson, Doctors Without Bordres/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Gaza. “A ceasefire has held for the past week, but we are very worried about how people are going to cope and rebuild what has been destroyed.”
Gaza is in a constant state of humanitarian crisis due to the long-running blockade, and the escalation of violence over recent weeks has compounded an already catastrophic situation.
Throughout the offensive, MSF’s teams in Gaza worked in very dangerous conditions and at times were unable to run some regular services. One MSF clinic in Gaza city was damaged by airstrikes and put out of service for a few days, but outpatient consultations at the clinic resumed on May 20. Since the bombing stopped, MSF has scaled up all of its regular activities.
Al-Awda hospital, where MSF runs a surgical unit, was damaged by the impact of three airstrikes, which destroyed three nearby buildings in Gaza’s Jabalia district. Our logistics office in the hospital was damaged, as were windows and other infrastructure in the hospital’s wards.
During the offensive, MSF teams worked in Al-Awda hospital’s emergency room and operating theaters, carrying out more than 100 surgeries on patients wounded by missile strikes and shelling. We also donated medical supplies to the Ministry of Health to support other health facilities treating the injured.
With Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing lab damaged, the COVID-19 situation is a cause for concern.
“We don’t have clear visibility of the COVID-19 situation, as the only coronavirus testing lab has been damaged. We are worried that there could soon be a new surge of COVID-19 infections in Gaza,” says MSF medical team leader Tatiana Chiarella. To help prevent the spread of the virus, MSF has distributed face masks and hand sanitizer to people displaced by the bombing who are sheltering in schools.
Witchcraft and Fear of the Feminine
Witch-hunting is first documented in the Old Testament with Saul and the ‘Witch of Endor.’ It reached its zenith not in the Middle Ages, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as The Renaissance, The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were beginning to influence thinking people away from such ‘superstitions.’ It could be expected that science would put an end to belief in witchcraft and other superstitions, but it did not, at least not for some time. So what was going on? Was there a backlash against science, or just against women, especially those who wanted to be educated?
When Saul became the first king of Israel he followed Samuel’s edict that all wizards and those with familiar spirits, should be ‘put away.’ Such practices were seen as an ‘abomination.’ Yet when things did not go well for Saul he sought advice from the Witch of Endor. For this he had to be punished. His army was defeated by the Hittites just as the ‘witch’ had foretold, and he ‘fell on his sword.’ It is interesting that the witch is not blamed for his undoing – she got it right after all Saul was the guilty one for seeking her out in the first place. Over time the blame was inexorably shifted to the women for leading men astray.
Around 420 A.D St Augustine expressed the view that neither Satan nor witches had supernatural powers or were capable of invoking magic of any sort. Only ‘pagans’ believed in such nonsense. The church therefore did not need to be concerned. Augustine’s argument finally found traction, but not for several hundred years, not without thousands of people (mainly women) being executed and not without both opposition and support from the highest levels of society.
In the thirteenth century things went backwards. St Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologian, argued that the world was full of evil and dangerous demons. Among other things, these demons had the power to take sperm from men and use it to impregnate women. The women were to blame, of course. In Aquinas’s philosophy, sex and witchcraft were closely related. Demons behaved in this way for their own pleasure, to lead men into temptation and sin and to perpetuate their own kind, but the women were willing partners in such crimes.
This coincided with the fact that by 1200 a major heresy was seen to be threatening the church. The Cathars believed in a world where good and evil (God and Satan) were fighting it out for human souls. The Church attempted to discredit the Cathars by spreading stories that they actually worshiped Satan. The real problem was that they believed in a direct communion between human souls and the Godhead without the agency of priests. In 1208, Pope Innocent III launched a ‘crusade’ against them. Men and women were both hunted down and killed, usually by burning.
Marguerite Porete was not a Cathar, but her thinking and her writings illustrate much of what really antagonised church authorities. Maguerite was a French mystic who wrote a tract entitled The Mirror of Simple Souls. She proposed that the ‘simple’ soul was united with God by having no will of its own. It surrendered all reason and logic in order to transcend everyday reality and to achieve this unity. She argued that the Soul in such a state is ‘beyond the demands of ordinary virtue,’ since it is in perfect union with God. This is what Catholic theology calls ‘beatific vision,’ but Marguerite was not afforded this condition because she was neither a nun nor a married woman. She was therefore, not subject to either bishop or husband. Her books were burnt, and when she refused to recant her views she was burned at the stake in 1310. An independent woman could not be permitted such liberties.
