August 27, 2019 Richard Welsh thought he could squeeze in a quick drink with his mates after work, but one thing led to another, and he was conscripted into the English army to fight in a global war. His wife, not thrilled, dropped the kids off with a babysitter and set out to bring Richard home. Thus began Christian Welsh's epic, decades-long quest through the battlefields of Europe to find her husband, and herself. And a pet pig, which was a bonus.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
Follow Something True on Twitter @atruepodcast. (Or just follow Duncan and Alex.)
Music on this week’s episode:
Kai Engel – Summer Days*
David Szesztay – Crime Story
Jason Shaw – Back to the Woods*
Gillicuddy – Adventure Darling*
Gablé – humm ok*
Gablé – mont*
Alan Singley – Tulum*
Kevin MacLeod – Reaching Out
Jon Watts – Don't Give Up*
Jahzzar – Last Dance*
Chris Zabriskie – The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan*
*modified for the podcast.
It was the 1680s: a busy decade for colonisation, and legally having sex with one’s cousin. But Christian Cavanaugh of Ireland was only a teenager when she tried the latter and didn’t like it at all.
She decided to make a life change and went to live with her aunt, who ran a pub in Dublin. The aunt died young, and in her will she left the business to Christian.
And there, a new man entered the picture, a man who wasn’t her cousin. Richard Welsh had worked for her aunt as a waiter, and when Christian took over, he became smitten with his new boss. Christian thought it was a bad look to marry her employee, but in time she found that nobody made her feel happy and safe in the ways that Richard did.
Then, when Christian was pregnant with their third child, Richard disappeared.
She’d sent him out one night to collect beer from the local alderman, Alderman Forest, but he never returned.
Over time Christian had to accept that Richard was dead, most likely murdered for the beer money. It wasn’t easy. Richard had been the love of her life: a wonderful husband and dish-washer. But then, more than a year after Richard’s disappearance, she received a shocking letter:
You remember that night, when I went to the alderman? Yeah, well, I was on my way there when I happened to run into an old schoolfellow. He said, “You look like a man who’s on his way to an alderman. So, why don’t we just squeeze in a few pre-alderman drinks?” Well, we had some wine at a pub, and went on from there to a boat where I drank so much I passed out. When I awoke, dearest wife, I was enlisted as a foot soldier in the English Army! I am now in a global war.
This is Richard by the way.
O Christian! I fear I’m never going to see you, or the children, or Alderman Forest ever again. Of course, I’ve thought about leaving the army, but I don’t think they’d let me. I think they’d be pretty mad about it.
Happy to discuss,
Christian nodded, packed up the kids, and dropped them off with her various friends and family.
‘Take care of yourselves,’ she told them all. ‘I’m going to war.’
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. This week’s episode: Christian & Christopher.
It was 1692, and much of Europe had united in battle against expansionist France, who had ambitions to steamroll the powerful Habsburg dynasty by taking the Spanish throne.
Christian’s plan to find Richard was straightforward. If he was in the English Army, then that’s where she would find him. England was still many years away from admitting women into its armed forces—definitely, at least five—so Christian had to get creative. She cut her hair, packed her wardrobe with Richard’s suits, and went to the store to buy a sword in a man’s size.
In male drag, Christian located an army recruiter at a tavern.
‘You want to fight for England, boy?’
‘Yes!’ cried Christian. ‘Doesn’t every boy in England look at the man we have on the throne, and think ‘UNH, I’d give my life for that hot slice of British beef?’’
‘If only I had tuppence for every boy in England who’s told me that! Now, what’s your name?’
‘Christia—uhhh... pher... Christopher Welsh.’
And so, “Christopher Welsh” signed up as an infantry man. Her regiment sailed for Holland, and there marched to the city of Landen, where it met up with the English, Scottish and Dutch armies.
‘Now that I’m in the army,’ Christian thought happily, ‘I’ll just look out at these many thousands of soldiers, and right away see my dear Richard amongst their number.’
But no. She couldn’t find him anywhere.
