It was more or less by chance that the author came across the sparse traces left behind by those women who will be at the centre of this chapter. 1 As a historian of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who deals with women’s and gender history, and specifically with the topics of war and the military, I am in the habit of using - alongside various personal testimonies - the archives: that place, the ‘seductive power’ of which Arlette Farge, one of the foremost representatives of French nouvelle histoire, has described very beautifully. In her book Fragile Life. Seduction and Revolt in Eighteenth Century Paris, she speaks of the ‘curious fascination’ of the archives, and of how we tend to endow the ‘document which emerges from the silence there with [...] too much meaning’. Farge perceives one reason for this to be a desire ‘to see the poor [...] as full of life’, and she goes on to say:

Tiny lives, bitterly poor and tragic existences, insignificant and colourless figures form the fine sand of history, its fragile, but essential backdrop. Emerging from oblivion, they are a long way from being literature, because they are so clumsily and carelessly couched in rigid forms [...] encountering them gives rise to emotions without one knowing why exactly: is it because these lives which are so stranded appear only as fleeting contours, or because they are so faraway and strange and seem to us so near for precisely this reason? 2