As in Religion, also in Medicine. Women were traditional healers, but this was challenged by the rise of the medical profession and its university trained physicians. One example is Jacoba Felicie. In 1322 Jacoba was put on trial in Paris for practising medicine. Six witnesses testified that she had cured them, but this was used against her. She was found guilty and was excommunicated she also had to pay a 60 parisian pound fine. The charge was not that she was incompetent, but that – as a woman – she dared to cure at all.
At about the same time English physicians petitioned their Parliament to impose fines and imprisonment on any woman who ‘usurped’ the profession of ‘Fisyk.’ Usurp is a telling expression in this instance. Such women were seen to be assuming something which was not rightfully theirs. Furthermore the petition described them as ‘worthless and presumptuous,’ even though their success rate (like that of Jacoba’s) was often greater than that of the male doctors who vilified and testified against them as witches. The Malleus Maleficarum was later to declare: “If a woman dare to cure without having studied she is a witch and must die.” Of course women were not allowed to attend university so there was no access to formal study. Finally, the witch craze provided a convenient excuse for a doctor’s failings: Anything he couldn’t cure was obviously the result of sorcery.[i]
By the mid-1400s witch trials were springing up all over Europe. In 1487 the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer) was published by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and its distribution was helped greatly by the invention of the Gutenberg Press around 1440. The Malleus was written as a guide to the identification, prosecution and punishment of witches. Eve was deceived by Satan, it argued, and she in turn deceived and seduced Adam. Hence all women were dangerous. From thenceforward, they believed, it was in the nature of women to be weak both physically and intellectually, and to be prone to error. Women were weaker in faith and therefore more easily lead astray than men.
Kramer wrote the book mainly to refute claims that witchcraft did not, and could not, exist and to discredit those who were sceptical about its existence. He also recommended ways of finding and convicting witches. He wrote the Malleus after being expelled from Innsbruck by the local bishop following a failed attempt to conduct his own witchcraft prosecution. A Papal Bull condemned the Malleus a couple of years after its publication. But the cardinals were unable or unwilling to restrict its circulation or prevent its application.
Fear of the feminine is everywhere in this document. Its thesis was that, “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” Kramer and Sprenger were not the first to demonise women, but they were the most virulent.
The Malleus told frightening tales of women who would have sex with demons, kill babies, and even steal penises.
Unbelievably, they wrote that witches would “collect…as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members and eat oats and corn.” Over the next forty years, the Malleus would be reprinted thirteen times and help to define the crime of witchcraft. Much of the book offered advice to judges and prosecutors, such as stripping each suspect completely and inspecting the body to see if a mole was present that might be a tell-tale sign of consorting with demons. They were also advised to shave off all body hair in case the devil should use it as a hiding place, and to have the defendants brought into court backwards to minimize the possibilities of their casting spells on officials.
King James (1566-1625) was something of a philosopher prince. He brought together a large group of scholars to produce the ‘authorized’ version of the Bible published in 1611. As king of Scotland he also authorized the torture of suspected witches. James had married Princess Anne of Denmark. On her voyage to Scotland from Denmark Anne’s ship encountered violent storms. When six Danish women confessed to having caused the storms James believed them. Under his reign dozens of condemned witches in Scotland were burned at the stake in the largest witch-hunt in British history. By 1597, James began to address some of the worst judicial abuses, and witch-hunting abated somewhat, but it was too late for many.
At the same time however he wrote and published a Daemonologie. In this James wanted to refute the scepticism concerning witchcraft that was gaining ground. Such scepticism was coming from two sources. A growing number of Christian clergy were arguing that God would not grant power to the Devil to work his wickedness through mere witches. At the same time scientists were expressing doubts about whether or not God was in a position to grant power to anybody, witches or not.