On the plus side, nobody realised she was a woman. Christian could train and run drills just as well as the boys. She drank like a man, cracked jokes like a man, and urinated standing up through a silver tube in her pants, like a man.
Things were going okay, overall, until she was shot. The French had attacked Landen, and Christian was ordered to retreat to her regiment. As she ran, she was struck in the leg by a musket ball. Still, she managed to return to her unit, but not everyone was so lucky. Twelve thousand of the Allied troops were killed or wounded. The French lost nine thousand soldiers as they continued their advance, but they still took the city. Christian was injured seriously enough that her superiors sent her away to recuperate.
She was going to be sent back to England, but that plan was scuppered by the Queen’s sudden death from smallpox, and the whole army was so sad that it shut down for the winter. Christian was sent to cool her heels in Gorinchem, a city in South Holland.
There, she carried out a cursory search for Richard, but honestly, the profound despair that she’d felt upon his disappearance was fading. She’d been in the army for a year now. Before that, she’d spent another year on her own taking care of some annoying kids. When was the last time she just… had some fun?
Her disguise had fooled the army boys. How much further, she wondered, could she push it? In Gorinchem, Christian had taken notice of a pretty young woman. Could Christian trick her into believing she was a man? As it turned out, yes. And extremely well. The woman was smitten. She thought she’d landed a handsome English soldier who peed out of a nifty silver tube.
Christian didn’t know quite what to do with that, but when another soldier in her regiment tried to pick up the same woman, Christian leapt in to defend her honour. They locked swords! Then she stabbed him in the nipple. And the thigh. He lost so much blood he collapsed. Some soldiers broke the duel up, and Christian went to prison until the girl’s dad, who was an influential man, secured not only her release, but a pardon from the king.
Christian was reunited with her sweetheart but knew she couldn’t keep up the disguise for long. In fact, it was probably time to wriggle out of the whole situation.
‘There’s only one way I can repay your father for this favour,’ Christian said cleverly, ‘and that is, to ask him for your hand in marriage!’
‘Oh,’ said the daughter, ‘I would love to, but he’d never give me away to a common soldier.’
Which was exactly what she expected her to say. ‘Oh… drat! I suppose we have no choice then but to break up and not stay in touch.’
‘But who cares what father says! Let’s run away! We don’t need his money, we’re in love!’
‘Oh, but… I can’t tear you away from your father…’
‘Yes, you can! I’m telling you, you can!’
Christian thought fast. ‘No, no, I’m very traditional. What I’ll need to do is rise to a rank in the army that your father will deem suitable. And I will do it, but just to warn you, it may take a long, long, long, long time. So, I’m just going to go away now, and work very hard at army. Okay, honey? Bye-bye!’
Christian went and hid in the camp until her regiment got orders to go and sack the French-occupied city of Namur. ‘Oh, thank god,’ she gasped: ‘A war.’
The siege lasted two bloody months, ending in French surrender. Christian acquitted herself nicely and celebrated with her comrades at a brothel. But the party couldn’t last forever.
Two years later, in 1697, the war drew to a close with a peace settlement. Christian was discharged and returned home to Dublin. Alone. Her quest had ended in failure; although, she had won a war.
‘So, you’re back, then. Your hair looks worse,’ said the nurse to whom Christian had entrusted her youngest son. ‘Now, you asked me to look after your baby because you had to go on, quote, “a little toddle”, unquote. That was over four years ago. So, would you like to maybe help me out here with your increasingly large son?’
Christian exploded. ‘Are you serious? I just got back and you’re already in my face, just nag, nag, nag? Don’t you understand that I was in a war? I’ve killed people! I cut off a guy’s nipple! And I liked it! That’s what I do now! I dress like a man, I fight like a man, I drink in brothels like a man, and it’s fantastic! These things you’re saying, they’re so boring to me!’
Running a small Dublin pub didn’t appeal much to Christian anymore, either. Years passed, and in all that time only one thing managed to rouse her from domestic misery.
