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Article Review - Women in the French Military Archives

Military Woman

Some years back, we reviewed here the stellar tome on genealogical research using France's military archives, written by the archivists at the Service Historique de la Défense,  (SHD) Sandrine Heiser and Vincent Mollet. Inexplicably, when we listed some of the chapter headings in that review, we neglected one on a subject for which we have, of course, a rather natural affinity: women in the French military. We may have missed "Votre ancêtre était ...une femme" ("Your ancestor was a woman") because it is only three pages long, with half of those pages filled with photographs, or we may have to confess that we missed it because our work was not up to standard that day, for which we apologize with bow and scrape. Happily, Madame Heiser expanded on that chapter in an article written for the Revue Historique des Armées (it may be downloaded as a PDF). For those who cannot read French but have women to research, we give here a summary. 

Madame Heiser divides her subject into nine categories:

  • Femmes militaires et filles débauchées - "Military Women and Debauched Girls", are covered by a small group of archives, just one carton, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and concerns mostly women who were spies or who served in the army disguised as men. This carton also includes cases against those camp followers who were prostitutes, the "debauched girls".
  • Cantinières, vivandières et blanchisseuses - "Canteen-keepers, sutlers and laundresses", including not only the women who did these jobs but the wives of any men who did them, from 1791 to 1900. There is no index to the names of the women included, so a researcher would have to spend some time reading the files.
  • Les femmes « pensionnées » ou « décorées » - "Women Who Received Pensions or Military Decorations". Those in the category above, as well as widows of men in the military, often had to petition for a pension and the records of those petitions are in this group. 
  • Mères et épouses de militaires - "Mothers and Wives of Men in the Military". Would it not be grand if this were an archive of all such women, and with an index as well? It would, indeed, but it is not. Madame Heiser explains here that these women may be discovered by reading a soldier's individual service record. It is true, as she says, that the details are rich and there are often, in a man's file surprise bonus documents, but in no way is there such a collection about these women; they are incidental in the information about the men.
  • Les femmes « personnel civil » - "Women Who Were Army Civilians", a large group of many thousands of women, mostly employed during the two World Wars. The archives of all Army civilian personnel are held at a facility in Châtellerault, described here.
  • Agents secrets et espionnes  - "Secret Agents and Spies", a series dating from the eighteenth century and including the file on the infamous and unlucky Mata Hari.
  • Vers un statut militaire - "Toward a Military Status". Here, Madame Heiser explains that women could not join the Army in any capacity until 1940 and that their files are held along with the men's, divided only according to the branch of the military in which they served.
  • Des femmes militaires témoignent - "Women in the Military Bear Witness". Within the archives oral history collection are many accounts by women, especially of but not exclusively of their service in the Air Force.
  • À Pau, 100 000 dossiers de femmes - "At Pau, 100,000 Files on Women". In the city of Pau is the Central archives concerning modern military personnel (CAPM), all those born before 1983, and many of them are women. 

Most of these archives are not online but the finding aids, increasingly, are. By studying those, you may be able to narrow your search enough to request copies from the SHD. Otherwise, you may have to hire a researcher. Unfortunately, now is not the time. The SHD at Vincennes is closed for the month of August and the website is down, yet again, for maintenance. Plan to tackle this in the autumn.

There is a pair of battered, blue binders filled with old, typed finding aids at the SHD in Vincennes that are probably our favourite books in the whole place. They cover the series in GR Y, all of the oddities that fit nowhere else in the vast system. Many of the archives described above are in GR Y, containing the stories of remarkable women. We do hope one of them is an ancestor of yours.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 

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