James’ Daemonologie takes the form of a dialogue between a demonologist and a sceptic. At one point the sceptic enquires as to why ‘there are twenty women given to the craft, where there is one man.’ The response is that women are ‘frailer’ than men and are therefore more easily ‘entrapped in those gross snares of the Devil, as was over well proved to be true, by the serpents deceiving to Eve at the beginning.’ Until Victorian times women were generally considered to be morally and spiritually weak and in need of guidance from men. Easily misled by the Devil they were dangerous and needed to be controlled[ii].
The Proceedings against the witches of Pendle in 1612 list such ‘sorceries’ as turning someone’s beer sour and preventing butter from churning. They were also believed to have committed murder by casting spells. If they were seen to be boiling up herbal remedies this could be construed as casting spells, which could be used as ‘evidence.’ against them. Other evidence was nothing more than gossip or hearsay. More damming was the sighting of the accused person in ‘spectral’ form.
All of this is pretty well documented. What was not so easily found was the reason why all the hanging and burning petered out, and in some areas quite suddenly. It seems that the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ did eventually have some influence, but not before some of the new learning itself caused further persecution. Only in Bologna were women allowed to attend university. Beginning in the late 1680s The Enlightenment ushered in a new age of humanism, empiricism and reason. It suggested that there was no empirical evidence that so-called witches had any ability to cause harm and it argued that the use of torture to force confessions was inhumane. ‘Spectral’ evidence was also disallowed, but confessions could still be accepted, no matter how fanciful, or how disoriented and confused the suspect may be.
In 1682, Temperance Lloyd, a senile woman from Bideford, became the last witch to be executed in England. Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis North, a passionate critic of witchcraft trials, investigated the Lloyd case and denounced the prosecution as deeply flawed. Sir Francis wrote, “The evidence against them was very full and fanciful, but their own confessions exceeded it. They appeared not only weary of their own lives but to have a great deal of skill to convict themselves.” Deprivation of food, sleep, warmth and human contact may not have been considered torture, but it could certainly lead to a loss of mind and, belief in one’s own guilt and a desire to end the harassment as soon as possible. North’s criticism of the Lloyd case helped discourage further prosecutions in England, but on the other side of the Atlantic hysteria seized the settlement of Salem in 1692.
[i] The Rise of the European Medical Profession Witches, Midwives, and Nurses A History of Women Healers Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English 1973 Source: The Memory Hole First Published: in 1973 by The Feminist Press at CUNY
[ii] The Pengun Book of Witches Katherine Howe (ed) Penguin Books (2014) p. 37
The two weapons that caused the most casualties during the First World War were artillery and machine-guns. Shell fragments, shrapnel or even blast concussion from artillery rounds accounted for 51 per cent of Australian battle casualties, while bullets spat from rifles, and particularly machine-guns, made up another 34 per cent. The range of wounds could vary greatly: from neat flesh wounds affecting no vital organs, bones or arteries – to shell fragments inflicting gross mutilation, leaving men torn apart, barely clinging to life.
A wounded man first had to survive the journey to the rear, often carried by stretcher-bearers through a battlefield raked by machine-gun and artillery fire. Patched up and stabilised at regimental aid posts, dressing stations and casualty clearing stations, if he could make it to the field hospital, a soldier’s chance of survival was far better than in previous wars. While significant breakthroughs in medical treatment had been made in the mid-to-late 19th century, by the First World War these were more widely appreciated and had been greatly improved. Better resuscitation and blood transfusion techniques, along with advances in anaesthetics, were all vital in preventing death through shock. General hygiene, antisepsis, debridement and the cleansing of wounds also greatly reduced the incidence of gangrene. These, along with the ability to properly set and mend compound bone fractures, ultimately meant less need for amputations. But despite these advances, the First World War was nevertheless pre-penicillin, and wound infection could still be very difficult to stop.
Legs, arms and heads were the most commonly wounded areas. Head wounds were dangerous for obvious reasons, while the other extremities were important in a functional, if not a vital sense. In some cases the shell fragment performed the amputation on the battlefield, while in others, a leg, an arm, or sometimes multiple limbs were simply too badly damaged to be saved. From the beginning of the war to June 1918, 1,749 amputation cases arrived home in Australia, of which 1,165 were legs and 584 arms. All told, the number of limbless would rise to more than 3,000. A lesser number lost their sight from wounds – around 100, rising to 130 ten years after the war. Some men also suffered terrible facial disfigurement and required extensive surgery over lengthy periods to rebuild their faces. Excellent medical treatment was available in England for the blind, the limbless and the disfigured [see Wartime 80], with further support at home in Australia, which greatly helped these men adjust to their future.