Charles the Second, the childless King of Spain, died in 1700, his 38-year-old bones imploding under the pressure of centuries of Habsburg incest. The world rejoiced; it was preposterous that he had ever been alive. In the peace agreement that had ended the previous war, England, France and the Dutch had agreed on precisely how to divvy up Spain and its territories among themselves after Charles’ death. But when Charles was on his deathbed, he was like, ‘This is confusing! Just give it all to France!’
France put its King’s grandson on the throne, and promptly invaded the Spanish Netherlands. England, the Dutch and the Holy Roman Empire formed one more alliance against France.
Christian donned her Christopher costume, and sailed straightaway for Holland, where she enlisted in a cavalry regiment.
She first saw action in a skirmish at Nijmegen, where she was commended for triumphing over a large contingent of French cavalry. She helped herself to the valuables that the terrified citizens of Nijmegen had hidden around the place, at some point even picked up a fashionable pet pig.
But as the war went on into the winter, Christian had a terrible thought. ‘Oh my god! I was supposed to be looking for my husband.’ She quickly checked around her. No, he wasn’t there. ‘Well, he’s not in my immediate vicinity, so I don’t know. It’s been a hard day. My pig and I have earned some wine.’
Years passed, and the war raged on. In its early phases, the French-Bavarian alliance seemed certain of success, but their decisive defeat in 1704 at Höchstädt changed everybody’s fortunes, including Christian’s.
Fourteen thousand French and Bavarians were captured, and Christian was one of those charged with marching the prisoners west to Breda. En route, Christian spied a very comely Dutch girl. It had been a long time since Christian had tried seducing a woman, but before she got the chance, the woman shrieked in delight, and ran into the ready embrace of an English army soldier.
‘Oh, my love! You survived the battle!’
‘I sure did,’ he replied, ‘as sure as my name is Richard Welsh of Dublin—Ireland!’
It was Christian’s husband, in the arms of another. Christian held her tongue and continued the long walk to Breda. There, she spotted Richard at a pub, having a drink with the Dutch woman. Christian, quietly, ordered a pint and as she drank, she cried, but those were the last tears—she swore—that she would ever shed for Richard. With the rest of the beer, she washed her face clean. Then she asked the landlady for a room, and to send Richard up there to see her.
Upstairs, Christian collected herself and sat in the dark, with her back to the open window. After a moment, Richard came knocking at the door, with his girlfriend.
‘Hello…?’ he said. ‘I’m Richard Welsh, did you ask for me?’
‘Yes. Yes, I’ve been asking for you for years.’
Richard gasped. ‘That voice…’
‘Yes, Richard. It’s been a very long time.’
‘My god… is that… is that you? Alderman Forest?’
‘No, it’s not Alderman Forest! It’s your wife.’
‘Oh, Christian!’ He embraced her. ‘So how are… how have you... been?’
‘Not great, Richard! I’ve been at war for _thirteen year_s and have had to lie about who I am that entire time. I have been shot! I have a bullet lodged inside me for the rest of my life. I left our children, my mother, my friends, my country, all so I could find you and bring you back home, which I would never have had to do in the first place if you hadn’t gone for pre-alderman drinks with the boys, and at long last here I find you with another woman! I gave up everything for you, Richard, but you forgot me long ago!’
‘Oh, no, no, no, no, come on, no, I didn’t forget about you! I thought about you every day, my beautiful wife. This girl? This one? She’s just a fling, you know how it is… in my heart, I was always faithful to you.’
Christian wasn’t sure. Was he telling the truth? Could she find her way back to loving him again?
The Dutch woman piped in: ‘What’s she talking about, husband?’
‘Husband? Richard, what is she saying?’
‘“Husband, husband”, she doesn’t know what she’s saying! Words, words, words!’ Richard laughed desperately. ‘I mean, is this woman “married” to me? Yes, technically we have been “married” for a couple months, but, you know, what does that even mean? I don’t know! That’s a question not for us mere mortals, but for our highest philosophers. Uh, Plato.’
Christian was deeply unimpressed. The Dutch woman, Richard’s other wife, was not thrilled either. Christian dismissed her, making very clear she should not dare to see him again.
‘It’s a bad thing you did,’ Christian told Richard, ‘seducing young women with promises of marriage. That is truly vile. Anyway, I went through an awful lot to get here, and I’m not going to be your wife anymore, but I really like being in the army, so if you let me pass as your brother, then we’ll call this whole thing a wash.’
‘Oh Christian, come on! You’d rob me of my wife? My only remaining wife?’
‘My mind’s made up. If you play along, I will be a good brother to you, but if you don’t, I will be a very, very stabby wife.’
So life in wartime continued more or less as usual. Richard kept her secret, and though their marriage was over, they remained friends.
Two years passed. In 1706, the Allies defeated the French at the village of Ramillies. Christian survived the battle unscathed, but in the aftermath, a shell fell from a church steeple and struck her, fracturing her skull. The injury was so bad the doctor had to drill a hole into her head; and while he was examining Christian closely, he made a horrifying discovery.
[Guttural, anguished scream]
‘Oh doctor, what is it?’ Christian asked. ‘Good news?’
The doctor ran away and returned with the army brass. ‘Is it true, Christopher?’ they demanded. ‘Are you... a woman?’
Now, they sent for Richard, and he admitted that Christian was not his brother, but his ex-wife. Richard and Christian explained the whole story. The news spread all over camp, and Lord John Hay, the colonel of Christian’s regiment, came to see the anxious couple.
‘Impersonating an officer?’ Lord Hay sputtered. ‘Deceiving his royal majesty? Lying to your brothers in arms, putting the regiment at risk? Putting the entire war effort at risk? I have never seen anything like this. All I can say is... I love it!’
‘What a story!’ he exclaimed, clapping his hands. ‘You did all this for your husband? Wowee!’
Hay decided that while Christian recovered from her skull fracture, the army would keep her on the payroll until she was well enough to receive an honourable discharge. But the more they thought about it, they knew they had to do more for their comrade and friend Christopher—that is, Christian—Welsh.
The men gathered at her bedside. ‘You’ve upended our 18th century views on sex and gender! How can we ever repay you, for teaching us that a woman can be as brave and strong as a man! Well, we hope this is enough, but the men had a whip round and we all got you… a pretty new dress!’
‘Oh,’ said Christian, ‘thanks.’
‘We’d also love it if we could throw you a new wedding!’
‘We’re already married, we don’t need another we—’
‘Look, Christian. The boys, they haven’t planned a wedding in years.’
‘New wedding!’ chanted the troops. ‘New wedding!’
After her new wedding, and subsequent discharge, Christian was allowed to stay with the army as a sutler, acquiring and selling provisions for the troops. Serving coffee wasn't quite as exciting as an epic quest for a lost lover, but at least she got to be in a war, and she stuck with the gig for the remaining ten years of the conflict.
Life was great. While it lasted.
In 1709, more than six thousand Allied troops were killed in Malplaquet, in France. After the slaughter, Christian couldn't find Richard. Had he been there, on the front lines? Why wasn't he in camp? She ran into the battlefield and turned over two hundred corpses: her friends, her allies. Deep in the thicket of bodies she found a form she recognised. Richard. Richard was dead. A stranger was yanking the clothes off his corpse. Christian, furious, scared him away, and collapsed in despair over Richard’s body. She loaded him on her horse and carried him a short distance away, where she dug his grave. She'd done everything for Richard's sake. Left her children, fought a war, lived a lie. All that work and all those years... and Richard didn’t even care, he just died, and not even for any good reason. That was so like him.
After the war, Christian returned home to Dublin, almost twenty-five years after that night Richard got waylaid on his way to the alderman.
Her mother was over a hundred years old now. She told Christian that her eldest son had died when he was 18, many years ago. Her youngest son, whom she’d left to the nurse, had been given up to the parish and then the workhouses, where he’d disappeared. Everyone was lost or dead.
Dublin was different. Christian was different. So, she left her mother, and left the country, deciding that she would never look back. She was no longer Christopher Welsh. She was no longer Christian Cavanaugh. She was... something new.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net where you can also find a full transcript of this story. Follow us on Twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the last episode in this series: Odyssée.