Poison gas was another danger troops had to contend with. Twelve per cent of Australian casualties were caused by this insidious weapon, mostly used on the Western Front. Depending on the type of gas encountered and how much one was exposed, the effects could range from uncomfortable irritation to horrible death. During the war, 16,000 Australians became gas casualties, of whom only 325 died. Yet many thousands who survived the war were plagued by respiratory problems for the remainder of their lives – ailments that could range from mild to chronic and incapacitating.
Privates Oswald Wilson, 29th Battalion, and Allan Frier, 14th Battalion, in The Strand, London, c. 1917. Wilson was wounded at Fromelles and Frier near Mouquet farm.
These Previously Unseen Photos Bear Witness to the Carnage of World War II
History website Argunners has published a series of previously unseen photos recently uncovered from the archives of an American four-star general who served in Europe during the Second World War. The images show a war-torn Europe as American forces move towards Berlin.
These photos were uncovered in the archives of Brigadier General Charles Day Palmer. Most of them were confidential photos taken by the U.S. Signal Corps, and were deemed unsuitable for publication (many of them are quite graphic). Palmer was allowed to have them for private use after censoring the photos, including the removal of names and places.
Palmer, who served during the invasion of Normandy, the break-out from Saint-Lo, and the crossing of the Siegfried line, went on to serve in the Korean War. He passed away on June 7, 1999. These photos were recently shared to Argunners ( here and here ) by his grandson, Daniel Palmer, to honor the memories and service of his grandfather.
All photos and captions via Argunners, and are republished at io9 with permission.
Warning: Some of these images are disturbing.
A U.S. soldier examines the grave of an unknown American soldier, who was buried by the enemy before retreating. The first American soldier that noticed the grave decorated it with mortar shells and ferns.
Dead U.S. and German soldiers at a cemetery before burial, at an unknown location. Each body was placed in a mattress cover. German prisoners can be seen doing the work of digging the graves and placing the bodies inside them.
Prisoners of War from the German Military Police force and Gestapo agents of the city of Strasbourg are led to the 3rd Infantry Division. The POWs are being escorted by the French Forces of the Interior.
An M-10 Tank Destroyer from the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion supporting the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division in Rohrwiller, 4 February 1945. Notice the extensive damage to the town’s church, which was likely damaged by shell blasts.
Following an attack from U.S. artillery on a German convoy, dead horses, wrecked vehicles and equipment can be seen strewn along the road in the vicinity of Lug, Germany. The Germans were trying to escape encirclement by 3rd and 7th Armies.
A German underground ball-bearing factory in Germany, where all size bearings were made. Shown is a row of polishing and grinding machines used to finish the bearings. This image may have been taken in the vicinity of Schweinfurt.
British M-5 anti-tank mines are used to blow up German pill boxes. Some 400 lbs of TNT were detonated inside the pill box.
U.S. forces trying to recapture Wingen-sur-Moder from German mountain 6. SS-Gebirgsjäger Division troops, who infiltrated it during the night, dislodging American troops and taking a number of prisoners. Hotel ‘Wenk’ and Gasoline are in yard and hit by a tracer bullet, resulting in the burning, as seen in photograph. In the church tower on the left is a German lookout, who is also sniping at the U.S. soldiers.
A helmet and rifle mark the spot in a ditch by road where two infantrymen gave their lives, during a new drive by Seventh Army which opened on a front of 50 miles from Saarbrücken to the Rhine.
Seventh Army men looking for snipers in the Bobenthal, Germany.
When this wrecker towing a 155mm Howitzer became stuck in the mud in a road, nothing less than a Bulldozer could budge it.
Path of a B-17 as it crash-landed into a snow covered field on the Seventh Army front. The pilot escaped with minor cuts when he rode the plane in after the crew bailed out. Note the damaged pole in foreground which was clipped by the plane as it came in.